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
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