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Foraged Mushrooms: The Essence of Local, Seasonal Terroir
Right Food for the Season - Late Fall
Written by Steve Johnson   
As a professional chef I've been working with New England farmers and fishermen for over 20 years sourcing seasonal, local fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and shellfish for use on menus in my restaurants.  Using these wonderful primary ingredients, cooking and serving them at the peak of their flavor and freshness, we experience the most appetizing and compelling tastes.   This approach also helps keep me very much in tune with the cycles of the seasons.  

No family of ingredients exemplifies this concept for me more than foraged mushrooms.  At Rendezvous we prepare dishes using mushrooms throughout the year, and although not all of the ones that we use are locally foraged, several of them are found in New England in the spring and summer -- for example, morels, black trumpets and chanterelles.  I'll always remember the beautiful fragrance  of the large brown paper bag of black trumpets that were brought to me as a gift from some regular restaurant guests found in the woods near their weekend getaway home in central Massachusetts!  But autumn is when things really pick up around here . . . 
In September and October locally foraged hen-of-the-woods, copper tops, matsutakes, chickens and mousserons are available.  Like many restaurants in the Boston area, we purchase regularly from Ben Maleson, the mushroom guru of local chefs.  But also, living and working in Central Square, I'm fortunate to be able to visit Steve Parker (Parker Farm, Lunenburg MA) at our Farmers' Market on Mondays, conveniently situated right across the street from my restaurant.  Early in the fall he brings in hens, and then later on oyster mushrooms when the weather turns cooler.  Right on cue this year, I bought a big bag of oyster mushrooms from Steve Parker on Monday, November 1st for use on our Monday Night Tapas Bar menu.  Normally oyster mushrooms are plentiful throughout the month of November. Not only am I grateful for the beautiful fresh mushrooms he offers, I'm astounded that someone who works 125 hours a week also manages to find time to go pick mushrooms in the woods.  But anyone who knows Steve knows that he is a special guy.

Steve sells hen-of-the-woods in large and small pieces to his customers at the market, and he usually keeps whole mushrooms in his truck for restaurant chefs like me.  For this reason, it is really worth the effort to track his locations at the various local markets throughout the week.  These large mushrooms can weigh 6-8 pounds each.  As a conversation starter in the restaurant, I will display the entire mushroom on the bar during dinner service that evening before storing it overnight in the refrigerator.  Guests are amazed by its very impressive size and strange beauty!  As well, they can put their noses right up to it and take a big whiff while it is still moist and warm -- this is a deep breath of the damp New England autumn woods -- the very essence of terroir.  In addition to this unique aroma, the flavor of these mushrooms is savory and deeply satisfying, often described as "umami".  In this way, it offers the chef a "vegetable" alternative to meat in many preparations such as in risottos, with gnocchi, and in pasta dishes.


Toasted Orecchiette with Sautéed Maitakes (hen-of-the-woods), Kale and Piave Cheese

(serves 4 as a side dish)

This is a fried pasta dish that serves as the basis for our Braised Pork and Veal Meatballs, a "signature dish" at Rendezvous.  Orecchiette, or "little ears", is native to Puglia in southeastern Italy.  It is a slightly chewy cut of pasta, and frying it briefly in olive oil results in a very pleasing combination/contrast in textures: crispy and chewy!  It's a trick I saw while visiting the kitchen of a small family restaurant in Lecce about 15 years ago, and I've been using it ever since.

Oyster mushrooms can be substituted for the maitakes in this recipe.

1 lb. orecchiette pasta
1 lb. maitake (hen of the woods) mushrooms, stems trimmed off
1 sweet onion, peeled and sliced thin
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 bunches black tuscan or green curly kale, stems removed, and leaves rinsed, drained and roughly chopped
2C strong chicken broth or stock, steaming hot
2C freshly grated cheese (parmesan, romano, piave, etc.)
good quality olive oil for sautéing
kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
In a large pot cook the orecchiette in salted water until tender, about 12 minutes.  Drain the pasta, drizzle lightly with olive oil and toss it.  Set the pasta aside until ready to use.
In a large sauté pan using some olive oil, cook the mushrooms with half of the onion and garlic until they are golden and tender, about 5-6 minutes.  Season lightly with salt and pepper as you go.  Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and allow them to cool down to room temperature.
Using the same sauté pan and 2T olive oil, cook the kale with the rest of the onion and garlic, stirring occasionally, again seasoning lightly with salt and pepper.  This should take about 4-5 minutes.  Set the kale aside on a plate to cool down to room temperature as well.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet and add 4T of olive oil.  When the oil is hot, add the pasta and DON’T STIR for 60 seconds; this will allow the pasta to fry in the oil and will result in the crispy golden edges that contribute to the wonderful contrast in textures.  Then add a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, a pinch of ground black pepper, and stir.  Follow this immediately by stirring in the mushrooms and the kale.  When this mixture is hot, double-check the seasoning and bring the skillet to the table along with the hot chicken broth and the grated cheese.  

A medium-body red wine goes very well with this dish – perhaps a pinot noir or sangiovese.

Mushroom Stock

(makes about 4 cups)

As a vegetarian alternative to using roasted chicken broth, here's a recipe for a mushroom stock that is thin in texture but earthy and satisfying in flavor.  It provides vegetable dishes such as the one above with another layer of mushroom flavor.

1C chopped dried mushrooms (porcini, shiitakes, etc.)
1 onion, sliced thin
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 whole garlic head, cut in half
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1t dried herbs
1t whole black peppercorns
1C white wine
1/4C  amontillado sherry
water to cover
kosher salt to taste
Put all of the ingredients into a small stockpot and simmer for 45 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by 1/4.  Strain and cool, season lightly with salt, and set aside for later use.
Steve Johnson, by John Walker of Verrill Farm
Hen of the Woods, by Jane Ward 

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