Into the Woods

[Thanksgiving dinner, November 2011.]

This year, Thanksgiving weekend involved a lot of time outdoors and that’s perhaps the thing I’m most grateful for in these waning days of 2011. But of course all the other stuff was grand, too. Dinner was lovely — all turned out well, even the last-minute chicken I roasted with olive oil and herbs rather than a turkey — and we ate prodigiously but not to the point of over-doing it. There was butternut squash soup, and cauliflower soup, sweet potato-chard gratin, homemade biscuits, upside-cranberry cake, pumpkin pie from a pumpkin that was so creamily, custardily perfect I’m making another one tonight, and an apple pie. There was champagne and many cups of tea and good conversation and rain at night which cleared during the day, allowing for walks in the woods, sleeping out by the sea with the sound of the waves to lull us to sleep at 8:30 p.m. (when it gets dark at 5:30 there’s only so much reading you can do by flashlight), and foraging for mushrooms up the road. We read and meandered and I cooked a lot and it was as good and simple and right as I hoped it would be.

[Up the ridge trail, November 2011.]

Yesterday afternoon, before packing up to return to the city, we took the dog for a walk on a path that winds steeply up through a thick brush of greenery. Thought it hadn’t rained in a few days the Northern California coastal fog was omnipresent nearly every morning, blanketing the grass with water and making it seem as though inside the dim green forest things would never dry out again. My pants and hiking boots were soaked after just a few minutes and the muddy black lab who constantly bumped my shins in his mad dashing about after sticks ensured I would remain so for the duration. No matter; that’s why we lucky modern-era dwellers have washing machines, yes? Banana slugs carpeted the narrow trail and salamanders crept shyly alongside it (I say ‘shy’ because they are; pick one up and he will rest in your hand a moment before gravely and unobtrusively beginning his attempt to escape) and the air was full of birdsong and the good damp smells of the forest.

[Chanterelles, November 2011.]

This is the sort of environment that is perfect for mushrooms. And, consequently, mushroom picking.

I’ve never picked any before, though I’ve often meant to. It seems a science, or at least an all-day endeavour. I just read a story in the New Yorker about foraging, and how the truly diligent use dogs to sniff out truffles (my dog companion, though I love him dearly, is not one for doing what humans ask him to do) and spend hours tramping through field and wood. It’s enticing, romantic, and slightly dangerous; you definitely want to get the right sort, i.e. don’t confuse the ‘death’s cap’ mushroom with the benign morel or you’ll pay a terrible price.

In the spirit of honesty, I’ll tell you that my effort yesterday afternoon was more of the lazy-girl variety rather than that of the hard-core aficionado — when I wrote ‘foraging’ what I really meant was that I was told there were chanterelles growing nearby and so I went and picked ’em. Not that I wouldn’t have been happy to further muddify my clothes — I rarely mind getting dirty –, it’s just that in this case it wasn’t necessary, time was waning, and anyway, who am I to turn down the prospect of hauling home a bunch of ‘wild’ fungus for the price of 10 minutes hunting around? So on the way back down the trail we stopped in the old horse corral, the dog dog firmly ensconced himself in the brackish pond (did I mention he is not very obedient?), and we scuffled through leaves and grass and pulled chanterelles.

A few things before I get to today’s recipe:

1. I’m spoiled. I live in what I consider to be one of the very best cities in the world, perched on the edge of the Pacific and run through with fog and sea breezes and accessible beaches from which you might see dolphins on an October weekday afternoon. We have delicious coffee stands on nearly every corner. Most of the buses are electric. People are terribly nice, if a bit flaky at times, and I could (and do) go on and on and on about the produce.

2 … and yet, I long for the woods, the out-of-doors, the more wild places. Leaving creates an almost physical ache; the woods and fields of the northern counties are where I feel most at home. I love the city, yes, but I am, I must admit, more of a country girl at heart.

(2b. I am making my peace with this for the moment.)

3. I like to cook with new-to-me ingredients.

4. I sincerely love all kinds of mushrooms.

5. Last night I was able to bring the woods into my little urban kitchen because of those chanterelles, and that to me is argument enough that I should go ‘foraging’ again.

[In the woods, November 2011.]

The Sunday after the Thanksgiving holiday is always a bit strange. If you still have leftovers from the feast you’re sick to the teeth of them and possibly are sick of eating in general. And yet, you need to eat for health and nourishment and perhaps even a few pangs of hunger, too. One year I created a quinoa, mushroom, and spinach chowder to counter the post-long weekend blues (and which served as a nice antidote to all the previous days’ slight over consumption).

Last night I made a pot of barley, white bean, and chard soup (with a salty, tomato-y broth) for our dinner and decided that mushrooms on toast would be the perfect accompaniment. Not being very familiar with chanterelles I didn’t know how they would taste — update: slightly floral, and very buttery and tender — but knew I should cook them very simply so we could really taste their flavor. So what I did was, I melted some butter in a frying pan, cleaned the mushrooms and sliced them not too thinly but thinly enough, and then gently fried the slices in the butter, adding a splash of white wine near the end. I toasted whole-grain bread and spread some slices with a bit of butter and some with a bit of brie and piled the mushrooms on top. I ladled bowls of soup and poured out two glasses of the white wine and we sat down to eat.

Silence. Then — wow, I can see why these things go for $16 a pound!

Now, I can’t condone spending that much money on what is, essentially, you know, fungus. But if you live near a place where you can go hunting for them yourself … or you come across a parcel that’s on sale … or know someone who might generously invite you over for a late lunch of a chanterelle-infused omelet … jump at the chance. And remember to cook them simply. Tonight I’m planning to lightly sautee the rest in some olive oil and toss them with whole wheat linguine, peas, red onion, lots of black pepper, and a cheddar-cream sauce (I’m out of parmesan, though that might go better) with more white wine. If I can’t have the woods outside my back door I can at least have a little of that feeling in my kitchen …

Mushrooms on toast you can make with any mushrooms, wild or not, self-obtained or from the grocery store — woods not required. Just be sure to cook them until they’re soft and melting, and invest in a good loaf of hearty bread to shore them up. Like beans on toast, I consider this the ultimate (and easy) comfort food, perfect for the in-between holiday lull.

Join the Conversation

  1. Have you ever foraged for truffles? That sounds fun to me, too!

  2. Your Thanksgiving sounds wonderful. The food must have been amazing and I agree there is just something about a long walk in the woods.

  3. Absolutely gorgeous?! Where did you guys go? Looks a little Mendocino-y. What a glorious Thanksgiving.

  4. Love all of this. I, too, long for somewhere wild-er…instead of making peace with it, I impulsively apply to rent farmhouses in the Virginia countryside (seriously). I love your description of your city…the grass is always greener though, no?

    “Things on toast” is an entire category of my diet :) A well-toasted slice of bread rubbed with the cut side of a garlic clove is the base for so many satisfying, simple meals.

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