Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Double Crunch

Cinnamon Chanterelle

            2011 has been a summer of bounty in New Jersey. Weekly rain is making this year’s mushroom crop outstanding. There’s everything in the woods: dangerous amanita, colorful russula, and enough members of the chanterelle family to hold reunions. In my house we dine on fungi daily.
Chanterelles in the rinse bowl

            But that may change. The10-day weather forecast calls for low humidity, hot days and no precip. In other words, the foraging season is about to suffer a major crunch.

            In response I’ve doubled my efforts, spending yesterday afternoon kneeling in a chanterelle patch and making plans for a long excursion tomorrow. I’ve even bent my own rules and sampled a species I’d sworn off: Lactarius hygrophoroides.

L hygrophoroides doing its (lactating) thing

Lactarius is an interesting genus. “Milky mushrooms” in the vernacular, they do as their name implies and exude a thick sap-like “milk” when cut or injured. Some, like the species in question, lactate white – startling to non-fungiphiles (and guaranteed to elicit an “Ewwwww!” from them). Others seep yellow, even blue. Not all species are edible (some saps are hotter than habañero peppers, I’m told); there’s even one that smells and tastes like maple sugar (the Candy Cap, or L. rubidus)

L. hygrophoroides is considered a choice edible, so in my early years of mushrooming I sought them out. They’re not hard to ID, with a strikingly beautiful cap and a distinctive gill pattern. But I found them very hard to enjoy. Every time I cooked them they turned out crunchy as walnuts, and I for one do not appreciate crunchy mushrooms.

            Fast-forward to this summer and a shallow valley filled with beech. There, young and fresh and almost dirt-free, one of the largest “blooms” of L hygrophoroides I’d ever seen. (Dirt free is important. Cleaning grit from that sticky “milk” is about as much fun as removing bubble gum from an infant’s hair). As I stood there scratching my chin, an old idea resurfaced: why not turn standard wisdom upside-down and fry them at a low, low temperature for a long, long time?

            This idea, sort of a high-fat version of sous-vide cooking, had come to me a few weeks ago with the appearance of our first chanterelles. All my chanterelle creations of 2010 had been tough, and I’d wondered if a drastic alteration of standard caramelizing methods might make them better. Low heat and long time had worked – or so it seemed. There’d not been enough chanterelles to make a large batch, and I’d added enough eggs to obscure gastronomic fine points.

Cooked milky, sourdough bread and "The Good Stuff."
            Batch size would be no problem with the milky outcrop. So I harvested them and cleaned them and sliced them thin. Sautéed for 30 minutes over the lowest flame with half a stick of melted butter and an equal amount of light olive oil, they released a heavenly aroma. A taste of the cooking fat was revelatory. Densely ‘shroom-y, it was surprisingly sweet and just spicy enough to tell you that, yes, these are close brothers to the candy cap.

            Alas the mushrooms themselves remained crunchy. But now I didn’t care. I’d discovered the perfect compliment to sourdough rolls. I could throw the cooked mushrooms away or give them to my mycophile friends who claim to like crunch. I’d keep the butter-and-olive-oil residue for bread-spreading through the long, dry weeks ahead.

            Here is my recipe:

Luce’s Lactarius Butter


@ 1 quart lactarii mushrooms: (L hygrophoroides, L. volemis, L. deliciosis or L. corrugis.)
1/2 stick unsalted butter (4 TBLS)
4 TBLS olive oil (Light is OK but extra virgin will work since the skillet temperature is low)


            Clean and slice mushrooms into 1/8” thick slices. You want them thin enough to be buried in oil while cooking but there’s no need to slice them so thin you risk nicking your fingers. (NOTE: the sap of lacterii can stain. Prep gloves are a good idea.)
            Use a heavy, well-seasoned skillet. Place over a low flame and melt butter. Add olive oil and wait a minute or two for temperature to rebound. Add mushrooms. The oil should bubble lightly. Stir, insure that the slices are lying flat, and reduce heat to the point where the oil is just barely bubbling. Allow to cook like this for 10 minutes. Stir and allow to cook another 10 minutes. Repeat this sequence one more time.
            Remove pan from heat and allow to cool. Strain liquid as you pour it into a freezer-proof container. (Some of you might want to keep the mushrooms. You should definitely try them. My friend Alice Barner says they’re excellent with Italian dressing.) Save a tablespoon or two of the fat for immediate dipping and freeze the rest.

1 comment:

Karen said...

About those hygrophoroides... we made mushroom bisque with them and used an immersion blender. It took care of the crunchiness and left the mushroomy flavor. delicious!

The recipe is here: