Read an Excerpt
Black trumpet mushroom
As a child in the 1950s, I had my first encounter with mushrooms through a can. I have vivid memories of my mother’s using Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup whenever she cooked her beef stroganoff. While it was a humble and simple recipe, it remains one of my most beloved childhood memories and a favorite dish to this day. Later, working as a young chef in Rhode Island, I started adding dried mushrooms to my repertoire. But it was during my apprenticeship in France that I was exposed to their fresh counterparts and became skilled in their preparation. Morels, chanterelles, cèpes, the prized black truffles of Périgord, and the white truffles of Alba were some of the incredible varieties that I learned to cook well and appreciate. Mushrooms have an earthy quality that tends to add flavor, dimension, and a sense of luxury to almost any ingredient with which they are paired.
Opening the French Laundry in 1994 was the realization of a lifelong dream, and Connie was one of our very first purveyors at the restaurant. The quality of her mushrooms was so exceptional that she quickly earned the nickname the “Mushroom Lady.” But while mushrooms were what she was known for, she has also brought in other outstanding wild foods for us to discover and enjoy, such as ramps, huckleberries, and sea beans. My philosophy is simple: to use the very best ingredients available in order to establish a memorable dining experience for our guests. Though they might never meet Connie face-to-face, her contributions help us with our success as a restaurant each and every day. She is an integral part of the process.
Connie continues to live up to her nickname by providing us with a wonderful array of mushrooms that are often the highlight of our menus at the French Laundry. They represent a simple, fundamental ingredient that, with the application of skill and patience, is capable of elevating any dish in which they are introduced. The mushrooms that she and her foragers discover throughout the year help us mark the passage of the seasons—from the first delicate morels of spring to the rich, luxurious porcinis of winter. As she steps into our kitchen to make a delivery, basket of mushrooms in hand, our chefs eagerly await to glimpse what new treasures they have unearthed for us that day. It is a ritual we look forward to each and every time.
—Thomas Keller, The French Laundry
The call of wild foods was a gentle murmur when I first started gathering food. It was the sound of my grandmother’s voice as we dug sassafras and picked scuppernong grapes. Delights like poke salad and mayhaws weren’t just funny words in old country songs; they were hunted, put on the table, and eaten with great relish.
As the years passed, wild food retreated to the fringes of public interest, but it never lost its hold on me. I was probably standing at the low-tide mark in the late seventies, when I visited numerous San Francisco restaurants trying to sell my baskets of wild mushrooms. I found only two chefs who’d ever seen a chanterelle before—and both were French. One refused even to believe my mushrooms were chanterelles because “they do not grow in this country.” The other chef recognized the fresh chanterelles but thought they were far too large. He informed me that the ones he was using from a tin can were superior because they were small and French. These were the two best-known chefs in San Francisco’s two finest restaurants. Five years later, both restaurants’ doors were closed and in had swept the dawn of fresh, local, seasonal California cuisine.
Now, more than three decades later, I find myself sitting squarely at the curious crossroads of the Stone Age and haute cuisine. I can’t count the times over the years I’ve crawled out of the woods quite oblivious to the leaves and twigs in my hair and marched directly to a chef in a crisp white uniform. Thirty years ago the late, great chef Masataka was thrilled to parade me and my chanterelles past diners whose private jets were parked just a few miles from the woods I hunted. One minute I’m worried about how we can get our mushrooms across a raging creek and eight hours later I’m putting the fresh cèpes into the hands of a delighted sous-chef at the French Laundry.
At the “picker” forager camp you sit with muddy knees, hoping there’s enough dry firewood or that the mother bear and cubs don’t come back. Meanwhile, the chef in the immaculate whites prays his line cook isn’t impossibly hungover. The camp crew has just enough water to rinse the black trumpets to put on the hot dogs (quite good!), while the chef wonders whether to cook them in sous-vide. Muddy jeans and glistening stemware, old pickup trucks and limousines, campfires and Viking ranges, a roll of bills and a wallet full of plastic: The contrasts may seem huge from a distance, but there isn’t a hairbreadth of difference between the foragers’ and the chefs’ passion for their work. I know; I cross these worlds every day.
about foraged wild foods
This crossroads is a very interesting and increasingly busy place. The glamorous mushroom varieties like morels, porcini, or chanterelles are well known for very good reason. Gary Danko’s roasted lobster with chanterelles or the classic combination of morels with asparagus are justly famous dishes. Yet there are more great treasures from the wild world waiting to be found or even remembered. A few are forgotten but hiding in plain sight, like the richest of all nuts, our native black walnuts. Others are little known, like the candy cap mushroom, which confounds and thrills taste buds with its maple mushroom flavor. More and more of America’s chefs and home cooks are heading to the off-road world of untamed foods. Where they go, others will and do follow.
Pioneering chefs like my friend Daniel Patterson are born to experiment. I snipped off the chartreuse spring tips from a fir tree by my barn and gave some to Daniel. I pluck them for my salads because that particular fir has a unique flavor. Daniel fell in love. Now diners in his San Francisco restaurant, Coi, might be lucky enough to experience a heavenly green-hued oil tasting a bit like bitter orange peel, yet made from this fir. Even my chanterelle-infused vodka, a fixture at nearly twenty years of my annual chefs’ mushroom forays, might be made by a boutique vodka maker. The flavor of the wild is sneaking back into our modern world.
While the food world is awash in celebrations of artisanal producers, organic growers, farmers’ markets, and pioneering restaurants, more and more wild food is appearing and gaining star status. This is causing confusion for even experienced food folk. I’m often asked, for instance, if my chanterelles or some other wild food are organic. I have to say, “No, it’s beyond organic.” When the San Francisco farmers’ market was first forming many years ago, I was approached to be a part of it. It was assumed that wild mushrooms, huckleberries, sea beans, and so on were organically certified. They aren’t. They grow wildly where they want to grow, not where a governing body says they’re allowed to grow. While an organic farmer is planting his or her crop in rows from atop a tractor, I’m out with baskets, making the rounds of my favorite chanterelle-bearing trees scattered over miles in the forest.
Another frequent question I get is “Where do you grow your wild mushrooms and wild foods?” I don’t. I can’t. They’re wild! Most people can’t wrap their minds around the reality that some of our most magnificent foods simply defy the taming of human cultivation. I, and other wild crafters, have to hike and search with great perceptiveness in our quest for the treasures scattered throughout a wild world. People are challenged to think of circumstances beyond human control, beyond agriculture. The foods in this book make “heirloom” varieties seem as if they were born yesterday. In the unfortunate wars of purity, wild foods—nature unvarnished—win. Once people remember and make the leap back to just what the word wild means, there’s always a little glimmer of wonder.
This is a very romantic, mysterious, and inviting world. The story of wild foods—the gathering, the foragers, and the chefs who make art with these foods—is a compelling one. The chefs who receive the mushrooms and the diners cooing over the cuisine often haven’t the foggiest notion of where the foods came from. Yet on that particular day morels have been picked by Rolly, Clint, and Russ in the Blue Mountains. Their closest neighbors are an elk herd. The nearest structure is a disintegrating gold mine. What looks like a lake is actually a field of blooming blue camas, the bulbs of which were once a staple in the diet of the natives there. The nearest pay phone is sixty miles away, but no matter. The men drive what they picked all the way to Pendleton to put them on a small plane. The next day I pick the mushrooms up at the airport, box them, and bring them in the door to this particular chef. These morels and sweetbreads will haunt his diners’ taste buds that night.
As romantic as morel hunting in far-off mountains really is, the instinct for and love of foraging is much closer to home for most all of us. It can be as close as a nearby vacant lot or roadside. I lived in Chicago for two years and picked mulberries for weeks on my walk to work down North Webster Avenue. At the heart of it all is the hunger to play a part or have a hand in what we put on our tables. Even when I see people at farmers’ markets with bags and baskets in hand, I see the foraging spirit at work. These are not Walmart shoppers. Yet there’s a step beyond the farmers’ market, beyond farming, where our ancestors’ culinary treasures have always awaited. The only genetic engineer there is nature herself.
When asked “How did you get into this business?” I have to think back over thirty years of selling wild foods and the founding of Wine Forest. It does seem an odd path for someone with a degree from a fine college and a previous job in Chicago television. In Chicago I met my late husband, an Estonian whose very life was saved by his family’s foraging skills during the starvation days as refugees in World War II Europe. He showed me my first chanterelle. After we moved to the hills above Napa Valley, where I still live, I was as surprised as anyone to find that what made me truly happy was crawling around the woods finding absurd quantities of chanterelles. Although I began with a passion and talent for putting wild foods on my own table, by 1980 this passion was spilling over and into restaurant kitchens.
In the beginning there was no clientele for wild foods. It took years of educating chefs and creating my own customers. I was a purveyor during the birth of the California food scene. Jeremiah Tower, Patty Unterman, and Judy Rodgers were in the early wave of customers. Bradley Ogden, Julian Serrano, Mark Franz, Cindy Pawlcyn, Hiro Sone, and many others joined my customer list later. Thomas Keller, Traci Des Jardins, Gary Danko, and too many more to name came in the 1990s.
As one of the earliest pioneers in the wild mushroom business in North America, it is so gratifying for me to hear the average Joe on the street say, “Nice chanterelles,” as boxes are carried into a restaurant. It seems like yesterday when no one even knew what chanterelles were. Now, all these years later I still sustainably harvest the same mushroom patches on the same forested mountainside above Napa Valley. Looking down on Michelin-star-cluttered little Yountville while I hunt mushrooms, my love for this “work” just flows over me.
My relationship with chefs is unique. Almost all stop what they’re doing and come with delight to see what I’ve brought. No fruit, vegetable, or protein holds a candle to the charge they get out of porcini buttons or whatever wild treat I’ve found. It took awhile to realize that I was bringing more to the kitchen than an exquisite ingredient. I was bringing clear proof of a wild, vibrant, and beautiful natural world far away from the hot, windowless kitchens from which most of our great cuisine flows. I’m the lucky one. The wild foods I carry in have an aura no other food has.
When I am leaving the kitchen, there’s not a chef who doesn’t ask, “Can I go with you sometime?” This sweet question led to my organizing chefs’ forays. Chefs often work until 1:00 A.M. yet they’ll still get up at 6:00 A.M. and drive the three hours north to meet me for a bouncy day of mushroom hunting. After a morning shot or two of frozen chanterelle vodka, we’re off into the woods. These are magical weekends. The actual experience of foraging has been an enchanting influence on many chefs.
Whether it be kitchen-bound chefs or city slickers, these foraging experiences deeply touch people. People who forage for wild foods, even rarely, have a deeper appreciation of nature and a profound interest in preserving the habitats that are too often destroyed by those with no knowledge of or intimacy with wild country. Too much of our modern attitude toward nature implies that we look at it from a distance—that we look but not touch—that the purity of nature should remain “uncontaminated” by perverse human contact. This is not as it should be. We are, in fact, all animals. Whether we are Queen Elizabeth, a New York publisher, or a Navajo, we are all the descendants of successful hunter-gatherers who wandered in this natural garden.
* * *
When people find out what I do for a living, I’m inevitably deluged with curiosity and questions. How did you learn how to do this? Where do you find those? How do you cook that? Can I go with you?
Some might find this foraging passion all a bit far afield. In fact, I once thought that most sophisticated urban people found nature to be a dangerous stranger and wild food to be scary. How wrong I was. Everywhere people are besotted with the idea of foraging for food. People are insatiably curious about this. They want to join me on a foray or pour out their own experiences. These encounters have proven to me that there is a hunger for a perennial Easter egg hunt living secretly in the hearts of most all of us.
People simply fall in love with wild foods. Lord knows these wild things swept me away. Folks want to be seduced by their mystery, their freedom from the bonds of agriculture. Our human civilization, based on agriculture, has struggled for millennia to no longer depend on foraging in the wild. But here at the start of the twenty-first century, the old hunter-gatherer lurking in all of us just won’t let go.
about the book
Unlike other cookbooks, The Wild Table calls on you to put on your jeans, grab a basket, and go outside. Although the list of foods in this book could go on for miles and miles over the river and through the trees, not every beloved wild food could find a place here at The Wild Table. I feel as if I’ve betrayed old pals like sassafras and shaggy manes by not inviting them. Yet the plants and mushrooms chosen here have not only great culinary merit, but can be found in widespread areas of the continent and are not at all endangered. Most, like huckleberries or nopales, are indigenous to North America, but I could not be a purist about this. Some tasty, now feral, foreign species like fennel and dandelions are included, as well as one former domesticate that wandered away from the farm.
These recipes are born from coauthor Sarah Scott’s genius for making everything delicious. Hours of our joyful brainstorming were followed by more than a year in Sarah’s kitchen, where she turned a passionate tumble of wild foods into these utterly scrumptious and beautiful recipes. During that time you might have found a mountain of elderflowers piled on her picnic table while smelly ramp leaves covered the counters. She also chased some of my favorite chefs around their kitchens with measuring cups and translated their dishes into things even I can make.
After cooking with and for most of the world’s greatest chefs during her years as executive chef at Robert Mondavi Winery, she found that her trips to the market for this book required hiking boots and bug repellent. She’s a sport.
All of these delicious recipes preserve the essential character of these beautiful, wild ingredients, which have little parallel in the tamed world. Nature’s elegance is reflected in recipes whose comfortable flavors belie ingredients that are strangers to many people. Although many of these wild ingredients can be found at some market somewhere, there is absolutely no better way to search for them than with your own feet, eyes, and heart.
Foraging Fundamentals and Etiquette
These aren’t the Ten Commandments, but they are some well-learned guidelines for safety and mindfulness in the wild:
Be 100 percent positive of identification. Use at least two field guides and, ideally, find the company of a knowledgeable club or person (see Guidebooks and Sources). Don’t depend upon common names; they vary wildly and imaginatively from region to region. Scientific names are not as daunting as you may think.
I gather a new wild food multiple times to study it well before I am actually comfortable eating it. Don’t rush into identification with wishful anticipation. Slowly, you’ll get to know the plant or mushroom at different stages of its growth. Distinguishing between a cucumber and a zucchini, or a lettuce and a cabbage, is far harder than identifying the wild foods in this book, so we can all do it. It’s also important to be familiar with plants like elderberries that may have delicious and poisonous parts on the same plant, something they share with tomatoes and rhubarb.
Eat small amounts to start. Everyone seems to be allergic to something. If you haven’t eaten the food, give your body a gentle introduction to it.
Have the right equipment, the most important of which is a good sense of direction, a compass, or a GPS, if you’re going far. It’s easy to become engrossed in hunting and forget your path. Rain gear, a knife, baskets, bags to separate your treasures, and good boots are all wise choices that are ultimately personal and specific to the plant or mushroom you seek. Something as simple as dry socks, a towel, or a stocked ice chest waiting at your car can be a beautiful thing.
Obviously, avoid gathering wild foods in polluted or sprayed areas. Roadsides can be excellent gathering areas, but I’d suggest gathering on the uphill side to avoid road effluent runoff.
Each plant in this book has slightly different gathering parameters. Some invading species like chickweed can and perhaps should be plundered wantonly. Others, like ramps or fiddleheads, must be conservatively harvested. The mushrooms in this book are saprophytic—meaning they grow on decaying matter—or mycorrhizal—those in long-term symbiosis with a tree. In both cases, you can harvest the mushroom without harming the remaining fungal body.
Don’t trespass on private land and be aware of gathering policies on public land. Where you do hunt, leave it looking like you were never there. Not only is this polite, but it keeps your spot secret.
We share these wild foods with wild creatures. Leave some for them and other people, for that matter. The natural abundance of many of these foods can be seductive, but do resist the urge to gather more than you can use. Wasting wild treasures because you couldn’t eat, cook, or process them is a sad thing.
Fight to preserve the wildlands you gather in. Loss of habitat is the main concern of many of us who forage. Loss of wild resources is invariably loss of habitat. Gathering wild foods will make you passionate about preserving and expanding the habitat that feeds you and the creatures within it.
Take children with you. Pass on this love of nature and the tradition of foraging to them. Be forewarned: The little monsters are inevitably better at this than we are.
In the tangled labyrinth of our food system, nature ultimately feeds us all. Yet with these wild foods, the food transportation distance is just the length of our arms. The sheer joy and immediacy of finding our own wild foods are an intoxicating contrast to the convoluted channels that most food flows through on its path into our homes. This is more than just another expensive gourmet adventure. A fat wallet won’t help you here.
The intimacy we have with wild foraging places goes beyond just the solace of nature. These places can fill your belly as well as your heart, just as they did our ancestors’. The beautiful wild foods here can all be gathered sustainably, but they can offer us even more than this. The homelands of these foods give us and, most important, our children a direct kinship with nature. As these places feed us, we foragers return the favor and become good stewards of our gathering lands. The person in a distant office calculating board feet of timber can be quite surprised at the passion of those of us who treasure that special creek with the fine elderberry trees, that stand of firs loaded with great chanterelle patches, or the onion-perfumed glade filled with ramps.
MORCHELLA ESCULENTA; M. ELATA; M. CONICA, AND OTHER MORCHELLA SPECIES COMPLEX
Morels can’t be trusted. They’ll be nowhere in sight when conditions are just perfect. You’ll hunt in all the ideal places and end up scorned with nothing but an empty basket. Then another day they’ll throw themselves at your feet, carpeting the ground before you. They are fickle, wily tricksters. But, God help us, we’re totally shameless in our passionate pursuit of these little dimpled darlings.
I know it’s ludicrous to ascribe such traits to a fungus. Yet I’ve scouted for hours at a time and returned to my truck empty-handed, only to find perky morels speckling the ground within twenty feet of the opposite side of the truck. You can almost hear the faint chuckling of the morel “divinity” as he tosses you these crumbs. Every serious morel hunter has had experiences like this. My fellow morel pickers and I often act out a silly superstition. After failing to spot any morels despite lengthy scouting, we declare to the woods or whomever is near, “I give up. There’s none here.” Quite often, the odd morel will pop into sight just as we surrender and turn to head back.
Now these troubles make me sound like an inept wooer of morels, but this isn’t so. I’m actually a superb morel hunter. You must get what we call a hunting eye honed to the visual image of a morel. At the beginning of every season you could begin a fool’s morel museum from the morel-mimicking assortment of misshapen pinecones, cone-shaped rocks, odd hunks of bark, and so on. Morel populations clearly fire up their decoy factory early in the season.
Describing a morel habitat is a challenge. Morels grow wherever they want to, but there are some generalizations possible. They love the sites of fires from the previous summer. They relish dying elm trees, diseased or dying white firs, sick ash trees, decrepit apple orchards, logged areas, poplars and cottonwoods along floodable creeks, bulldozed areas, raked campsites, and occasional concrete pours. In short, disaster makes them feel like fruiting. Although this predilection fits nicely into the personification of them as tricky, chances are that the morel fruiting body (the mushroom) appears spreading its spores for pure survival.
In this hemisphere, I’ve found morels from outside Toluca, Mexico, to the extremes of the Far North. The morels of the Midwest may not have the flashy glamour or abundance of the postfire morel carpets of the West, but they’ve proven to be as reliable as morels are able to be. A spring stomp through the hardwoods is traditional in much of the Midwest. The slick East and West Coast food crowd forget that Midwesterners have been smothering their steaks in morels for generations now.
Morels are so popular that most people know what they look like. They’re almost always referred to as looking like a sponge or an unfortunate brain or, I think, like a honeycomb made by the world’s sloppiest bees. Decades ago my parents, aunt, and uncle went morel hunting successfully with no more than a bad picture cut from the local paper. This was very, very dumb. Although the consequences are rarely dire, there are very vaguely “morelish” mushrooms that can confuse or even sicken some. Give your field guide a good cruise through and avoid the “false morel” gang of verpas and gyromitras.
Morels can be roughly grouped into three unruly piles. Because morels are notoriously difficult to identify to species for even morel scientists, we sort them into “naturals,” “burn” morels, and gray morels. (The magnificent gray morels get their own place in the summer chapter. See here.)
The naturals are the best-known group. They include the beloved blond morels, Morchella esculenta, and the black morel complex. As a general rule, these morels have thick or double walls, visible by looking at the cut stem. This gang is fleshier and unfortunately at times houses wormy critters. The naturals are common in the Midwest and in disturbed ground habitats, like raked campgrounds, elsewhere.
Most burn morels are regarded in the professional picker world as Morchella conica. These can erupt after forest fires, making normally sane people crawl through sad charcoal landscapes with big smiles on blackened faces. Conicas are on the small side, are very thin walled, and are generally worm free.
I’ve put chefs through blind tastings of various morel types. Inevitably, gray morels win, followed by burn morels, and then naturals. Morel tastings must be on the activities list in heaven.
CLEANING AND PREPARATION: Cut most of the stem off and look carefully for worms. Rinse each morel and give a swirl of water on the inside too (they’re hollow), then place on a towel. Don’t soak in water. You can cook the smaller ones whole, but cut larger ones in half like little boats, or even slice them across to make morel rings. Since morels are totally hollow, stuffing them is always a great idea (see here). If worms are present, there is no secret method to banish them. Placing morels in a sealable container and gassing with CO2 (a CO2 bath) does not work. The best of imperfect options is to put the mushrooms on a tray in the freezer for fifteen minutes, then remove them before frozen. The worms often crawl out of their hiding places.
STORAGE: Don’t dawdle, but, then, who can wait to eat these? After cleaning, refrigerate and use morels within a couple of days. The burn morels can easily last for five days.
IDEAL MORELS: An ideal morel is about the size of your thumb. If it is smaller than this, the morel usually hasn’t had chance enough to spread its spores. The spores should be free of dirt, and the cut end should be short in length, worm free, and show no yellowing. Tap the morel over a surface and make sure no worms fall out.
ALERT: Never eat uncooked morels! I’m serious; uncooked morels will make you quite ill. They contain a nasty compound that volatilizes in the cooking process. You really do want your morels to be well cooked.
Morel and Toasted Rye Bread Soup
Stuart Brioza, a great chef and fine man to roam the woods with, cooked his way to a Food & Wine best new chef award while he was chef in the tiny town of Ellsworth, Michigan. Ellsworth is in the heart of the territory used for the annual Morel Hunting World Championship. Through the spring Stuart could hunt morels by day and cook them by night. Stuart’s fluency with morels shows in this great yet simple soup, which distills the very essence of morels’ rich flavor with the surprisingly harmonious touch of rye. Stuart recommends washing your morels hours ahead in lukewarm water. If it isn’t a hot day, leave them out to dry out a bit.
Have all the ingredients ready before starting the soup as it comes together quickly once you begin.
[SERVES 4 TO 6]
11⁄2 pounds fresh morels, washed, stems trimmed to 1⁄4 inch
1⁄2 pound artisanal-style rye bread loaf, unsliced
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 8 pieces
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
51⁄2 cups homemade chicken broth
11⁄2 teaspoons molasses
4 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Position one rack in the top third of the oven and a second one in the bottom third.
Set aside 1⁄2 pound morels for garnish.
Closely trim the crust from the rye bread, ending up with just the brown outer pieces. Place the crusts on a baking sheet and set aside. Cut enough of the remaining bread into 1⁄4-inch cubes to measure 11⁄2 cups. Use any leftover bread for another dish.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and toss with the cubed bread. Place on a separate baking sheet and bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside.
Heat a small sauté pan over medium-high wheat. Add the caraway seeds and toast, stirring frequently, until they are fragrant and just starting to smoke, about 1 minute. Immediately turn out onto a clean baking sheet to cool. When cool, place the caraway seeds in the center of a 4-inch-square piece of cheesecloth. Fold in the sides and roll up tightly, making a compact package. Tie securely with kitchen string.
Have ready a blender and a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium saucepan.
Place the chicken broth, molasses, 21⁄2 teaspoons of the salt, and the caraway bundle in a large stockpot over high heat. Place the remaining 1 pound morels in a large bowl and splash with 2 tablespoons of the oil and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Toss or stir quickly to coat the morels evenly with the oil. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet.
When the broth reaches a simmer, place the morels and rye bread crusts in the oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the morels are wilted and the crusts are dried out and fragrant.
Meanwhile, when the broth reaches a full boil, cover the pot, turn down the heat, and hold at a simmer. When the morels and bread crusts are almost done, after about 6 minutes, turn the heat back up on the broth so that it is at a full boil when they come out of the oven.
Remove the morels and bread crusts from the oven. Add the morels, along with any pan juices, to the boiling broth. When the broth returns to a boil, add the bread crusts, pushing them down into the soup to submerge them completely. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, pushing and stirring the bread crusts into the broth. When the broth returns to a full boil, cover the pot and turn off the heat. Let sit for 2 minutes. Remove the caraway bundle, set it in a small bowl, and set aside.
Place half the soup in a blender. Start at the lowest speed and blend for 1 minute. Increase the speed by one level and continue blending until the soup is smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Do not blend on high—the mixture will become too thick. Pour the mixture through the strainer into the saucepan, pushing down with the bottom of a ladle to extract all the liquid. Discard the solids. Repeat with the remaining soup. Squeeze the caraway bundle into the soup, extracting all the liquid, then discard.
Add the remaining 7 tablespoons butter to the soup all at once, whisking continuously until the butter is melted and blended into the soup. Hold in a warm place.
Toss the reserved 1⁄2 pound morels with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the morels are wilted and fragrant.
While the morels are cooking bring the soup just to a boil, whisking frequently, then hold at a simmer.
Divide the soup among 4 to 6 bowls and top with the morels and the reserved croutons.
TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
The soup and croutons can be made a day ahead. Cook the final morel garnish just before serving the soup. Store the croutons in an airtight container at room temperature. Store the soup in a closed container in the refrigerator.
SUBSTITUTIONS AND VARIATIONS
Dried morels can be substituted for fresh. They must be thoroughly rinsed to remove any sand or grit before using. Place 3 ounces dried morels into the broth, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let sit for 30 minutes. Strain out the morels. Reserve some for the final garnish. Skip the step of cooking the morels in the oven, adding them directly to the broth with the toasted bread crusts. For the garnish, sauté the reserved morels in a little butter or olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Canned chicken or vegetable broth can be used instead of the homemade chicken broth. Use half the salt called for in the broth, then taste for seasoning when the soup is finished, adjusting as needed.
Ramp greens, slivered and sautéed or deep-fried, can be used as a garnish. For a heartier garnish, add slivered smoked duck breast along with the morels and croutons.
This is it. This is simply the best way to cook morels. Whether you’re at a campfire cooking the day’s pickings or at your backyard BBQ, get out a grill basket and cook until the accordion pleats of each morel have a touch of crispy about them. Pile the morels on grilled bread, pour a big glass of zinfandel, then eat, drink, and pity the fools who aren’t eating this tonight.
[SERVES 4 TO 6]
11⁄2 pounds large fresh morels (more than 3 inches), cleaned and cut in half vertically
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Prepare a grill to medium heat.
Toss the morels with the butter, garlic, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Place the morels in a grill basket and grill, tossing the morels occasionally, until they are golden brown and crisped around the edges, 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the fire.
Taste for seasoning, adjust as needed, and serve immediately.
Pan-Roasted Wild Salmon with Morels and Fava Beans
Quintessential flavors of spring come together in this simple but elegant dish. Salmon, morels, and fava beans have a natural affinity for one another, showing up around the same time each spring as they do. The “meaty” morels are a great match with the richness of the wild salmon, and the fava beans bring the fresh green taste of early spring to the mix. Everything for the dish can be prepared ahead and finished at the last minute, making this a great dish for entertaining.
[SERVES 4 TO 6]
1 pound fava beans, shelled
1⁄2 pound fresh morels, cleaned
4 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
2 medium shallots, finely minced (about 1⁄4 cup)
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic (1 large or 2 small cloves)
11⁄2 cups chicken broth
Four 6-ounce wild salmon fillets, skin on, pin bones removed
1⁄2 cup crème fraîche
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh chives, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley
Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Have ready a bowl of water and ice nearby. Add the fava beans to the pot and cook for 3 minutes. Drain and place immediately in the ice water. When cool, peel and set aside the beans.
Trim the stems on the morels to 1⁄4 inch, saving the trimmings. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the morels, tossing to coat evenly with the oil. Add 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt and 1⁄8 teaspoon of the pepper. Cook until the morels have released their liquid, then continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated. Add 1 teaspoon of the shallots and the garlic to the pan and cook for 1 minute. Remove the morels from the pan and hold in a warm place. Set aside the sauté pan to use for finishing the sauce.
Place the chicken broth, morel trimmings, and the remaining shallots in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until the mixture is reduced to 1⁄2 cup. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and set aside.
Place the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Have a lid nearby that fits the sauté pan. Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper.
When the oil is hot, place the fillets in the pan, skin side up. Make sure they are not touching. Cook until the bottoms of the fillets are golden brown and the flesh is just starting to turn color as it cooks. You will see this by looking or gently lifting the fillets with a spatula. Do not turn over the fillets. Cover the sauté pan and turn down the heat to low. This technique is called unilaterale and creates the contrast of a golden, crispy crust with tender, steamed flesh. Do not remove the lid while the fillets are cooking. Cook for 6 to 8 more minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Finish the sauce while the salmon is cooking.
Place the reserved sauté pan over medium heat. Add the strained chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes to reduce the broth slightly, then whisk in the crème fraîche, lemon juice, the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon salt, and the remaining 1⁄8 teaspoon pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down to a brisk simmer and cook until the sauce is just starting to thicken, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the reserved fava beans and morels and heat them through. Add the chives and parsley. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Hold in a warm place until the salmon is cooked.
Peel the skin off the salmon fillets in the pan. Using a flat spatula, gently remove the fillets from the pan, turning them over to serve them seared side up. Place on serving plates and spoon the fava bean and morel sauce around or over the top of each fillet. Sprinkle with chives.
TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
If using canned chicken broth, use half the salt called for in the recipe, then taste for seasoning just before serving. Vegetable or mushroom broth can also be substituted.
SUBSTITUTIONS AND VARIATIONS
Dried morels can be substituted for the fresh. They must be thoroughly rinsed to remove any sand or grit before using. Soak 11⁄2 ounces dried morels in a bowl of hot water for 10 minutes to rehydrate, then proceed as for fresh in the recipe.
Heavy cream can be substituted for the crème fraîche. It will need a few more minutes of cooking time to reduce and thicken.
Fresh or frozen peas can be substituted for the fava beans. Cook briefly, just until tender, before using in the recipe.
This recipe can also be made with halibut or other firm-fleshed fish. Adjust cooking times for thinner fillets.
Mateo’s Roasted Veal Chop with Morel and Cacao Sauce
Mateo’s Roasted Veal Chop with Morel and Cacao Sauce
Many talented chefs have flowed from the kitchen of chef Julian Serrano. When he left San Francisco to open Picasso (launching the food explosion in Las Vegas), a diaspora of his talented protégés occurred in the West. Mateo Granitas was one of that tribe. Many years ago I marched into Mateo’s new kitchen. He thrust a sauce-filled spoon at me. “Taste,” he ordered. I did. It was the best morel sauce I’d ever had. Like a diabolical teacher, he grinned and asked, “What is it?”
“Could it possibly be chocolate? Where are you from, Mateo?” I asked.
Mateo turned his head, displaying his magnificent nose-rich profile, and retorted, “Where do you think?”
This gifted Yucateco could finally add his Mayan roots to his French training. The straight sugar-free cacao he used was grown by his mother in a cenote (“sinkhole”) near Uxmal. With this sauce he had welded natural savory cacao to intense beef stock. I truly love it. Through the years I haven’t been able to eat a morel without tasting a shadow of the cacao flavor that Mateo rightly targeted as a flavor component of morels. This dish tastes regal and reminds me that chocolate was once reserved for Mayan royalty. The triangle of morels, savory cacao, and meat in this dish is luxuriousness itself.
Four 10- to 12-ounce veal rib chops
1 tablespoon cocoa nibs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely minced
1⁄2 pound fresh morels, cleaned, stems trimmed to 1⁄4 inch
2 tablespoons Madeira
3 ounces veal demi-glace
3 tablespoons beef broth
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely grated high-quality unsweetened chocolate
1 tablespoon finely grated high-quality 70% bittersweet chocolate
1⁄8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cloves
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
Fleur de sel
Position a rack in the center of the oven.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Place the veal rib chops on a baking sheet.
Place the cocoa nibs on a cutting board and, using a sharp knife, chop through them until they are the texture of coarse-ground pepper. Reserve 1⁄2 teaspoon of the chopped nibs. Sprinkle the remaining nibs evenly over the surface of the veal chops. If you will be cooking the chops within an hour, leave them at room temperature. If not, refrigerate them and bring them out 1 hour before cooking.
Place the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When the butter is just starting to turn golden brown, add the shallot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the shallot is slightly caramelized and tender, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the morels to the pan and stir to coat them evenly with the butter and shallot. Continue cooking until the morels are tender and starting to caramelize, 4 to 5 more minutes. (If you are using fresh morels, remove them from the pan at this point and set aside. If using dried morels, leave them in the pan and continue.) Add the Madeira and cook, stirring, until it has almost evaporated. Add the demi-glace and beef broth to the pan. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the veal stock has reduced a bit, then stir in the cream. Bring back to a boil, then turn down the heat to a vigorous simmer.
Stir in the unsweetened chocolate, the 70 percent chocolate, the cinnamon, and the cloves. Stir briskly until the chocolates are melted into the cream. Stir in the reserved cocoa nibs. (Add the fresh morels back to the sauce at this point.) Cook until the sauce is thick and evenly colored, 3 to 4 more minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and hold in a warm place while you cook the rib chops.
Place the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Have a large baking sheet or shallow roasting pan lined with a rack nearby. When the oil is hot, add the veal chops to the sauté pan, being careful not to crowd the pan. You may have to cook them in batches. Brown on each side, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove to the baking sheet or roasting pan after they are browned.
Place the chops in the oven and roast until the internal temperature is 125°F for rare, about 15 minutes, or 135°F for medium rare, 5 to 6 more minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Reheat the sauce over low heat. Spoon the sauce over and around the veal chops and top with a sprinkling of fleur de sel.
TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
Use a Microplane to grate the chocolates. The fine texture will melt into the sauce more evenly.
Veal demi-glace can be found in the freezer section of grocery stores. Its richness adds to the velvety texture of this sauce. Thaw before using.
SUBSTITUTIONS AND VARIATIONS
Dried morels can be substituted for the fresh. They must be thoroughly rinsed to remove any sand or grit before using. Soak 11⁄2 ounces dried morels in a bowl of hot water for 10 minutes. Lift out of the water, leaving any dirt behind, squeeze dry, and proceed as for the fresh morels.
This sauce would also work with pork chops or chicken breasts.
Ah, eau de ramp! Let others daub themselves with attar of roses. A real food person’s head is spun by ramp cologne. Looking as they do like sweet lilies of the valley, ramps could not be more surprising. They are a notoriously smelly wild onion. These, our native wild leeks, are treasured by diners at the grandest of restaurants as well as by self-proclaimed hillbillies in the “rampuncious” ramp festivals that spread across West Virginia, ramp mecca, in April and May.
These small-town festivals touch my heart . . . and nose as well. That so many communities gather in a rite of spring to celebrate the ramp speaks highly of these hill folk. While strong onion essence and smoky bacon fill the air, an old medicinal tradition lies beneath the party. Ramps have long been regarded as a spring tonic in rural areas. With all the health virtues of onions and a nice blast of vitamin C, all medicine should be this delicious.
There is a stigma attached to “hillbilly” ramp eating. Schoolteachers of a more modern tradition were known to exile children who smelled of ramps. One of my customers, Tim Wheatley, now in the glamorous Las Vegas food world, grew up with his North Carolina family feasting madly on ramps on Saturdays only. They couldn’t eat them Monday through Friday because of school, or on Sunday because of church. In those recent but more rigid times, the restrictions must have been very frustrating, because the season is a brief four to six weeks.
Wild onions or garlic of one species or another grow all over the world. They are linked by the distinct “oniony” aroma signature that also advertises their safety.
The luxurious place in which ramps find themselves situated in the culinary world is similar to their natural environment. They grow in rich, moist glades with fertile soils. Most in the culinary world place ramps at the top of the wild onion world. Other types of wild onions range far and wide, however. Once, after an epic day of morel gathering at Devils Gap with my pal Patrick, we sat bone tired on an old lava flow, looking over a magnificent stretch of the Sierras. Just below us, veins of small pink flowers filled cracks in the old lava. As we leaned over to look, the smell was adequate introduction. All the dainty pink posies were wild onions emerging from a hardscrabble life among the rocks. We pried out a few bulbs and cooked them on the fire with some of the morels from our mighty haul that day.
Whether they are the rugged little pink onions or the lush hollows of ramps, they are not limitless, however. The carpets of ramps that line the sides of creeks in much of the central United States do not go on forever. Experienced gatherers know to remove only part of the ramp clumps with their ramp hoes or shovels and to leave the rest of the cluster to fill in the gap the following season.
In traditional American cooking, ramps have eggs, bacon, and potatoes as favorite dance partners. One classic hill country recipe calls for local trout, split and stuffed with whole ramps, to be wrapped in foil and tossed on the grill. The chefs in my world have embraced pickled ramps as a classic creation of spring.
CLEANING AND PREPARATION: Clean the dirt from the ramp base by blasting the dirt off with a hose. Leave the root tendrils on. Gently mist the leaves. Put the ramps upright in a small amount of water like smelly flowers.
COOKING METHODS: Grilling lightly oiled whole ramps or pickling (see here) are classic ways to prepare ramps.
STORAGE: Keep them far from the chocolate cake in your refrigerator. They will keep for five days this way after harvest.
IDEAL RAMPS: They will have fresh leaves with no trace of wilting or slime. The stalk will be larger than a pencil and smaller than a cigar. Whether to choose a stalk that is straight or beginning to form a bulbous shape, as it does later in the season, is personal preference.
Ramp and Shrimp Grits
Ramp and Shrimp Grits
This plate is prettier than an Easter egg. Perhaps the only enhancement is for the friends around your table to be drinking champagne while attired in pink or purple to complete the lovely colors of the dish.
Ramps have a reputation for furious “onioniness,” and yet they have a warm and gentle side too. That’s just what you’ll find in this ramp pesto. The intense green of these ramp pesto grits comes from the subtle-flavored ramp leaves. The jaunty pink shrimp’s taste is not at all swamped by the bed of rampy green grits.
Consider making extra ramp pesto and squirreling it away for tasty and vibrant pastas, potatoes, or rice. This dish just isn’t complete without a hunk of great bread to chase the grits around the plate.
[SERVES 4 TO 6]
1 pound medium or large shrimp, shells on
1⁄4 cup dry white wine
1 shallot, thinly sliced
11⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup quick-cooking grits
4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 cup Ramp Pesto
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
2 tablespoons fresh chive pieces (1⁄2 inch)
Peel and devein the shrimp, saving the shells.
Place the shrimp shells in a medium saucepan. Add the white wine, shallot, and 4 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to a bubbling simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the shells steep in the liquid for 10 minutes.