Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Harvest Time

No matter where I've lived, fall has always been my favorite time of year.  In Napa, it meant the crush, the entire valley perfumed with ripe grapes...  In Tahoe it was the beginning of crisp days with the aspen leaves starting to turn and the excitement of the first fat snowflakes...  Here in the Northwest, it is mushroom season.  With our lush forests and mild climate, we experience an autumn bounty, ripe for the taking by anyone who doesn't mind getting their hands dirty.  It's a touch bittersweet, hailing the end of beautiful weather and perfect produce, soon we will be back to cooler temperatures, kale, cabbages and winter squash...

twenty pounds of chanterelles in about an hour...not bad!!

One of the most common questions I get from guests at dinner parties is how to coax more flavor out of mushrooms.  People complain that their mushroom dishes turn out watery and tasteless, but they know that if treated right, mushrooms have an intense umami flavor and a meatiness that rivals many beef dishes.

The trick for mushrooms is this:

In a heavy skillet (cast iron is best), heat a copious amount of butter or olive oil until very hot.  You will be walking a fine line here between creating a good sear and burning the butter/oil solids.  While your pan is heating, cut up your mushrooms into bite-sized chunks: halves or quarters for button mushrooms and random geometric shapes for larger varieties.  Add just enough mushrooms to cover the bottom of the pan- do not crowd them, and then do not touch them for at least three minutes.  After they have had time to brown on one side, turn them and repeat the same act of patience.  If your mushrooms are very watery, this will take a bit longer as all of the liquid will have to cook out before the pieces can begin to brown.  When the mushrooms are brown on all sides, remove them to a bowl, wipe out the pan, add more fat, and continue until you have as much as you need.  If you want to incorporate garlic or fresh herbs, add them towards the end of the last batch.  The high heat needed to sear the mushrooms will burn the garlic and kill the flavor of the herbs long before the mushrooms are cooked if added too early, and salt towards then end of the cooking time.  Salting early on draws out too much moisture and slows things down. 

Once you have the mushrooms seared, you can fold them into or use them to top just about anything...pasta with a bit of cream and tarragon, an omelet, mac'n'cheese, or, as I did last night, on top of soft polenta enrobed in taleggio cheese with thyme, rosemary,  tarragon and parsley.  Oh, and a dash of truffle oil for good measure!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Chicken Chronicles III: Our First Eggs

Since I last wrote about our little chickies, all sorts of progress has been made towards the reason we raised them up.

Unfortunately, we did end up loosing one to an unknown issue.  The odd thing about the loss of this particular chicken is that she was the dominant one from the beginning, she was the only one that was a different color than her sisters, she was the friendliest, and she was the prettiest of them all...  She had the most lovely silver and black feathers that were purple and green edged in the sunlight.  One day she seemed depressed, and then her tail feathers fell out, and then one day she "went to the farm upstate."  Oh well.  I bet she would have laid a tasty egg...

Aside from loosing the one hen, everything else is going very well.  After a few initial hiccups (laying outside the nest, laying eggs without shells, laying eggs while sitting on the roost so they drop more than a foot), things seem to be going smoothly.  It appears that the first couple of eggs a chicken lays have a few issues, either logistically or with their development, but by the time egg number four or five comes out, the girls seem to get the hang of it.  I have to say though, it is very amusing how after they lay their first egg, they seem startled, and then strut around all special-like. 

Today was our most productive egg day so far, with five of the nine chickens coming on line.  Some of the eggs weren't keepers, but it's a sign that we will be flush with eggs very soon.  The first eggs that some of them are laying are just the sweetest little things ever...about half the size of a regular large AA egg, they're just darling.  And Stumpy, the hen that we had to quarantine with leg problems, lays the cutest eggs of all.  She's a bit smaller than the other chickens and lays proportionally petite eggs.