Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The Time of the Yellow Mushrooms
It's probably been a dozen years since I first encountered chanterelles in a western Wisconsin woods. I was amazed to find them, frankly; I didn't even know that they grew here, and I'm not sure many other people did, either. That was well before the days of the great foraging/wild foods explosion, though the spring morel hunt was a well-established rite of the season. But by midsummer, when the chanterelles start to push through the oaky duff in our region, most people with an interest in food from the wild seek it from a comfortable seat in a fishing boat in a walleye lake, enjoying cool breezes and cold beers, not in a dank and musty wood, assailed by mosquitoes and deerflies, stung by nettles, scratched by prickly ash. I will honestly admit that when I set out one morning this week, in the midst of this historic heat-and-humidity incursion, for a first check of my favorite chanterelle grounds, I wasn't sure if this constituted a hobby or a compulsion. My glasses were fogging the minute I put them on in the morning; I sweated through my t-shirt just putting on my boots. Well, the sacrifice makes the reward all the sweeter.
What keeps me going back is the fact that spotting my first chanterelle of the season each year is still as great a thrill as finding the first one ever, those dozen years ago--and each subsequent find is almost as satisfying. While some wild foods offer a fair certainty as to where and when to find them, mushrooms, even the most reliable of them, are often a crapshoot, or a wild goose chase. Chanterelles will be found year after year in the same places--except, of course, when they're not found at all, or sparsely. But a warm, wet early July provides a pretty good set-up for the chanterelle fruiting, and if this miserable sauna-like spell of weather has any upside, it would certainly be the appearance of those lovely golden fungi.
I look on rocky slopes in woods of white oak. The western exposures seem to fruit first. If temperatures moderate, the picking can be good for a few weeks. A little rain is good, but torrential downpours splash mud on the mushrooms, tough to clean out of the convoluted folds, and an overly damp and moist spell encourages rot and insects.
The harvest can be prodigious. Best to enjoy them while they're fresh, for while there are various ways to preserve them, nothing compares to the fragrance, taste, and texture of the fresh ones. Likewise, while a bumper crop can encourage kitchen experimentation, our first picking of the year is almost always a simple sauté served alongside a French omelet.
I clean the chanterelles as well as I can in the woods. A pastry brush is handy for removing loose soil, but if the folds are very dirty I'll often use my knife to scrape them off entirely--there's really no other way to clean them of embedded dirt. Back home I don't hesitate to use water in the final clean-up, no matter the copious opinion to the contrary. I always fall back on the counsel of one of my food heroes, Jacques Pépin, who laid the situation out very clearly in one of his Today's Gourmet shows: "It's not that you don't wash mushrooms," Jacques said. "If they are dirty, then you wash them."
Of course, you don't want to soak them for any amount of time. I'll just run each mushroom under cool running water, as briefly as possible, then shake it off and place it on paper towels to drain. Mushrooms contain a lot of water to start with, so if they do absorb a little more, it's not the end of the world. All the moisture will boil off in the cooking.
For the cooking, then: Cut or tear the chanterelles into bite-sized pieces. Get a sauté pan hot and add a tablespoon or so of butter (or olive oil, if you prefer). Add the mushrooms and give them a good toss--the aroma that comes off as the first 'shrooms hit the hot butter sets me back in a swoon every year. The liquid will begin to express quickly. Stir the chanterelles from time to time until most of the liquid has evaporated. Now add a good pinch of salt and a couple tablespoons of minced shallot. Continue cooking until the mushrooms are a bit brown, and done to your taste.
For the omelet, I beat together three eggs with a good pinch of salt. An eight- or nine-inch non-stick skillet is ideal. Heat the skillet and add a couple teaspoons of butter. As the foaming subsides pour in the eggs, and with a fork stir the eggs vigorously in a figure-eight pattern, shaking the skillet back and forth as you do so--this is to break the egg into very small curds, essential for a proper French omelet (and another technique I picked up from M. Pépin's excellent TV shows). Stop cooking before the eggs are totally set, as they'll continue cooking after you've plated the omelet. Lifting the handle of the skillet toward yourself, gently fold the near edge over toward the lower side once, then again. Give a little shake to move everything toward the lower end, then invert the whole pan carefully over the serving plate, tipping the omelet out. Correct the shape to an elongated football form with two forks.
Spoon the chanterelles alongside. Dust some finely grated gouda or gruyère over the omelet, a grind of pepper, perhaps a scattering of herbs. Now the itchy buggy woods are far behind, but your harvest carries the best sense of that place to the table. There's no question you'll go back.