A few evenings back, when I finally wandered into the kitchen to start thinking about dinner, I found lying on the counter a plastic Pepperidge Farm bread bag containing a few handfuls of fresh chanterelles. I knew without having to ask that they'd come from Rob, the fellow with whom my husband works building stone walls.
Rob is an amateur mushroomer with a talent for finding morels and chanterelles. We've talked about mushrooming a lot; his mentor, Hank Tschernitz, is a fungal forager of some local renown.
Hank was, for close to 30 years, chef/owner of the Three Clock Inn here in town. Under his reign, and during those years, it was one of very few places in the area where one could go for a fine meal. Much has changed; good restaurants have sprouted up around here like, well, mushrooms, and that specific restaurant has changed hands and gone downhill, back up, and downhill again. It's the very restaurant where I did my hard time on the line (during its up period).
Although technically retired, Hank can't quite stay away from the Inn, and often drops in to wash dishes or chop vegetables for a few hours in the quiet of the afternoon prep. During the summer, he forages for mushrooms and sells them to the Inn and a few other restaurants. When I worked at the Inn, Hank might show up on a Sunday afternoon with close to 10 pounds of chanterelles, all harvested within a few hours. What I mean to suggest is that Hank knows where chanterelles grow best. And he's not telling anyone where that is, though legions have tried to pry it out of him (and some have tried tailing him, to no avail...he's a wily thing). Rob happens to rent a small garage apartment from Hank, and Hank has taught him the rudiments of mushrooming, but never given up the motherlode. He's getting on in years, Hank; I'm guessing he's in his eighties, though still active and healthy. Rob's (and my) hope is that Hank will pass his secret on to him before he passes on himself.
I've learned a thing or two about mushrooming myself, and I've located a small patch of chanterelles and also some black trumpets. They've been slug-eaten and otherwise deteriorated when I've found them, and not worth harvesting. I've even identified a sizeable Bear's Head Tooth, but it was dry and bug-infested; the same tree a year later was bare of any treasure. Until I manage to get it right, I'll rely on the kindness of others for wild mushrooms.
I'd like to say I hopped right to it and turned them into dinner but, oh my brothers and sisters, it had been a long and grueling day for me. We did what we do a little too often this time of year and went out to dinner, though not before I'd carefully picked over the mushrooms (and removed a small slug, who left to his own devices would have destroyed them overnight), transferred them to a large plastic container gently lined with paper towel, and placed them – not quite covered – in the fridge.
Because I get them so rarely, I like to treat chanterelles as simply as possible, the better to fully appreciate their woodsy fruity character. Lots of butter, a little bit of shallot, a sprinkling of salt and pepper. That's it. To a medium-hot pan, add a good glob of butter, let it melt and when it foams slightly, throw in some fine slivers of shallot. When they're just translucent, add the cleaned chanterelles (sliced or torn, if you wish) and sauté them until they start to caramelize at the edges. Be sure the pan is hot enough and don't crowd the mushrooms – you don't want them to give up liquid and steam themselves.
Other foraging turned up a pair of diminutive strip steaks from a local grass-fed cow, lovely free-range eggs from Anjali Farms (when Emmett heard I had chanterelles, he presented me with a beautiful cluster of his own shallots to cook with them), the first of the season's sweet corn, a wood-fired-oven-baked pain au levain, and some gorgeous local heavy cream which I used to make my own cultured butter (according to the current vogue – that for a future post).
I made two meals in support of the chanterelles. Dinner was steak with chanterelles and steamed sweet corn with butter. I'm still on a fence about this free-range grass-fed beef. It has so little fat and has to be handled with kid gloves (I carefully seared it on both sides, then finished it in the oven to just past rare, with a good glob of butter on top) and even so it was chewy as hell. The flavor certainly redeems it, though. And someday in the not-so-distant future (fodder for another post: then end of cheap oil) it may be all we can get, eh?
I was selfish and saved a few of those little gems for a solo breakfast: slow-scrambled eggs with a LOT of butter worked in towards the end, more sautéed chanterelles, toasted pain au levain with even more butter and some of my hoarded sun-cooked black raspberry jam...and good strong coffee.