Thursday, July 22, 2010

Our Week in 'Shrooms

I've been haunting the woods for mushrooms for quite a few years now, and I can't remember a month--well, really, a week--quite so fungi-full as this last one. Foraging for wild foods is a topic that intrigues a lot of people these days, but the subject raises as much trepidation as it does interest, an attraction/revulsion response. On the one side, everyone raves about how delicious and rare wild foods are--they're mysterious, sexy, exotic. Yet, on the other hand, there's the "Dude, that stuff could kill you!" factor. Without a good guide, preferably a mentor, and a lot of woods-time invested, it's not easy to become comfortable with harvesting and preparing wild foods.

"Hedgehog" mushrooms, hydnum repandum

So if you know a little, nail down a few reliable wild harvests, you quickly become looked upon as an "expert," but often it's a case of the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. I've never considered myself an expert; I know what I know, I learn a little at a time, and that's about it. I'm persistent, and sometimes I'm lucky. How little I really do know has been highlighted for me even in this last week of abundant harvests. Given my past experience, I wouldn't have started to look for chanterelles until early August, because that's the earliest I'd previously found them. And mind you, I had looked in July, more than once, and come home nettle-stung, bug-bit, and sweat-soaked, but empty-handed, except maybe for a bit of sulfur shelf, some honey mushrooms I could never ID confidently enough to cook them. I had firmly decided that it was a waste of time to hunt for chanterelles that early.

But the thing about nature, it's quite highly variable. Averages are just that, often the product of wild extremes. In the past few years, late June and July were dry, dry, dry. This year, wet, wet, wet--and warm, and that right there is a recipe for fungus. So I've had something else put in my forager's head, to pay equal attention to the weather as the calendar.

Now I'll wait to see if conditions mean that this season of abundant 'shroomage will be both ample and extended, or short and sweet. Will the hen-of-the-woods be early, too? Things could change radically over the course of a few weeks. If it dries up and stays dry, the end of season could be as big a bust as this early part has been boom.

One thing is certain: We have been enjoying it while we can. Over the past week our dinners have consisted of: omelets with sautéed chanterelles and black trumpets; grilled double-cut pork chops with chanterelles in cream; chanterelle smoked herring bulgur salad; creamed 'shrooms on toast; chanterelle corn soup with black trumpet garnish; hedgehog gruyère pizza.

The soup was really a treat, rich and savory and not too fancy, still a bit rustic with the pieces of mushroom and texture from the corn. If you can't get your hands on chanterelles, use another wild mushroom like hedgehogs, hen-of-the-woods, or try it with regular button mushrooms (call them "champignons de Paris" if you want to impress your guests; that's what they're called in France).

Cream of Chanterelle and Sweet Corn Soup
serves two

6 ounces chanterelles

1 ½ cups unsalted chicken stock
2 ½ cups water
1 shallot, minced
1 small leek, white and very light green, chopped fine
2 ears corn

Take a little less than one third of the chanterelles--the less nice looking ones--and chop them fairly fine. Add to the combined stock and water along with any trimmings from the rest of the chanterelles. Add one quarter of the minced shallot, and the chopped outer layers of the leek--the part you’d otherwise throw away--and a bit of the lighter green tops, chopped. Shuck the corn, and with a mandolin or very sharp knife, strip the kernels from the cob--try not to get big, full kernels, but rather partial ones, as for creamed corn. Add the stripped cobs to the stock, mushrooms, etc., bring to a simmer and simmer briskly, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain the stock, pushing on the mushroom bits with the back of a spoon. You should have 2 ½ cups of stock; add water to make 2 ½ cups if you're short.

When the corn cobs have cooled, use the back of a kitchen knife to scrape any remaining corn from the cobs. Add to stock.

Slice the rest of the chanterelles thin, no more than ¼-inch.

1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp dry vermouth or white wine

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the remaining leeks and shallots and the chanterelles; cook gently until everything is wilted. Do not let it brown. Add the corn and vermouth or white wine, then the stock, and a couple of pinches of salt. Bring to a simmer and simmer gently, partly covered, for 20 minutes.

2/3 cup heavy cream
Black trumpets if you have them

Add the cream and simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning. If you have some black trumpets, sauté them briefly in a bit of butter and use to garnish the soup. Make it pretty with a leaf of chervil or parsely, if you like.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


mdmnm said...

Glad to see you all having such a great season. We're pretty new to looking for mushrooms and haven't had much luck yet, but the SW "season" is mostly just cranking up with the late-summer rains.

"I've never considered myself an expert; I know what I know, I learn a little at a time, and that's about it. I'm persistent, and sometimes I'm lucky." That's pretty much how I approach all things outdoors. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much but it's always fun and satisfying to learn a bit more.

el said...

Wow, Brett, jealous down here.

Incidentally, I was gifted a two-pound whopper of a Hen of the Woods back in early June, should probably go a-hunting for them soon. Granted, this one was found (with many siblings) on a very dead tree in a newly-sunny area but still. Make hay!

I assume you're drying and freezing them, right?

Trout Caviar said...

mdmnm, happy hunting. For me foraging is simply one of the most fun things I can think of to do. It's really just roaming around in the woods, and if you bring something good to eat home, it's a bonus. The learning comes from just being there, seeing, from time to time, things you hadn't even thought to look for.

El, I'm so happy to have made you jealous, you with your farmstead chevre, your wood-fired oven, and all(!). June is crazy early for hens, but maybe not down in your tropical paradise. I have looked at a few of my go-to stumps, but nothing there yet.

Drying, blanch & freeze, IQF, pickled a la Polish 'shrooms in "Joy of Pickling", and most intriguing, vinegar-blanched then preserved in olive oil as suggested in the French book "Preserving Food without Canning or Freezing." That jar is just gorgeous, and the mixture smelled wonderfully of herbs, garlic, oil, vinegar and chanterelles. The IQF method results in a bit of a soggy tidbit once thawed, but all the aroma and much of the color is still there.

Cheers~ Brett

Faith said...


Trout Caviar said...

Sorry, Faith, we are not equipped to deliver at this time! Maybe the sequel to Real Bread should be Real 'Za. One recent baking night we made a pizza using a bit of leftover potato-chive levain dough that was unbelievable. We have also found that ciabatta--real, good, mixed-leaven ciabatta--makes an extraordinary pizza crust.

Cheers~ Brett