May 2011
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Wet walks and warming food

Wet woods in May at a patch of wild leeks.

Record-breaking flood levels on Lake Champlain,saturated soils,galloping streams,and days of rain. Depression and complaints about the weather abound. But rain can be beautiful too.

Tromping through dripping,soggy forests can be miserable but with a water proof cap,a rain jacket to keep the core dry and rubber boots for splashing through the muck,it’s really not so bad. After a long winter,I certainly don’t want a little rain to keep from communing with the newly green forest!

Once under the canopy of the trees,diffuse light,unbroken by shadows,glows with surprisingly warm hues. Glistening vegetation shines bright against darkly moist leaves on the ground,mosses and lichen vivid with moisture. These delight the eye while gurgling brooks and rushing streams bring pleasure to the ear. And then there’s always food to be found for the belly!

Today’s wet ramble brought me to the dead,crumbling elms at the bottom of our hill,bursting with pheasant back mushrooms (Polyporus squamosus). Unlike other wild mushrooms,pheasant backs are easy to find and their fruiting predictable. They appear reliably when the trees leaf out and identification isn’t hard,especially because of their oddly out-of-context scent. Who can ever forget the distinct smell of watermelon rind exuding from a wild mushroom! They can be very tasty if picked as young nubs,while still tender. As always,do your homework to positively identify wild mushrooms and cook them well.

Pheasant back mushrooms ready to pick.

Tonight,the pheasant backs were added to a barley risotto,seasoned with wild leeks (ramps),a veggie broth,dry white wine,butter and sea salt. It was my most successful dish to date using pheasant backs. Finished off with parsley from the garden and a grating of a local hard cheese (the superb Cabot Cloth Bound Cheddar) then plated with fresh-picked asparagus and a light salad of lettuce,arugula and claytonia from the hoop house,this turned into a surprisingly satisfying feast.

The finely chopped mushrooms disappeared into the risotto’s creaminess,giving it a gentle,savory flavor. In past efforts to cook pheasant backs,the rubbery texture of the mushrooms detracted from the taste. Evidently,the key is to cook them long and slowly.

For the risotto,I riffed off of several recipes in Epicurus (search on “barley risotto”). After sautéing all the ingredients and deglazing with wine,hot broth was added then cooked under pressure for 10 minutes before cutting the heat and letting pressure release naturally. (You don’t need a pressure cooker to make barley risotto.) Just before eating,I added a little more broth together with finely chopped wild leek leaves,cooking them briefly until hot and fragrant. The parsley and cheese were sprinkled on top.

Wild leeks and pheasant back mushrooms,cleaned and prepped for cooking.

Since discovering barley risotto recently,it has become a favorite dish. As a lover of grains,I prefer meals composed primarily of vegetables and what Eric calls “variations on gruel.” Risotto,one of my favorite gruels,provides a neutral foundation for nearly all the delicious produce gathered from woods and garden. So learning that it can be made using unrefined barley instead of the usual white,Arborio rice,was a revelation.

I recommend this nutritious and satisfying food to warm you after a wet walk in the woods,in hopes that it will raise your spirits as the rains continue to fall.

3 comments to Wet walks and warming food

  • Kelly King

    THANK YOU!!! I was walking home from dropping off the car at the garage (Way2Go Week,didn’t want to have someone come to drive me) and guess what I found?!?

    4 lb 2 oz of Pheasant Backs!!!! I was thinking about taking a walk in my woods to look for some,but since there are a lot of dead trees along my walk I was looking for them and morels. And there they were on a dying tree on the side of the road,with their watermelon rind smell and everything.

    Thanks for the very good description and the link to the website. I’d read it all over carefully a couple days ago,so I KNEW they were edible. I can’t tell you how many times I walk by some huge bloom of some mushroom and wonder,am I passing by dinner?

    -Kelly King

  • faith

    Yay Kelly! Glad you snagged some! Hope the cooking and eating part worked out well for you too!

  • Kelly King

    Very much so and I’ve found them on about 5 other trees since…lot of them too tough,but I’ve been frying the tender parts up with lots of onions and butter and putting them on my Maple Oatmeal Bread toasted…YUM.

    The tougher but still slicable ones I’ve fried up and blended to make mushroom broth for mushroom barley soup (Moosewood cookbook).

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