Thursday, November 17, 2011

Winter Mushrooms

It's not officially winter yet but we had a hard frost in Seattle the other morning and I-90 was closed at Snoqualmie Pass due to heavy snowfall. Most mushroom hunters figure, "Put a fork in the season. It's done."

Not so. This is the time of year to find cold-loving species such as hedgehogs and winter chanterelles (aka yellowfoot). Look for them in wet coastal woods where there's plenty of decay.

Recently I went picking with a friend on the Olympic Peninsula. Though not an epic year for late-season mushrooms (or any mushrooms, for that matter), we found decent numbers of bellybutton hedgehogs (Hydnum umbilicatum, pictured above and left) and spreader hedgehogs (Hydnum repandum). They're easily told apart. The bellybuttons are smaller, with proportionally longer stems and an "inny" of a bellybutton at the center of the cap, technically referred to as umbilicate. The spreaders can be much larger, with caps that develop scales or cracks. Both are delicious, with spicy hints of black pepper, nutmeg, and cardamon. Being fairly cold-tolerant, they'll last a long time in your fridge, too, often more than a week.

Yellowfoot chanterelles (above), also known as winter chanterelles, are not actually in the chanterelle genus; rather, they're considered a species of Craterellus, the same genus as black trumpets, and like that mushroom, they too are hollow, though with chanterelle-like ridges underneath the cap. In the Pacific Northwest our species is currently called Craterellus tubaeformis but may be changed to C. neotubaeformis as it appears to differ from the species found in the Eastern U.S. and Europe. Either way, yellowfoots have good chanterelle-like flavor despite their insubstantial size, and when they're on, you can pick them by the handful.

Recently I made two appetizer dishes with winter mushrooms. One was a crostini with yellowfoot and chicken liver. The other was a very rich and savory mushroom parfait of sautéed hedgehogs and yellowfoot with wheat berries and mascarpone.

The crostini was inspired by a meal I had at Jeremy Faber's house. Jeremy is the owner of Foraged and Found Edibles in Seattle and I think he served this dish because I had been bad-mouthing yellowfoots as soggy, tasteless chanterelle wannabes. He showed me that with the right approach, you can actually get a lot of flavor out of them, and despite the flimsy, wet noodle posture, they have good texture when properly cooked.

Brown a small handful of chicken liver in vegetable oil. Remove from the pan and crumble with the help of a potato masher. In the same pan, sauté a few big handfuls of whole yellowfoot mushrooms and deglaze with a healthy splash of soy sauce. Cook the mushrooms down in the soy until they release all their water and they're brown. They'll look almost like weird, squid-like tentacles. No need to add salt because the soy will be plenty salty; in fact, you might want to use a low-sodium variety. Mix back in the crumbled liver and serve over sliced and toasted baguette with a sprinkling of chopped parsley. The result is a serious umami bomb.

For the parfait, first prepare the wheat berries on the stove top. No matter how long you cook them they'll retain an al dente texture. I used three cups of chicken stock for a cup of berries and simmered in excess of an hour. This was much more than I needed. Next sauté a half-pound of chopped hedgehog and yellowfoot mushrooms in butter with a generous variety of chopped herbs (I used thyme, sage, and oregano). Season to taste. Remove to a bowl and mix in a few dollops of mascarpone. The mixture should be super creamy. Now mix in enough wheat berries so that the ratio is about 3:1 in favor of mushrooms. Serve in goblets with a sprinkling of chives on top.

The season's not over for those of us north of Oregon. Get out there and find some mushrooms.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Huckleberry Egg Custard

The other day while mushroom hunting out on the Olympic Peninsula, I came across some huckleberry patches that were absolutely loaded with ripe berries. My daughter is a huckleberry fanatic. She eats hucks with her pancakes, in her yogurt, over ice cream. Score!

I surprised Ruby with my huckleberry haul when she got home from school. We made egg custards for dessert and topped them with the fresh hucks. To be honest, I had never actually made an egg custard before, but after eating one of Donald Link's creamy, southern-style custards this summer while he was visiting Seattle for his "Taste of Place" webcast, I knew I wanted to add this simple dessert to the repertoire.

For that custard, Chef Donald used red huckleberries we picked together in the Cascades foothills in the middle of summer. Here it was nearly the end of mushroom season and we were still able to forage fresh huckleberries. This is a good example of why it's useful to recognize a variety of species in any particular genus. In Washington State we have 13 species of Vaccinium. Those in the know can pick ripe huckleberries as early as July and as late as December.

The evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is an important species for us West Coasters. It's a lowland coastal variety, and it's usually the last of the huckleberries to fruit, often when other species are covered in snow. Clearcuts are a good place to find them, and anywhere else where they can get ample sun. They fruit in clusters, which means the picking is faster than it is with red huckleberries or mountain varieties. Some pickers use a bucket and simply shake the huckleberries off the branch.

More than likely, when you get your evergreen huckleberries home you'll also have a potpourri of twigs, leaves, and maybe a spider or two. The easiest way to clean your berries is to place them on a tray in batches, angle the tray slightly downward toward a colander, and start massaging the berries with the open palm of your hand. Roll them around so they part with their stems. Clean berries will roll down the tray and collect in the colander. Smashed berries, stems, and forest debris will remain on the tray.

The egg custard itself is simple as can be.

1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup water
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup huckleberries
fresh nutmeg or cinnamon, grated to taste

1. Pre-heat over to 325 degrees. Combine milk and water in a small saucepan and bring to boil.

2. Mix egg yolks, sugar, salt, and vanilla together in a bowl.

3. Slowly whisk in hot milk-water mixture until frothy. Pour into 4 ramekins.

4. Place ramekins in an oven-proof dish or tray filled with warm water. Bake for 40 minutes. Carefully place a small handful of huckleberries atop each custard and bake another 10 minutes. Test one for doneness with a knife tip; if it comes away clean, the custard is done. Sprinkle with fresh nutmeg or cinnamon. Serve hot or cold.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sichuan Chicken & Matsutake with Vinegar

To spend several days with matsutake pickers in Oregon and not come home with even a flag for my efforts was something of a dropped ball. So I spent a day at the coast yesterday picking yellowfoot and hedgehogs plus a few lingering kings and chanterelles—and a surprise late flush of matsi. Yes!

They were fruiting on the edges of an old railroad grade in private timberlands where the steam donkeys once worked. The rusted donkeys are mostly gone now—scrapped by tweakers who have already stolen every catalytic converter they can scrounge—but the Aloha Tavern still waits faithfully at the edge of the cut, a plume of smoke curling out of its wood stove chimney, serving Busch tallboys at the end of the day beneath the conniving grin of the shake rat.

Apparently the coastal matsutake have been infested with cap-worms in a big way this year, but I got lucky with a bunch of nice, fat worm-free mushrooms.

Every fall I develop more appreciation for this truly singular mushroom. Recently I learned why I like it more in Eastern preparations than in Western: unlike mushrooms favored by French, Italian, and other Western culinary traditions (think porcini, chanterelle, morel), the flavors in matsutake are water-soluble (as opposed to fat soluble). This is why these mushrooms respond so well to soy, sake, and rice vinegar rather than butter, cream, and cheese.

When matsutake is on the menu I usually stick to traditional Japanese dishes, such as Sukiyaki and Gohan. This time I went with spicy Sichuan.

For those keeping score at home, since picking up a copy a year ago I've been working my way through Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty, a treasure trove of Sichuan recipes, adding my own forager's twist. Let's see. So far I've made Fish-fragrant Geoduck with Morels, Dry-fried Chicken with Fiddleheads, Sea-flavored Noodles with Porcini, and a few Kung Pao dinner party dishes with geoducks and morels that disappeared before I could get photographs for the blog.

This recipe is based on Dunlop's Chicken with Vinegar, with a few tweaks. Obviously the inclusion of matsutake is the biggest change. Also, I added dried red chili peppers and substituted chili bean sauce for pickled chili paste (which I'd like to try next time). The textures of the three main ingredients—chicken, matsutake, and celery—work in harmony, with all of them velvety smooth but with varying resistance to the tooth. The egg-battered chicken is tender as all get-out, and the matsutake mushrooms make an aromatic accompaniment that is in keeping with the original recipe, their spicy flavor mixing with the chili peppers and black vinegar in a way that amplifies the overall dish.

I guess everyone liked it because there were no leftovers.

1 lb chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch by 1-inch pieces
1/2 lb (or more) matsutake, sliced 1/4-inch thin by 1-inch
3 celery stalks, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 heaping tbsp garlic, diced
1 heaping tbsp ginger, diced
2 tbsp chili bean sauce
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 handful dried red chili peppers
1 1/2 cups peanut oil

1 1/2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 tsp salt

2 tbsp egg white
3 tbsp cornstarch

1 1/2 tsp white sugar
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
3 tbsp chicken stock

1. After dicing chicken, mix with marinade in a bowl. Set aside.

2. Mix the sauce in a small bowl.

3. Add batter ingredients to marinated chicken and stir well in one direction.

4. Heat 1 1/2 cups peanut oil in wok over medium flame. Add the chicken and then the celery. Prod with chopstick to eparate chicken pieces and cook until just white. Remove chicken and celery from wok with slotted spoon. Drain all but 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil.

5. Return wok to high heat and add matsutake. Cook 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, and then remove with a slotted spoon.

6. Add chili sauce to wok, stirring, and cook 30 seconds. Stir in garlic, ginger, and chili peppers and cook another 30 seconds before returning chicken, celery, and matsutake to wok. Give the sauce a quick stir and add to wok. Cook all together another minute or two until sauce thickens. Serve immediately over rice.

Serves 4 with rice and another dish.