Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Super Duper Truffle Dog

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of watching a truffle dog in action. Cooper, the super duper truffle hound, is half lab, a quarter bernese mountain dog, and a quarter shepherd. His owner, Anne Seward, like the owners of many interesting pets, has her own distinguished pedigree: she's related to the man responsible for "Seward's Folly." History buffs and denizens of America's Last Frontier know that folly as the great State of Alaska. Secretary of State William H. Seward practically raided the U.S. Treasury himself to make sure it was purchased in 1867.

I joined Cooper, Anne, my friend Jack Czarnecki, and Jack's friend Chris in Oregon's Willamette Valley to give the dog a workout in search of the first black truffles of the season. In addition to owning the Joel Palmer House restaurant in Dayton, Oregon, where his son Chris is the chef, Jack is also the owner and chief producer of Oregon Truffle Oil, one of the few truffle oils on the market to use real truffles rather than test tube chemicals to produce its powerful flavor and aroma.

Last year I hunted white truffles with Jack. In the right habitat, coming across white truffles is about as challenging as finding chanterelles. Black truffles, on the other hand, require more skill. For one thing, unlike whites they blend in with the duff and dirt. Also, they tend to hang out a little deeper beneath the surface, requiring more digging (though sometimes you can find them poking right through the moss, as if coming up for a breath of air). And lastly, they just don't seem to be as numerous as whites.

It doesn't take much to train a truffle dog. Anne spent a week or so hiding little balls of truffle-doused cotton around the house. For a dog expecting a reward, latching on to the truffle scent is puppy's play. The canine smeller is a biological wonder of evolution, and though not as developed as a bear's, a dog's sense of smell is way overmatched for truffles. Some dogs like a food treat to reward a successful retrieval; Cooper wants ball time.

Once we arrived at the site, Anne pulled both a rubber ball and a baggie of truffle-scented cotton from her pockets. She gave Cooper a whiff, holding the ball tantalizingly out of reach. "Find the truffle," she commanded. Cooper barked and whined, then got down to business. He put his snout to the ground and started weaving among the sword ferns and second-growth Douglas firs. You could hear his nose in action as he brought the scent in and circulated it around with a snort. A moment later Cooper was scratching at a patch of duff.

"Good boy!" Anne played ball with Cooper while Jack raked the spot. Sure enough, he unearthed a nice walnut-sized black truffle, and then another. "His brother," Jack said, explaining that wherever you find one black truffle you're sure to find another.

Without Cooper on hand I'm sure our haul would have been appreciably less impressive. As it was we lined our buckets with truffles while the rain kept up through most of the morning. I'd guess we found truffles in roughly 80 percent of the spots where Cooper scratched; the other 20 percent we chalked up to human error. By mid-afternoon it was cold and miserable enough to call it a day. That's when the Volvo pitched into the mire. We enlisted the aid of a local farmer, who pulled us out free of charge, knowing that a batch of truffle oil was in his future.

That night we capped our successful truffle hunt with dinner back at the Joel Palmer House, where a Candy Cap Martini kicked off a mushroom hunter's feast, including Matsutake Chowder, Fungi Tart, Fillet of Beef with Porcini Sauce, and many other finely executed fungal delights washed down with excellent local Pinot Noirs.

I could get used to this Willamette Valley truffle hunting thing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rose Hip Jelly

I've never seen as many wild rose hips as I saw in the upper Skeena watershed of British Columbia this fall. I was there to fish for steelhead and I suppose I might have earned a few raised eyebrows if I'd put down my rod and spent the rest of the trip picking hips, but when opportunity knocked I made sure to fill a bag. The banks of the Kispiox River in particular were covered with the bright red globes. No doubt Mister Griz was picking his own share.

A rose hip is the seed pod of the rose, and nearly as attractive as the flower it replaces. It's famously loaded with vitamin C. Last year I made rose hip syrup. This year, jelly.

My first morning in steelhead camp I awoke to a shiny white veneer covering the ground. Rose hips gleamed in the sun. This is the best time to harvest your hips—after a hard frost. The hips endured a long drive back to Seattle and a month in the freezer, but this didn't seem to matter.
Back home I did a little research before realizing that, as with most jellies and jams, a recipe is merely a guideline. Add and subtract according to your own taste. If I'd had another lemon I would have squeezed in more lemon juice. I used less sugar than many recipes because I like the tanginess of the hips. I chose jelly for the warm, diaphanous color, because it was easiest, and I was short on time, but a marmalade-like jam would be a good choice too.

If I had not have been so focused on the giant wild steelhead finning around in the river beside me, I might have picked a more reasonable amount of rose hips to preserve, certainly no less less than 8 cups. As it turned out, I came home with a scant 6 cups. Consider doubling the amounts below for best use of your time.

6 cups rose hips
4 cups water
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 packet pectin
1/3 cup lemon juice (1 lemon)
3 to 4 8-oz canning jars

1. Wash and stem the rose hips, then cover with water (4 cups in this case) in a stainless steel pot and simmer for an hour or so until the hips are soft and easily mashed with a potato masher.

2. Strain the liquid. A jelly bag is ideal, but a combination of strainers and cheese cloth will get the job done. I used a food mill for the first pass and then lined a fine mesh strainer with a double layer of cheese cloth. After the liquid passed through I balled up the remaining mash and squeezed out the juice. The point is to extract as much juice and as little pulp as possible. This yielded 2 cups of juice.

3.  Return juice to pot. Add lemon juice and pectin and bring to a boil. Add sugar and continue to boil for a minute or so while stirring. Remove from heat, skim off any foam, and immediately ladle into sterilized jars.

4. Secure lids and process jars in hot bath for 10 minutes.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Last Ditch Chanterelle Soup

Chanterelle season is coming to a close here in Washington State. Though we have yet to see a killing frost in Seattle, fall rains are transforming the chanties into big floppy, waterlogged monstrosities.  The other day I found some twice the size of my fist.

This time of year it pays to locate microclimates free of frost where chanterelles have enough cover to keep relatively dry. Even so, moisture from ground-soaking rains will be absorbed into the fruiting bodies and they'll balloon into what the commercial pickers call flowers, with tattered edges and deep vase-like caps (see photo at right). Many a neophyte mushroom picker has been overjoyed to find such huge specimens in the woods only to wrinkle a nose at the way they cook up slimy in the pan.

Here's what you do with soggy chanterelles.

First, choose your equipment wisely. Use a bucket or basket in the woods. A lidded bucket is best. If you're concerned about spreading spores, drill holes in the bottom of the bucket. The point is to have a solid receptacle and keep forest litter out. A soft-bodied receptacle such as a canvas bag allows for too much jostling, and a moisture-trapping plastic bag is just plain bone-headed. 

Second, brush off the mushrooms carefully after picking and make sure you have a clean cut stem. This time of year I only high-grade when I'm picking chanterelles, which means I pick the very best and leave the rest. I look for smaller and firmer ones. Most of the flowers I ignore unless I find a dry one. A few overly wet mushrooms can infect your whole batch.

Third, if you have a long drive, take care of your mushrooms en route. Empty them into a  newspaper-lined basket or box. When you get home, immediately spread the chanterelles over newspaper so they have a chance to breathe. Change the newspapers if necessary. It may take a few days to allow excess moisture to evaporate. I'm not talking about dehydrating them, just getting them into decent cooking shape.

One problem with drying your chanterelles over a couple days is that I suspect some of the flavor leaches out. With this in  mind, another option for soggy chanterelles is to cook them right away—but be warned, they will cook up slimy. On the other hand, I have an excellent recipe to neutralize the slime factor and make the most of the intense flavor that develops in large, mature chanterelles.

Cream of Chanterelle Soup

This is nearly identical to an earlier recipe I posted, with one major exception: the immersion blender, one of the great deals in kitchen gadgets. By blending the soup you get rid of any unpalatable chunks of slimy mushroom. The dried porcini is not absolutely necessary, but it's the secret weapon in any good mushroom soup.

6 tbsp butter, divided
1 med onion, diced

1 lb fresh chanterelles, diced

3 oz. dried porcini, rehydrated in 2 cups warm water

1/4 cup flour

4 cups beef stock

1/4 tsp white pepper

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

salt to taste

1 cup or more heavy cream

1. Melt half the butter in a large pot. Add onions and cook over medium heat until caramelized.

2. Meanwhile pulverize porcini into dust with food processor and rehydrate in a bowl with warm water.

3. When onions are nicely caramelized add chanterelles and remaining butter, raise heat to high, and cook 5 minutes or so, stirring, until mushrooms have expelled their moisture. Cook off some of the liquid. The time required for this step will vary depending on how moist the mushrooms are. They should be slightly soupy before continuing to the next step.

4. Lower heat to medium and blend in flour with sauteed mushrooms and onions. Pour in beef stock slowly, stirring. Add porcini stock.

5. Bring to boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Add spices. Use an immersion blender to puree soup or blend in a food processor. The soup should be smooth and creamy.

6. Lower heat and add cream before serving.

Optional but highly recommended: In a separate pan, saute black trumpet mushrooms, chanterelles, or other wild mushrooms in butter for garnish and added texture. If you can get your hands on black trumpets, by all means do so. They taste a lot like chanterelles on steroids and add exceptional flavor to the soup.

Serves 4 - 6

I've seen plenty of Chanty Soup recipes out there on the Interwebs that use exotic ingredients and techniques. This recipe is quick, easy, and delicious—and it highlights the main event, the mushrooms! You can make a complicated soup if you'd like. Then try this one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Porcini and Eggplant Parmesan

I was on the Oregon Coast last weekend—Rockaway Beach, to be exact—and can report that the coastal porcini north of Tillamook are on the way out. The beach pick is definitely over in Washington, for that matter. But as you move down the coast into California weather patterns change. A soaking rain in Mendocino a couple weeks ago kicked their season into gear and we should be hearing favorable fungi forecasts from places like Salt Point State Park any day now.

The point is, even if your own region is at flood stage or under a blanket of snow, someone is enjoying wild mushrooms in another part of the country. So, while I roasted the last of my Washington porcini the other night, it is with a sense of vicarious pleasure that I offer this outstanding recipe to my mushroom-hunting brethren in California, who I plan to join at the end of the month for a week of picking and roaming.

I use Marcella's Eggplant Parmesan recipe as a guideline. It's decadent, with plenty of frying in oil. If that's not your thing...well then, move along, nothing to see here.

1 large eggplant, sliced 1/4-inch thick lengthwise
1-2 large king boletes, sliced 1/4-inch thick lengthwise
oil for frying
marinara sauce
1 lb mozzarella cheese, grated
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
fresh basil
salt and pepper

1. Heat oil in a large, deep-sided pan or skillet. Dredge eggplant and mushroom slices in seasoned flour. You may need to immerse mushroom slices in water before flouring. Fry in batches until golden, then remove to paper towels. (Note: Marcella recommends sprinkling eggplant slices with salt prior to frying so they release moisture; your call.)

2. Meanwhile prepare marinara sauce. You can take a shortcut and use a 28-oz can of store-bought sauce or make your own. We make our own simple red sauce by sautéing chopped garlic in olive oil, adding a 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes plus herbs, and simmering until the sauce attains desired taste and consistency. Add water as the sauce cooks down, and a pinch or two of sugar if necessary.

3. Grease a suitable baking dish. Line the bottom with a single layer of fried eggplant. Spoon over a third of your red sauce and top with half the mozzarella and a third of the parmesan. Dot with leaves of fresh basil. Repeat the layering, this time with all your porcini followed by another third of the red sauce, the rest of the mozzarella, another third of parmesan, and more fresh basil. Complete the final layer with the rest of your eggplant followed by the remaining red sauce and parmesan.

4. Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove from oven and allow to cool for several minutes.

Serve over spaghetti.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook

Here at FOTL Headquarters we're honored to announce our selection in the brand new Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook!

Last year food bloggers from around the world submitted entries to Foodista's contest—the first ever of its kind—and now the winners have been collected in this handsome full-color cookbook, which includes the text, photos, and recipes from the original blog posts.

You might remember my winning posts: Salmon Head Soup and Geoduck Ceviche.

The book is divided into "Cocktails and Appetizers"; "Soups and Salads"; "Main Dishes"; "Side Dishes"; and "Desserts," with 100 recipes in all. Included are other wild food recipes such as Chanterelle Mushrooms with Blue Cheese Pie; Scallop Sandwiches; Tagliatelle with Wild Boar Ragu; Prickly Pear Granita; and Blackberry Sorbet.

You can read more about it here.