Friday, May 13, 2016

Pheasant Back, Ramp & Wood Nettle Pâté


I’m usually pretty confident when I start to put together a new dish, because I’ve been cooking for a long time, and because, let’s face it, most “new” dishes are usually just a tweak or two on an old dish.  You swap out an unusual ingredient for a familiar one, turn an exotic dish local or wild, that sort of thing.  You have a basic template and play around with the elements within it.  The last time I recall coming up with something truly, stunningly original was when Iaccidentally burned some honey, and then decided to throw some rhubarb juice in the pot.  The result was something remarkable, delicious, and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

And, I’ve never made it again.  I should.  I think even I’m a little afraid of bringing honey to the burning point, though really the worst thing that could happen is that I would burn a little honey.  Well, maybe ruin a pan, fill the house with smoke.... Maybe my reluctance is wise.

Pheasant back mushrooms tops.  They also go by the fanciful name "Dryad's Saddle."  Dryads are not as common in our woods as they once were, so I haven't had a chance to examine their saddles lately....
Anyway:  the story of this pâté was this:  I had a mess of pheasant back mushrooms, which have been abundant this spring (they grow on dead trees, including elms, so you’ll often find them while not finding morels…).  These mushrooms are a polypore, like boletes, the family that includes porcini, but their flavor is very mild, just sort of vaguely mushroomy.  When young and tender, their texture can be excellent, and then they’re fine just sliced and sautéed.  I like to do them in butter, add a little garlic and a splash of soy sauce when they’re about done.  

Tops and bottoms; note the tiny pores of this fungus whose Latin name is polyporous squamosus.
But as they mature, they become chewy, then inedibly tough.  Sometimes you can trim the outer rim of a larger one and find it sufficiently tender.  The thing I’ve learned is that if my pocket knife blade doesn’t slide through the flesh almost effortlessly, don’t bother.  Move along, keep looking, you’ll find more.  On this evening most of my pheasant backs could have been eaten simply sautéed, but that wasn’t working for me as a topping for smorrebrod, those Danish-inspired open face sandwiches, which was the dinner plan.  Pâté came to mind, a sort of ersatz chopped liver. 


I chopped the mushrooms pretty small, threw them in a pan with some butter.  As they released moisture and started to shrink, I added chopped ramps.  Then as cooking neared completion, I splashed in some soy, for umami depth, and to make it more pâté-like, a glug of red wine (I considered cognac or sherry, but thought that would be gilding the lily).  It was smelling pretty good at this point—I had added dried thyme, and a pinch of chile flakes—but there wasn’t a lot of it, and I also was dubious about what the texture of ground-up pheasant backs alone would be like.

For both bulk and texture, wood nettles came to the rescue.  They’d just started coming up in our woods, so they were in prime condition, edible and tender pretty much from bottom to top.  I roughly chopped a cup or so, added them to the pan with a little water, steamed briefly.

After removing the lid from the pan and letting most the liquid evaporate, I let the mixture cool, then transferred it to a mini-chop food processor.  From here I took the chopped liver approach of working in as much butter as conscience would allow.  Tasting along the way, adding some salt and a good bit of black pepper, I was more and more impressed.

Smorrebrod dinner leftovers make a lovely lunch.  Closewise from top: smoked trout with goat yogurt cheese and chives; wood nettle-ramp pesto with local goat feta; the pâté; wild asparagus and homemade mayonnaise.
I’ll spare you the suspense and simply say that it was excellent, and distinctive, though built on a familiar chassis.  I will definitely make this again.  Most other shrooms—button, oyster, hen of the woods—could be used in it, and other greens, wild or not.  WARNING: the recipe below is my best estimate of the quantities of ingredients used.  Since I considered it quite possible that the resulting dish would be going in the trash rather than on the dinner table, I wasn’t writing things down as I went along.   But this is in the ballpark, and y’all are clever; you’ll figure it out.



Pheasant Back, Ramp & Wood Nettle Pâté

Makes about a cup

1 generous cup chopped pheasant back mushrooms
3 plump ramp bulbs, chopped
1 generous cup (loosely packed) wood nettles, young leaves and tender stems, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or a couple good sprigs of fresh, leaves stripped off
Pinch red chile flakes, optional
Salt and pepper

Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes, until they start to give up some liquid and shrink a bit, then add the ramps. Sauté another 2-3 minutes, until the ramps are translucent and soft. Add the soy sauce, wine, thyme, and chile. Cook, stirring, until the liquid is mostly gone. Add the wood nettles and 1/4 cup water, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes.

Remove the lid and continue cooking until most of the liquid is evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.

When the mixture is no longer hot, transfer it to a mini food processor or blender. Taste for salt and add if needed. Add a few grinds of black pepper. Add a couple of teaspoons of butter and begin to process. After a few seconds, stop the machine, scrape down the sides, and add a bit more butter. Repeat this process until all the butter is incorporated, then process for another 15-20 seconds. We're looking for a fairly smooth texture to the pâté.

Taste again for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if you like. I like a pâté to be well seasoned. Transfer the pâté to a ramekin or small jar, and serve as you would chopped chicken livers and the like--lovely on crackers or toast rounds as a cocktail nosh or first course, or as one element in a buffet or smorrebrod-type meal.
 
Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw

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