Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2011 at 5:01 p.m.
For those who rarely venture into the woods, the North Coast's rolling hills and forests appear dormant in the winter, a blank slate waiting for spring to bring them back to life.
But for professional foragers with keen eyes and palates — such as Connie Green, head huntress of Wine Forest Wild Mushrooms in Napa — the wet winters of Wine Country usher in an endless season of bounty, producing wave after wave of mushrooms.
“Three weeks after the rains start, our mushrooms come to life, and they will continue well into April,” Green said in a phone interview from her home high in the Mayacmas between Sonoma and Napa counties. “It begins with porcini, and then chanterelles, and then the black trumpets and the hedgehogs and yellow-feet.”
For Green, who recently published “The Wild Table” cookbook with Napa Valley chef Sarah Scott, this year's steady stream of storms has been a gift beyond her wildest dreams.
“Last year and this year are particularly good mushroom years,” she said. “We've had a great deal of water.”
At this time of the year, Green is harvesting mostly black trumpets and hedgehogs, yellow-feet and chanterelle mushrooms in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. She sells her wild fungi to almost every high-end chef in Wine Country, from Cyrus' Douglas Keane to the French Laundry's Thomas Keller.
Now that wild mushrooms such as chanterelles are sold in Whole Foods and Costco, it appears that the much-maligned mushroom has finally entered the hearts, minds and mouths of mainstream America.
But according to Green, it's less of a trend than a reflection of the fact that Americans have decided to overcome their Anglo-Saxon fears and embrace an ancient tradition.
“It seems like something trendy and new here ... but now we are more like the rest of the world,” she noted. “If you'd say, ‘It's a fabulous food trend' to a Russian, they'd laugh, because they have been doing it for centuries, as have the Chinese and the Mexicans.”
Although the deep-seated fear of mushrooms stems from a very real danger — toxic mushrooms such as the death-cap resemble some edible species — amateurs can avoid disaster by foraging with an expert or a knowledgeable club, Green said.
“The Sonoma County Mycological Association is a very vibrant mushroom society with a very strong culinary bent,” she said. “They are always hunting and cooking, and in January, they give a three-day camp.”
When sauteing mushrooms in her own kitchen, Green prefers to keep her dishes simple in order to let the flavor of each mushroom shine.
“When it comes right down to it, I love mushroom soup,” she said. “I don't know if you can beat a great mushroom soup, where you let the real essence of that flavor shine, all by itself.”
She also appreciates the simplicity of a wild mushroom omelette, risotto or a potato gratin.
“Potatoes are a wonderful, earthy carrier of other flavors,” she said. “Almost any mushroom can take their turn in between potatoes.”
Green was infected with the food-hunting plague at an early age. She grew up on her grandmother's farm in Florida, where she routinely foraged for blueberries and other precious, wild crops.
“It begins with crawling around on the ground,” she said. “I totally believe that we are wired for this as humans, and all it takes ... is really having things to find.”
When she arrived in the town of Sonoma in the mid-'70s, she found herself among kindred spirits.
“That was a very Italian world then, and people hunted for mushrooms with great rigor,” she said. “Now, a lot of these people's grandchildren are interested in it again.”
After moving to the mountains overlooking Yountville more than 30 years ago, Green started foraging for wild foods for her own kitchen table.
“I was as surprised as anyone to find that what made me truly happy was crawling around the woods finding absurd quantities of chanterelles,” she wrote in “The Wild Table.” “By 1980, this passion was spilling over and into restaurant kitchens.”
While Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino are all rich mushrooming zones, certain mushrooms flourish in the various habitats within that zone.
“There's a habitat at the coast that has black-trumpets and hedgehogs, to a good 15 miles inland,” Green explained. “Then, in the interior valleys with the live oaks and the hardwood forest, there are the chanterelles and porcinis.”
As far as a signature mushroom, Green sings the praises of the black-trumpet, which grows in many places around the globe but reaches its apex here on the North Coast.
“Ours are just exquisite,” she said. “Their flavor is extraordinary, and they have a more beautiful form.”
Green's late husband, a refugee from Eastern Europe whose life was saved by his family's foraging skills during World War II, introduced Green to her very first chanterelle. It was love at first bite.
“There's a reason why chefs adore them,” she said. “They have a magnificent texture, a glorious color and a quality of nutty sweetness that is beautiful.”
Chanterelles can hold their own in all sorts of dishes, from a plate of scallops to a thick ribeye.
“They are the workhorse of mushrooms,” she said. “They know how to harmonize.”
The following recipes are from “The Wild Table” by Connie Green and Sarah Scott.
Louisiana-Style Chanterelle Hash
Makes 12 cakes
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes
4 ounces smoked bacon (about 4 slices), cut into ¼-inch dice
1 cup pure olive oil, plus ½ to ^ cup more for cooking the cakes
1 cup finely diced yellow onion
3 large garlic cloves, finely minced
1 jalapeno chile, seeded, finely diced (optional)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1 pound cleaned chanterelles, cut into ¼-inch dice or torn into thin shreds
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
— Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour, plus ½ cup for dusting cakes
½ cup Traditional Mushroom Stock (see recipe below)
Place the potatoes, whole and unpeeled, into a large pot of salted water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until they are very tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. When they have cooled to room temperature, peel them and cut into ¼-inch cubes. You should have about 2 cups.
Place the bacon and the ¼ cup oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Cook until the bacon is just golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, jalapeno, and thyme and cook until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chanterelles, turn up the heat to medium high, and cook until the mushrooms are tender and any excess liquid has cooked off, 4 to 5 minutes.
Stir in the potatoes, 1½ teaspoons of the salt, ½ teaspoon of the black pepper, and the cayenne. Mix well. Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons flour evenly over the mushroom mixture, stirring to coat with the flour. Add the mushroom stock, stirring quickly as the mixture comes together and thickens, 1 to 1½ minutes. Turn the mixture out onto a baking sheet to cool. Pressing lightly on the mixture at this point will help to form firmer cakes.
Divide the cooled mixture into 12 portions and shape them into rounded patty-shaped cakes. Place the ½ cup flour in a small bowl with the remaining ½ teaspoon pepper. Dip each cake into the flour, coating it evenly and shaking off any excess before placing it on a baking sheet. Let the cakes sit for 10 minutes before cooking.
Place enough oil in a large saute pan to come ¼ inch up the sides, ½ to ¾ cup. Place the saute pan over medium-high heat.
When the oil is hot, place the cakes in the pan, being careful not to crowd them. You may have to cook them in batches. Cook until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes, then carefully turn them over and cook for 4 to 5 more minutes. Remove them to a wire rack placed over a baking sheet and hold them in a warm place whil you cook the remaining cakes.
Serve alone or as a side dish.
Traditional Mushroom Stock
Makes 1 quart
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 pound button mushrooms, cleaned and cut into quarter
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 small celery stalk, coarsely chopped
1 large garlic clove, coarsely chopped
2 fresh thyme sprigs
3 flat-leaf parsley sprigs
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed
Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the button mushrooms and salt. Stir to coat evenly with the oil. Cook until the mushrooms release their liquid. Continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are just starting to brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the onion, celery and garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add the thyme, parsley and porcini mushrooms and 2 quarts cold water.
Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down teh heat to a bubbling simmer and cook for 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit for 30 minutes. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh strainer. Discard the solids.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Freeze for up to 4 months.
Black Trumpet Mushroom and Yukon Gold Potato Gratin
Makes 6 servings
2 cups heavy cream
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms, thoroughly rinsed to remove any dirt
1 bay leaf
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon pure olive oil
½ pound black trumpet mushrooms, cleaned
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1½ pounds large Yukon gold potatoes
¼ cup grated Gruyere
Position a rack in teh center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Generously butter an 8-inch square baking dish.
Place the cream, porcini mushrooms and bay leaf in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let steep for 20 minutes. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl. Pour the cream mixture through the strainer, pressing on the porcini to extract all the cream. Discard the bay leaf. Return the cream to the saucepan. Whisk in 1 teaspoon of the salt and pepper. Set aside. Thinly slice the porcini and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the black trumpet mushrooms, tossing quickly to coat with oil. Add the remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, as the black trumpets release any liquid. Continue cooking and stirring until the liquid has evaporated. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Remove from teho heat adn cool. Stir in the porcini. Set aside.
Bring the cream back to a simmer. Make sure the heat is low to prevent scorching. Remove the potatoes from the water and pat dry. Slice the potatoes very thin, 1/8-inch thick, on a mandolin or slicer. Add the potatoes to the simmering cream and cook for 5 minutes. The cream will become thick from the starch in the potatoes. remove from the heat.
Place one-third of the potatoes adn cream in the prepared baking dish. Spread them out evenly over the bottom. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the Gruyere. Top with half of the mushroom mixture.
Make another layer using one-third of the potatoes and cream, 1 tablespoon of the Gruyere, and the remaining half of the mushrooms. Add the remaining one-third of the potatoes and top with the remaining 2 tablespoons Gruyere.
Place the baking dish on a baking sheet and cook for 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the cream is bubbly. Remove the gratin from teh oven and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or email@example.com
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