BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Dirty Diamonds

They lurk on the fringes of civilization, just beyond the beaten trail, breeding and multiplying rapidly under the cover of darkness. Few take notice of their growing forces, and those who do rarely understand the implications. Call it a parasite, call it invasive, but I just call it dinner.

Chanterelle mushrooms are prized by umami-lovers the world over, fetching hefty prices at market due to their untamed ways. Like many of the greatest culinary treasures, chanterelles have never successfully been cultivated, demanding that the hungry hordes hunt and forage by hand for such this rarefied prize. A risky venture for the uninitiated, mushroom collection can quickly go awry with just one wrong identification. As a novice myself, the first piece of advice I would give for any fungus fanatics is to go with someone who knows. Even if I knew what I was looking for on my first expedition, I would have bypassed those bright orange caps for fear of culling something genuinely poisonous. Chanetelles succeed in making themselves look quite fearsome at first glance.

Knowing what to look for is one thing, and knowing where to look is another entirely. The best spots are just beyond the trampled woodland trails, amongst fallen trees and in soft, damp soil. In fact, these water-loving creatures are most likely to spring up after a decent rain, so brace yourself for muddy messy conditions. Poke under leaves and dig around when you find a patch; there may very well be more hidden within nearby shifting earth.

Chanterelles vary greatly in size, but rarely grow so strong that they need to be forceably cut from the ground. Slip your fingers underneath the cap to support it before gently pulling upwards. It should easily yield under pressure. Stash your treasures in a breathable cloth or compostable plastic bag.

Oh, did I mention mud? Yes, prepare yourself for some serious mud-slinging in the most literal sense possible. Wear boots, long pants, work gloves, and absolutely nothing you care about wearing again. Not only will you emerge caked in filth, but naturally, your mushrooms will as well. Knock off as much dirt as possible in the field and immediately hose them down when you get home. Take a paring knife to shave down stems and cut out any iffy pieces. Let them air dry, then wash them again. Then take a tooth brush to scrub away more of the particles stuck in the frilly caps. Dry, and then once more for good measure, wash them again before cooking. Don’t fear the water; larger caps can actually be squeezed out much like sponges to expel extra liquid.

Once you’re reasonably satisfied that you won’t get a mouthful of soil with your meal, process the mushrooms immediately. Fresh chanterelles are extremely fragile and will deteriorate rapidly. Your best bet is to chop them roughly and saute in a dry skillet to express the extra water. Once the surrounding liquid has evaporated, stash the pieces in fridge or freezer for more long term storage. Alternatively, you can then transfer them into a dehydrator to get crispy dices that can be stored at room-temperature, or ground to a powder for seasoning.

Side note: Never eat wild, foraged mushrooms raw, for obvious reasons. Just don’t risk it.

The greatest way to honor these noble spores, however, is to eat them right away. My favorite approach is to slice them thick before baking lightly in the oven merely to concentrate their inherent umami. Use these slabs to top just about anything; tofu scrambles, creamy pastas, and of course, pizzas the world over.

What follows is not actually a recipe but a guideline for my current quick-fix chanterelle indulgence. If you should ever be so lucky to uncover a trove of wild, edible mushrooms, the best thing you can do is to let them shine. In this application, their earthy flavors are accentuated by the deep, caramelized sweetness of roasted garlic, a subtle hit of rosemary, and woodsy smoked tomatoes. Any and all ingredients entirely interchangeable based on availability and personal preference. Just don’t overthink it, celebrate your wild food find, and enjoy your edible plunder to the fullest.

Chanterelle Flatbread Pizza

1/2 – 3/4 Pound Fresh Chanterelle Mushrooms, Cut into 1/4-Inch Slices
1 Head Roasted Garlic
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Flatbread or Small Par-Baked Pizza Crust
1/4 Cup Smoked Julienne Cut Sun-Dried Tomatoes
2 Tablespoons Chopped Toasted Pecans
Arugula, Pea Shoots, or Mache

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Arrange your sliced mushrooms in a single layer on one or two baking sheets and cook gently, rotating the sheets every 20 minutes or so, for 40 – 60 minutes. At first, the sheets may appear to flood with water, but don’t panic! Allow the mushrooms to continue baking until the liquid has evaporated.

Remove the mushrooms, let cool for 10 minutes before handling, and raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Peel all the cloves of garlic and place them in a small bowl with the oil, salt, rosemary, and pepper. Rough mash with a fork until spreadable but still chunky.

Place the flatbread or crust on a clean baking sheet and smear it liberally with the garlic spread. Sprinkle the baked mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and pecans evenly on top. Transfer the whole thing to the oven and bake just until hot and crisp; 8 – 12 minutes.

Finish with a handful of your favorite greens, slice, and serve immediately.

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

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Running Wild and in the Gnude

Never have I met a group of people more enthusiastic about an ominous forecast calling for relentless days of rain, varying from light mists to pounding torrents. After waiting with baited breath for the El Niño predicted to put all other storms to shame, the entire state of California seems to breathe a sigh of relief with every drop of moisture returning back to the parched earth. Cautious optimism prevents anyone from suggesting that our water woes are a thing of the past, or that reservoirs are even remotely close to normal levels yet, but the subject is no longer so fraught with doom and gloom, despite the lack of sun. We all know just how important these rains are to fortify all the local farms both big and small, responsible for producing no less than 99% of the entire country’s artichokes, walnuts, and kiwis, just for starters. What fewer are aware of is the positive impact the precipitation is having on a much smaller, less cultivated crop; mushrooms.

Mushroom foraging is a hit-or-miss affair, unpredictable in the best situations. Aside from the poisonous potential of picking the wrong fungus, the intrepid adventurer risks disappointment on every outing, no matter their level of expertise. Mushrooms love damp, but not cold, and cool, but not wet weather, which makes this season their time to shine. Springing forth under the cover of fallen leaves and the fallen trunks of trees, finding these edible treasures is like a grownup version of hide-and-go-seek, although the seeker doesn’t know exactly what might be hiding, complicating the game quite a bit. The good news is that as long as it doesn’t kill you, every mushroom has incredible culinary potential, stuffed to the gills with deep, nuanced, and entirely unique umami flavors, simply waiting to be unleashed.

Such a lavish assortment of wild mushrooms should be celebrated in dishes that will feature their savory character and meaty texture to the fullest.

Gnudi, best described as naked ravioli, also share similarities with gnocchi but are made with ricotta instead of potato. Simple in concept yet spectacular in execution, they’re like little cheesy pillows that practically melt in your mouth. Bound together with just enough flour to hold their shapes, these are nothing like the dense balls of dough one might otherwise encounter when attempting to eat traditional dumplings. In this case, tofu ricotta easily replaces the dairy foundation, transforming this savory dish into a light, dreamy, and yet impossibly rich indulgence. It’s all thanks to those humble mushrooms.

If you’re lucky enough to have the right terrain and ideal conditions, get out there while the fungus is good! For everyone else, hit up the nearest grocery store and start foraging through the produce aisle instead. It may not be so wild, but let’s be honest: Any mushroom will still be delicious.

Gnudi with Wild Mushrooms

Tofu Ricotta Gnudi:

1 Pound Extra-Firm Tofu, Thoroughly Drained and Rinsed
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Tahini
1/4 Cup Nutritional Yeast
2 Tablespoon Whole Flaxseeds, Ground
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
Pinch Ground Nutmeg
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Water
All-Purpose Flour*, to Coat

Sauteed Wild Mushrooms:

3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Small Shallots, Finely Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Pound Fresh Wild (or Cultivated) Mushrooms (Such as Crimini, Oyster, Shiitake), Sliced
1 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary
3/4 Cup Mushroom or Vegetable Broth
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Fresh Parsley, Minced

*For a gluten-free version, try using white rice flour or sorghum flour instead.

Crumble the tofu into a large bowl and add all the rest of the ingredients for the gnudi, except for the flour. Don’t be afraid to get dirty, because the best way to mix this is to get in there with your hands! Combine everything thoroughly, further breaking down the tofu so that no large chunks remain, and the overall texture of the mixture is something akin to smooth cottage cheese. Move the bowl into the fridge and chill for 15 – 30 minutes before proceeding.

Bring a large of water up to a gentle simmer. It’s very important that the water is not boiling, because the gnudi are too delicate to withstand that sort of violence. Using a small cookie scoop or two spoons, form the chilled gnudi mixture into about 24 balls, tossing them gently in flour to coat. Carefully slide 5 or 6 balls into the simmering water at a time to prevent the pot from getting too crowded. Simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, or until cooked through. Lift out with a slotted spoon and repeat with the remaining gnudi. The gnudi can be made in advance up to this point and kept for up to 4 hours in the fridge.

When ready to serve, heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and sautée until golden brown. Introduce the sliced mushrooms, dried herbs, and broth next, cooking until softened and highly aromatic; about 5 minutes. Add the gnudi, gently tossing to incorporate and cook for another 5 minutes or so, until gnudi are heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle with fresh parsley, and enjoy immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

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Back to the Earth

“There’s fungus growing in our kitchen… and it’s a good thing,” she said falteringly. Posed more as a question than a statement, it was clear that my mom didn’t exactly welcome my latest addition with open arms. Truth be told, it freaked me out just a little bit, too.

The fungus in question were oyster mushrooms to be precise, a much sought-after wild variety that fetch a fair price at market, but still rank below the luxurious porcini and chantarelle. A self-professed mushroom lover, it seemed to crime to have never cooked with oyster mushrooms before, but the grocery budget can only accommodate the common button or cremini on a regular basis. As prices skyrocket, even portobellos have become a special occasion purchase. Thus, when Back to the Roots contacted me about giving one of their mushroom kits a test drive, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

Grown on a rectangular cake of recycled coffee grounds, the spores are shipped with everything you need to start a mini mushroom farm in your home. Even though the instructions couldn’t be simpler, they also spell everything out in great detail through online videos, in case a serious mushroom novice lacks confidence. So, guaranteed to be a breeze, I slowly became concerned as the days passed and my moldy dirt looked unchanged, especially considering the fact that the box so boldly declares that a first harvest may be possible in only 10 days. On day 6, at long last, my little mushrooms appeared to awaken…

And from that point on, there was no turning back.

The rate at which they grew was borderline disturbing, and on many trips to the kitchen, they would literally have grown since last glance – We’re talking centimeters per hour at their height of their growth. The monster mushrooms simply exploded out of their flimsy plastic packaging. I had never seen anything like this. Both fascinating and alarming, I was now more enchanted with the growing process than the idea of eating them.

Still mourning the end of growing season, this unexpected thrill helped ease the transition, and seems like the perfect alternative to gardening in the colder months. The downside is that you can only start the mushrooms twice (once from each side of the box) and then it’s all over. Don’t think that you’ll achieve incredible yields and be rolling in mushrooms, either- Though it claims to produce 1 1/2 pounds of edibles, I would be hard pressed to say that I got even 1/2 pound out of mine. However, the novelty factor and environmentally friendly approach justifies the price tag, and it strikes me as the perfect gift for the foodie with everything.

[For a limited time, you can enter the discount code “mushrooms4me10” when ordering online for 10% off and free shipping.]

Unable to make a grand feast of mushrooms with my small harvest, I chose instead to feature the oyster mushrooms prominently, using them as the base of a fun hors d’oeuvre, ideal for the impending holiday parties.

Just like their inspiration, Oysters Rockefeller, these gorgeous fungus are loaded with an herbaceous puree of garlic, parsley, scallions, and a bit of spinach for color. Enriched with a buttery finish, the bright flavors of the herbs combined with the savory, earthy flavor of the mushrooms is unforgettable. Why anyone would ever create this dish with slimy sea creatures instead is beyond me.

Oyster Mushrooms Rockefeller

12 Large Oysters Mushrooms

Olive Oil, to Coat

1 Cup Fresh Spinach, Firmly Packed
1 Stalk Celery, Roughly Chopped
2 Large Scallions, Green Parts Only, Chopped
1/4 Cup Chopped Parsley
1 Small Clove Garlic
2 Teaspoons Capers, Drained
1 Tablespoon Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon All Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
Dash Tabasco Sauce
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Fennel Seed
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Fresh Lemon Juice (Optional)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lay out your mushrooms on the sheet, spaced evenly, and lightly brush with oil. Set aside.

In your food processor or blender, combine the spinach, celery, scallions, parsley, garlic, and capers. Blend thoroughly, until mostly smooth but still slightly coarse. No need to go crazy here, a bit of texture is a welcome thing.

Meanwhile, set a medium saute pan over moderate heat, and melt down the margarine along with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once, liquefied, quickly whisk in the flour to fully moisten, and cook for 5 – 8 minutes until very lightly browned, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk while whisking, and cook for just another minute or so until thickened. Turn off the heat, and whisk in the Tabasco sauce, nutritional yeast, and ground fennel. Transfer the green contents of the blender or food processor, and add them into your roux. Stir well to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pile the filling on top of your mushrooms; about 1 – 2 tablespoons, depending on the size of the mushroom. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, until the mushrooms are tender. Serve hot, with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice if desired.

Makes 12 Appetizer Servings

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