Thursday, September 9, 2010

Field Work

It's a quarter after ten, and I just polished off a plate of squash blossoms stuffed with a small dice of sulfur shelf (aka, "fried chicken" or "chicken of the woods") mushrooms, shallots, patty pan squash, and some sprouted, simmered wheat berries. It's research, you see, for the cookbook. No, it really is. Off hand, you might say I have too much time on my hands; but with summer very suddenly having turned to fall, I'm feeling like I have all too little.

There are only three weeks left in the trout season--I've got to get some fish to test recipes with. I've got to harvest trout roe, because I need some really excellent pictures of trout caviar. Likewise, on the mushroom front, the season is on the wane. I've found a couple of hen-of-the-woods, but I haven't come across a giant puffball. Those are great in the wild mushroom lasagne I came up with a couple of years ago, and I want to try that recipe again.

When hunting season starts, I will feel absolutely compelled to spend as many days afield with gun and dogs as I possibly can--there are grouse preparations to test out, woodcock recipes to develop. This is definitely a case of nice-work-if-you-can-get-it, but it's a weird feeling to think that when I drive to the stream or the woods, lace up my wading or hunting boots, that I'm going to work. The life of the professional trout bum and mushroom hound--I guess there are worse things I could be doing....

I hit a familiar woods this week to look for hen-of-the-woods. The forage did not go exactly as I expected, which I suppose is what I should have expected. It was a day of high, scary winds, and as I made my way through the woods among tall oaks, ash, and aspen, the treetops convulsed with each gust. I heard limbs snap off and tumble more than once, and it occured to me that this wasn't necessarily the safest place to be on a day like this. But at ground level, in the midst of the thick forest, it was virtually still--I was in one world, while another raged by overhead.

Having seen the beginning of the hen-of-the-woods season, and knowing this to be a prolific woods for them, I was surprised that I actually found more chickens than hens--those sulfur shelf mushrooms mentioned above. I think of them as a fungus of the mid-summer, concurrent with chanterelles, more or less; so with the chanterelles coming extremely early this year, it just figured that the sulfur shelf would be late, right...? In fact, I saw many sulfur shelf 'shrooms that were well past their prime that day. The two clumps I found were just late bloomers, I guess.

I harvested what I found, a little reluctantly--I've never had success cooking with these mushrooms in the past, even when I've found very young specimens, oozing liquid when I sliced them off the tree. They have always tasted unpleasantly fibrous when I've cooked them before, and I was on the verge of swearing them off, but I've been hearing delighted reports of dishes made with them this summer, so I decided to give it another try. I'm glad I did. Maybe these were just better specimens, maybe I prepared them better, or knew more what to expect. I fried some in butter and some in chicken fat, stuffed the squash blossoms, and all these preparations were excellent. And, they do not taste like chicken--not even the ones fried in the schmaltz.

That day in the windy woods, as I wandered from oak tree to oak tree, in circles or in zig-zag lines, over swales, through thickets, it occured to me that foraging involves a kind of deviant meandering. You put yourself in Great Nature's hands, you let a glimpse of something guide you, follow vague intuitions, or outright superstition--I've come to believe that a turkey feather will point me to a find. You lose yourself in it, you lose your mind, in a way. In talking to Mary about this topic over dinner recently, I mentioned that I find it very difficult to write about foraging in a way that captures the experience, because, while thoughts and sentences are constantly going through my head while I'm foraging, they are glancing thoughts, sentences inchoate and obscure. Sometimes I even jot down notes while I'm in the woods, but when I look at them later I find I've written things like, "A woodcock is a flying mushroom," or "Following the archipelago cantharellus"; and what are we to make of that?

It's really no wonder that the conventional world has always looked at foragers a bit askance. We are literally on the fringe, in the woods, out there, and just a little gone.

Nice work if you can get it.

Slice your sulfur shelf nice and thin. Cook it long enough, but not too long--it does have that in common with chicken, that over- or under-done is not good. Eat it while it's hot--that grainy, fibrous quality seems to increase as it cools. That's what I've got for now.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

There's so much in what you say about the foraging experience that I find to also be true in many of my gardening exercises. It's great: your eyes are engaged, and your hands, but goodness your mind is quite free to run where it will. I believe I would enjoy actual paid work a lot more if I could only put in as much of my brain to it as I do, say, when weeding or foraging.

Same with fishing, come to think of it.

You're quite right, Brett: it IS good work, and you should be thankful you have it!

Yours from the salt mines...

Trout Caviar said...

Hi El: There's something about being out-of-doors that has a lot to do with it, too, sun and wind, no enclosure. Foraging has the unique quality that you're often going out to look for something that may not even be there--and in the course of it you may come across something you never expected to find, or didn't even know existed!

I hope I didn't give the impression that I consider it anything but a total privilege to be able to devote myself to this project now. However, I still have to overcome long-ingrained habits of mind to stop feeling guilty about all this "goofing off" which is now, indeed, my work!

I wouldn't doubt that there's a "Confessions of a Fast Weed Puller" down the line somewhere....


Anonymous said...

Every year I get a huge Hen of the Woods at the base of an old oak in my back yard. This year I brought it to Scott at Corner Table. And, then, to my surprise another one grew up at the same spot. My wife won't allow me to sautee the mushroom up, she is certain I'll keel over as soon as I take one bite....and then who will help with the dishes????

Trout Caviar said...

Anon.: Well I hope Scott treated you to a lovely meal in exchange for that precious cargo you bestowed upon him. You're lucky to have that right in your own yard; hopefully you can convince your wife that neither you (nor the chefs of our finer restaurants) are trying to poison anybody!

Thanks for writing~ Brett