Tuesday, May 11, 2010
My Wild Bachelor Weekend
Mary hightailed it off to Iowa with her mom for a Mother's Day excursion this past weekend, leaving me to get as wild and crazy as I wanted. Well, as wild and crazy as you can get while tethered to a pair of griffons.
Strip clubs, all-night poker games, smoking cigars and shootin' pool! Yee-haw!
Right. I did get a little wild in the Bide-A-Wee "kitchen," though. Saturday night I put together a dish of pappardelle with "pheasantback" mushrooms, ramps, and watercress. (Sunday it was grilled brown trout, fiddleheads and ramps in a nettle-bacon broth; that's for next time.)
I often come across pheasantback (or "dryad's saddle," its more mythological title; what the hell is a dryad, again?) in the spring when I'm walking along the trout stream, or when I'm out on one of my usually futile morel hunts. This shelf-like polypore fungus often grows on dead elm trees, under which one will find morels, if one is lucky. But I consider myself lucky to find a pheasantback, too. For one, I find them beautiful. For two, they are quite edible. Some 'shroomers agree with that assessment. Some don't. (Tom Volk belongs in the mushroom hall of fame if there is such a thing, but I think he must have only tried cooking really old pheasantbacks, to find them tough and rubbery.)
The pheasantback's distinctive aroma of watermelon rind is fascinating to note, but less compelling as a flavor on its own. So I like to add flavor to this mushroom in the cooking. A little bit of soy sauce adds depth of flavor--it's a cheat, maybe, but a good one. A nice young pheasantback has a wonderful texture, dense and silky at once, like many of its cousins in the polypore world, which includes the legendary cèpes or porcini. Polypore mushrooms emit their spores not through the gills you find on button mushrooms, portabello, and the like, but through those many little holes you see on the white underside. Poly- = many; -pore = pore. Get it? Polyporous squamosus is its Latin tag, which I believe means "scaly polypore."
To make the dish: But I want to go back a little first, describe how I got the cress.
I spend a lot of time on the road between our house in Saint Paul and the Bide-A-Wee cabin in Dunn County, Wisconsin. At its simplest, the trip to Bide-A-Wee (once we're on the freeway) involves exactly three roads (the freeway, a state highway, our town road) and four turns (left, right, left, right, you're there). And while the scenery is quite pleasant along that straightforward route, anything becomes a bit boring with repetition--and freeways are generally boring, anyway.
Sometimes I just want to get there or back as directly and quickly as possible, but mostly I like to vary the route. I'll turn off the main route at some point, to follow whim and scenery, county road to town road, paved to gravel, farmland to forest. Closer to the city the roads pretty much follow a grid pattern, but in the hilly land in eastern Saint Croix, Polk and Dunn Counties they take their path from the contours of the land, winding through pastoral valleys, following the course of this area's many streams and rivers. I would have thought that after more than three years of wandering the backroads of western Wisconsin on the way to and fro Bide-A-Wee, I would have exhausted all options; somehow, I keep finding more.
Saturday I found myself winding along a gravel road that curved past small dairy farms, woodlots, the odd patch of sugarbush. The road dipped under a low railroad trestle, just one lane there, and as I turned a blind corner I spotted ahead a telltale hump in the road--a culvert, a brook. As I crossed it I glanced down and saw water, so I stopped--sometimes these are dry runs, or just a trickle through the weeds.
This one was a sweetly flowing little creek, only a few feet wide, but clear and sparkling, and upstream of the culvert, in the middle of the stream, was a little island of watercress. I hopped down there and observed that a spring fed into the creek just there. I couldn't see far up it before the alder crowded in. I pinched some leaves from the tops of the plants I could easily reach, put them in a sack and climbed back up to the road.
I was about to get back in the car--the dogs were eager to know what I'd been up to, they'd worried about me, out there all by myself--when I noticed across the road a grassy path leading down a short distance into the woods. Intent on checking out the stream, I hadn't seen it before. Now I went over and walked down it (a little self-conscious, for I was trespassing, though there was no posting, and in Wisconsin none is required of landowners). The path ended just thirty feet off the road, at the source of the spring--pure, icy water flowing out through an aperture at the base of a little limestone cliff, just a sort of tall hummock, really, with moss growing on the damp exposed stone. From there the spring traveled fifty feet or so down to the creek, and for this whole length it was a carpet of dark green, glossy watercress.
I love springs, and spring creeks, and topography, and cress. It's hard for me to imagine a more charming natural scene than what I found there. I gathered a few more leaves (poached them, I guess, if you want to be technical about legalities) and went on my way.
The dish, then: I had thought I would use Chinese noodles, but we didn't have any. In the end the substitute pappardelle was a superior choice. I wanted something a little richer to add along with the mushroom, ramps, and cress: an egg. I beat up one egg, added some chopped ramp and cress leaves and a little salt, scrambled it very soft in butter.
Into that same pan went a little more butter and the chopped white parts of five or six small ramps. As they started to soften I tossed in the sliced pheasantback--no salt, because of the soy. Then as the mushrooms started to brown I splashed in a bit of soy--a couple teaspoons?--and also a bit of vinegar (I think it was some of our blackberry vinegar), a teaspoon, I'd say. Finally I added a couple good handfuls of coarsely chopped watercress. The cress gave off just enough liquid as it wilted to deglaze the pan and make a simple sauce.
The noodles I cooked to al dente ahead of time, and as the sauté was coming together I set the pan containing them on the side of the Haggis to warm(I needed a fire in the woodstove, it was going down into the twenties overnight!), loosened them with a little butter, flavored them with some salt, pepper, and a bit more chopped ramps greens and cress.
Serve out the noodles, top with all the veg, dollop the soft herby eggs around the sides. I would certainly make this again.