Boullion of the Woods

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BOTW before grinding.

If you’re a mushroom forager, Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus spp.) aren’t really the first fungi that spring to mind when thinking about drying the harvest. Indeed, the appearance of a slightly-too-far-gone specimen is something of a wild food cliché, sometimes accompanied by gags of the “no spring chicken” variety. Hilarious.

When they are fresh, it is their tenderness, as well as their flavor that encourages comparisons with poultry. Newly-emerged Laetiporus can be stir- or deep-fried to resemble chicken breast meat to a very credible degree. When they are still fresh but not quite as soft, I can still deep-fry them or use them in a slow-cooked dish with great results. They can also be used at this point, and perhaps a little further along, to make a great mushroom and herb powder that substitutes quite handily for powdered or cubed chicken bouillon.

First, the mushrooms should be dried in a dehydrator or by placing on wire racks in a place with a great deal of air movement and not much humidity. Once they are dried quite thoroughly they can be made into the BOTW or left in glass or plastic jars bags until ready to be ground. You will get the most optimal results by using the freshest mushrooms. If the fungus is really quite dry when you encounter it, it may already have lost too much of its flavor to be saved. If you prepare this, also try the test mentioned below and see if the flavor is adequate.

Combine in a food processor :

4 oz. dried chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus spp.)

2 tbs good-quality sea salt

1/4 cup dried wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) leaf

2 tbs dried sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) leaf

Pulse and then process until the product resembles semolina or corn meal.

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Ground BOTW.

To test the flavor, dissolve a small amount in a coffee mug full of hot water. If the flavor resembles chicken broth, you’re good to go.

As far as substitutions, you can use oregano in lieu of wild bergamot, and perhaps thyme or bay leaf in half the quantity listed to substitute for sweetfern. The flavor won’t be exactly the same, but should still serve amiably.  You may wish to add more salt to more closely approximate dried chicken bouillon (which is extremely salty), but I usually find it more helpful to add salt to the dish directly, leaving this powder with just enough salt content to use as a broth base without making it too salty to add to dishes with abandon.

Texture of the ground powder is a consideration. I like to leave it a bit coarse, even allowing for the occasional lentil-sized nugget of Laetiporus to go unground. These larger bits can always be strained out of a broth later if I am looking for consommé-like refinement. More often I am using BOTW to add to meatballs or stews, or as a base for a ramen bowl. In these cases, small chunks of mushroom are a bonus rather than a hindrance. If you prefer it finer, simply grind until it is as fine as white flour.

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Ramen made with BOTW, shredded parsley root, cooked leeks and parsley root leaf.

To use as a soup base (it makes a lovely ramen powder), use 1 tbs to 2 cups of water. You can also use it to enhance a tired or weak broth by adding in the same ratio or slightly less. Be careful when adding to quickly-boiling water or broth, as the BOTW will make the hot liquid tend to foam vigorously if the heat is too high. The coarser the grind, the more likely you are to use it as a substitute for breadcrumbs in dishes with good success. In a heavily-breaded dish I may add a couple of tablespoons of BOTW for every cup of panko or breadcrumbs.

There are a myriad of other uses for BOTW, from adding to soups or stews to savory bread and pancake mixes, or adding to liquid sauces which will be strained in lieu of broth. The powder is relatively low in salt, so can be used as a lower-salt substitute or liason for dishes in which savory flavor is called for but salt must be kept to a minimum. BOTW can also substitute in any recipe that calls for ground dried mushrooms or mushroom powder. Bear in mind its’ salt content while using, and increase or decrease the salt content in the initial grind accordingly.

As I post more recipes using this handy kitchen helper I will post them here, for now :

Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs”

 

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Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs”

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Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs” with Acorn & Potato “Burgers” – two winter favorites

I love the humble Oyster Mushroom (Pleuratus ostreatus and others) : it appears in our area, in one incarnation or another, in almost every season. It’s dependability reduces it to a minor note in the logs of mushroom collectors – it can often assuage the hurt of not finding more esteemed mushrooms, such as morels in spring or maitake in fall, but few people seem to get excited about it. Some mushroom hunters seem to dismiss or even despise it, but I adore it. While it may not have the deep, rich flavor of a porcini it is a reliable workhorse mushroom and can stand in for more exotic or laudable fungi in spare seasons. More importantly for my needs, it serves admirably as the basis for rich stocks and essences, dries well, and appears in such quantity that it can be used to make mushroom ketchup or soy sauce or put up as mushroom pickles.

Beyond all these virtues, it has a quality that isn’t often celebrated even by its’ enthusiasts, at least not in Western food culture : oysters have a firm, dense texture. While they can be reduced down, or even rendered crisp or dry with enough cooking, the better option is to use them in recipes that celebrate this texture. This is just one such recipe, operating on the principle that finely chopped oysters resemble meat when cooked quickly, allowing their natural texture and moisture-retention to become a quality that assists in a dish with an excellent flavor and a remarkable similarity to meat-based polpette.

Conventionally-grown or home-grown oyster mushrooms can of course be substituted in this dish, you may also find it works with the conventional button mushroom of the supermarket. I recommend using the brown variety, often labelled “Cremini” as they have a bit more structure. If collecting wild oyster mushrooms or harvesting home-grown ones, you will want to collect them when they are firm and have attained at least most of their full growth, but before they become very dry, yellow, and fragile. You will also want to avoid collecting water-logged specimens, or if you do being sure to dry them and squeeze them of excess moisture first.

Combine in a mixing bowl :

5 oz oyster mushrooms, very finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor

3-4 oz onion, grated and squeezed free of liquid or pulsed in a food processor

1/2 cup breadcrumbs, preferably homemade

2 tbs mushroom powder or “bouillon of the woods” (see note)

1-2 eggs or equivalent egg substitute

salt to taste

dashes of mushroom soy, soy, maggi seasoning, or worchestershire sauce

herbs or dried herbs, if desired

freshly ground black pepper or american juniper, if desired

Mix the ingredients with your hands and shape into golf ball-sized “meatballs.” There should be about 12. This recipe can be doubled, tripled, etc. I have deliberately kept the size of the batch in this recipe small, so that you can experiment with the preparation of it and determine how best to process and cook the meatballs. I personally favor chopping the oyster mushrooms by hand, finding that the food processor renders far too uniform a product. If resemblance to meat is your goal with this recipe, however, that may be the route you want to go. I also recommend using both mushroom soy and a dash or two of maggi or worchestershire.

“Bouillon of the woods” is a simple preparation that I make as often as I find chicken of the woods fungi (Laetiporus spp.) that are just a bit too far gone to serve as is. A simple dried mushroom powder can be substituted – for which all you need to do is to grind dried mushrooms in a spice grinder. You may use wild mushrooms you have collected and dehydrated yourself, or dried mushrooms from the fancy or conventional supermarket (it’s actually a fantastic use for the dust or shake found in the bottom of bags of purchased dried mushrooms). For the preparation of my “bouillon of the woods,” I add a pinch or two of salt and a little crumbled wild bergamot, with perhaps another spice or two if desired, to a base of dried and ground chicken of the woods. It is meant to resemble the bouillon cubes found in supermarkets, but in a powder form and with much less salt. Another possible substitute if you don’t have any dried or powdered mushrooms is to use a purchased mushroom bouillon cube, such as the Telma brand from Israel. If a commercial product is used, you will likely want to reduce the amount of salt added.

Once assembled, these can be baked in hot oven, grilled or fried in vegetable oil or other fat. I prefer the latter two options, which tend to keep the insides moist while browning the outside nicely. You can also cook them in a sauce, but I would recommend rolling the shaped meatballs in either a little flour or extra breadcrumbs and then frying first before doing so. If you encounter difficulty in keeping the meatballs together, you may have had too much moisture in your mushrooms. I find that even conventionally-grown mushrooms require a little bit of drying before incorporating into polpette.

While these are quite tasty on their own, especially with a nice sauce for dipping as an appetizer (I love them with blackhaw ketchup), they can also be substituted for pork, beef, or veal meatballs in classic Italian, European, or Asian cuisine dishes. One of my personal favorite ways to serve them is in a dish inspired by Marcella Hazan’s recipe for winter pork meatballs smothered in savoy cabbage.

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the below recipe made with kale and cabbage greens and romaine lettuce

After cooking the meatballs, I cover them to keep them warm and then in a sautée pan heat a little oil or butter. To this I add whatever greens I have available, whether wild or conventionally cultivated, adding the firmer or denser greens first and the more fragile ones later. Cauliflower greens, cabbage, kale, collards and the like are cooked a bit longer, and then blanched wild mustards, wintercress, dandelion greens or even raw watercress or lettuce are added with minced garlic once the firmer greens have softened. A minute or two later, the “meatballs” are then returned to the pan with a little white wine, and perhaps a splash of balsamic or blackhaw vinegar, and the whole is covered until heated all the way through.

This is of course, just one way to do it…

Tree Crab Cakes

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About the name :

The Hericium genus of edible fungi grow wild throughout much of the Eastern US. And while they aren’t common, they are unique. When fresh they have a tender, fleshy texture and delicate flavor strongly reminiscent of shellfish, particularly crab. They grow on living trees or dead wood, hence “Tree Crab.”

The recipe itself is one I plundered from my first real (some would say only real) restaurant job. You know, I’m not even sure it was a real job, come to think of it. But the recipe is very very real, at least in the sense that it exists as a handwritten list of ingredients that I ran off with when we closed. In the lovely angular script of my kitchen manager Amy (although it isn’t her recipe either) :

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I like that egg has an egg stain next to it. Anyway, for about fifteen years I’ve carried these old sheets of notebook paper with all the lists of ingredients for the recipes of Chez Nameless around but the one that I have made time and time again is this one, never exactly the same as we made it then but never very different. Having acknowledged my theft, here is the recipe.

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Combine in a mixing bowl :

12 oz. Hericium genus fungus (Lions Mane, Bears Head Tooth, etc), shredded into small pieces by hand, sliced thin if too firm for shredding

4 oz red onion, minced

2 oz shallot, minced

handful of chopped shiso

handful of chopped cilantro

1-2 tbs of tuong ot toi 

2-4 tbs of thai sweet chili sauce

*There is no egg. Don’t add any eggs.

**Adjust the amount of sauces used based on your own taste and the moisture content (see below).

Combine these ingredients and mix them together very well, preferably with your hands.

Add enough breadcrumbs to dry out the mixture slightly. The amount will vary depending on how much liquid is in the fungus. You will have to use your own judgement, but the normal range is between a half cup and full cup.

Shape the mix into patties of whatever size you prefer, firming them with your hands. If the mix is too watery, add more crumbs. If it is too dry add more sauce.

Roll or coat the patties in panko or more breadcrumbs and prepare hot oil for frying. I usually use just a small amount of oil in the pan, rather than deep frying but either will work. Fry until golden brown.

At this point you may freeze the cakes for later serving. You may also finish them by placing them in a very hot oven or under a broiler. Finish them at very high heat and very quickly. In this way the moisture content and crispiness will both be ideal.

Oh and of course, this also works with “real” crab.

Enjoy.

Chanterelle Sauce No. 1

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This is a simple sauce that tastes creamy and luxurious without using heavy cream – highlighting the natural flavor of some of the seasons’ finest wild mushrooms. You can use any kind of chanterelle or craterellus mushroom for this, but the sauce is at its’ best and most pleasing to the eye when a mix of different, colorful mushrooms is used. In the variation pictured above we used black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides) and golden chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius).

As always, prepare everything in advance and have handy when making a sauce so you aren’t rushing around chopping shallots or looking for sour cream when the time comes to add it.

Melt / heat in a sautee pan:

2 tbs butter or oil

Add :

1 tbs. whole field garlic bulbils or conventional or field garlic cloves, minced

2-3 oz shallots, finely chopped

A grating of fresh nutmeg

Sautee the onions and garlic until softened, then add:

1/2 lb. of chanterelle or craterellus mushrooms, chopped into similar-sized pieces

NB >>> Different mushrooms will cook at different times, so if using a mix, they should be added one at a time. I usually find that golden chanterelles take the longest and horn of plenty the shortest.

Cook the mushrooms until they are softened but not yet completely tender, and add:

1 tbs. potato starch (corn starch may also be used. Flour can be used but must be well-cooked to avoid leaving an off taste)

Stir and sautee for 1-2 minutes, then add, slowly, mixing to incorporate :

1 1/2 cups hot whole milk, preferably fresh and of very good quality

Cook while slowly adding the milk for fifteen minutes or so. Add seasoning to taste while the sauce reduces a bit. If it becomes to thick and/or is cooking too fast add 1-2 stock cubes or ice cubes and reduce heat if needed. Season with :

Freshly ground black or white pepper to taste (optional)

Salt to taste (not optional)

Fresh or good quality dried thyme to taste

Once the sauce is close to the desired consistency and the mushrooms are mouth-tender, remove the sauce from the heat. If it is very hot, allow to cool a bit before adding :

1/2 cup sour cream, preferably at room temperature

Snipped chives if desired

Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve immediately.

If not eating immediately, allow the sauce to cool on its’ own without adding the sour cream. When serving, reheat and then stir the sour cream in, with chives if desired.

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Craterellus cornucopioides being prepared

There are of course any number of herbs or other seasonings that could be added to this sauce, but in this its’ simplest form I’ve used only the classic mushroom herb thyme and a bit of nutmeg and optionally pepper. Fresh parsley or celery leaf in small, finely-chopped quantities are a nice addition for a bit more green color. One could add a stronger herb as well such as oregano or tarragon if it seems appropriate for the dish it is to be used with.

The temptation with a sauce this rich is to toss pasta in it, and revel in the sumptuous texture combination of chanterelle and toothsome starch. And I won’t deny that it is a fine sauce to serve with a starch – heavenly with freshly-made egg noodles, homemade biscuits (a nice vegetarian replacement for Southern-style sausage gravy), even simple buttered rice. Some more interesting uses? A cream sauce for greens or a green vegetable, a base sauce for a pizza, on top of heated stuffed vegetables or grape leaves, especially ones filled with rice or grains, on top of a hearty bowl of cooked, mashed lentils or pulses, and a dynamite partner with polenta. I have even eaten this on top of some scrambled eggs with a bit of cheese and green herbs and had no complaints about the experience.

Makes a little over 2 cups of sauce.

Edible Vs. Palatable

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When it comes to enjoyment or dislike of various flavors, no two people will ever completely resonate. For each of us, the answer to whether a particular food (wild or domesticated) is edible, palatable or actively distasteful is always going to be different.

Wild plants place us in a particularly easy to resolve area of this conversation. If something is technically edible but we don’t enjoy it, we leave it uncollected for those who do. For example, I actively dislike the berries of the wildly invasive Japanese barberry. I sincerely doubt that a time will come in my life when I will need this overwintering berry to survive. But if I ever did, you can bet that I would regard them as palatable. And then their sheer abundance would then be a blessing rather than a curse.

So by “palatable” in a wild plants context we are usually indicating a plant we aren’t interested in collecting. The distinction is an important one to bear in mind when studying and learning new plants and mushrooms because it often keeps us from over-harvesting or attempting crazy, time-intensive kitchen preparations trying to properly cook something we’ve learned is “edible.” It’s another reason why multiple sourcing any wild plant or mushroom is so very critical. In general, one will begin to get a sense of the limitations of using or preparing one’s catch by the widespread consensus on whether something is edible or merely palatable.

Into the latter category one will often find mushrooms and plants whose use is classified as “technically edible” or “medicinal.” The birch polypore mushroom (Piptoporus betulinus, pictured above) could be considered both. It’s an abundant late fall to winter mushroom in our area and can be used to make a tea for drinking or a broth for cooking. Technically, I could probably figure out a way to reduce its spongy, dense body into something that could pass through my body. But it would require such an expenditure of energy that it’s unlikely I’ll ever conduct the experiment. I’m content with steeping and infusing it, where it’s neither palatable nor distasteful but nicely bitter and useful for cooking and health.

When does an otherwise excellent edible become merely palatable? Beyond matters of taste, all foods require proper preparation to be delicious rather than simply digestible. I’m pretty sure we’ve all had (and made) a tasteless potato at some point in our lives, but then we discover how to cook them. The same is true of wild plants–each new ingredient must be learned on its’ own. It is at this point that comparisons to domesticated plants and cooking directions such as “prepare like asparagus” become ineffectual. One must learn to prepare nettles like nettles, not like spinach. Needless to say, the proper preparation is especially important to bear in mind when elements of toxicity are involved, as with milkweed or pokeweed. More often than not though, it is the difference between something one enjoys eating and something one merely gets through.