Archive for the ‘Wine Country’ Category

The Wildest Mushrooms in Wine Country

Pile of Boletus

One of our favorite fall events is the Mendocino Wine and Mushroom Festival. This annual event is slated to occur during the height of our wild mushroom season. That is, of course, if the weather cooperates, which it manages to do about one in every three or so years. This year, early rains guaranteed a bounty of wild mushrooms, and thus, as successful festival.

White Chanterelle

My mushroom adventures started in earnest around the end of October. I took to wandering up and down our old logging roads with my shoulders slumped and my eyes on the ground, hoping for that flash of color amongst the forest duff. My first mushroom of the year was a 6” white Chanterelle, found at the side of the road just down the ravine from the house. Sliced and sautéed with butter and a little brandy, it made a wonderful topping for our Sunday pasta.

Assorted Mushrooms

The golden Chanterelles were the next to emerge. These are generally found in patches, in and around tan oak thickets. The trees are considered a weed in our largely fir and redwood forests, but provide the perfect environment for the mushrooms. While smaller and more colorful than the whites, many say that the flavor of the golden is superior. They command a hefty $17.00 per pound at our local market, so are a real treat when found in any numbers. The great thing about Chanterelles is that they seem to remain worm and grub free, even in the dampest weather.

Zeeler's Boletus

The next mushrooms to poke their heads from the ground were the Boletus, or porcini, as they are known in Italy. In our neighborhood, we see the giant King Bolete, the darker Queen Bolete, and a smaller, more colorful variety called the Zeller’s Bolete. These are the mushrooms most sought after by the commercial hunters, and often the most ridden with small worm holes unless found within hours of emergence. This year, I was lucky enough to receive a gift of a large box of gigantic King Boletus, some with caps measuring over 8” across. I was picking up my order of mushrooms for the cooking class, and my local purveyor offered them up to use as props for presentation, since they were far too large and wormy to be sold commercially. The upside of this arrangement was that, once we were finished with the class and the tasting event that followed, these could be cleaned, sliced and dried. The almost six pounds of mushrooms were reduced, the following weekend, to about twelve ounces of prime dried mushrooms and six half-pints of concentrated porcini stock for the freezer.

Frying Porcini Crusted Chicken

The Magic Mushroom cooking class we presented, and the food and wine pairing that followed, were the highlights of the week. Seven students arrived at the kitchen, ready to prepare six different mushroom appetizers. Aprons were assigned, hands were washed, and four hours later, a beautiful array of food was enjoyed, paired with a 2007 Paul Dolan Sauvignon Blanc and a 2003 McDowell Valley Vineyards Coro Mendocino.

Wild Mushroom Profiteroles

Wild Mushroom Gruyere Tart

After seeing the satisfied cooks on their way, we plated the balance of the appetizers and packed them off to The Beachcomber Motel for our ‘Shrooms and Sunset at the Beach, with Handley Cellars wines and some of the Mendocino coast’s best views. Mother Nature cooperated once again, and our guests were treated to a spectacular sunset, an amazing absence of wind, and a bounty of wonderful food and wine. Our guests were so amazed with the huge mushrooms scattered around the buffet that one of them even asked us to take his picture holding the giant boletus.

Sunset at the Beachcomber

Guest and Boletus

Back in the forest, the cooler weather continues to advance the cast of fungi making their appearances. Now we are seeing the Lactarius or “Milk Caps” named for their milky juices, the Russula, which are rosy pink on white, and an occasional white Matsutake, the famous full moon mushrooms of Japan. Later frosts will bring the Yellow Foot, also known as the Winter Chanterelle, and one of my personal favorites, the Candy Cap. The Candy Cap, when dried, smells and tastes just like maple syrup, and can be infused into milk or cream for the most decadent desserts. For grins, try the Candy Cap Ice Cream at Cowlick’s in Fort Bragg, available only during the mushroom season.

Post by Julia Conway on November 22nd, 2009

In Praise of Pig



I had the pleasure of attending Slow Food San Francisco’s Golden Glass 2009 at Fort Mason this weekend. As one of their chosen artisan food producers, we were invited to sample our Stella Cadente olive oils for the enjoyment of the media, trade and public patrons. One of the collateral benefits of participating in this event was the opportunity to taste some of the wonderful artisan products from the Bay area’s diverse Italian food and wine community. Conceived initially as a venue for Italian wine importers and producers to introduce their products to the northern California market, this event has grown into a showcase of good, clean and fair food and wine, and has become an informal get-together for a family of restaurateurs, farmers, artisan producers involved in the Slow Food movement.
Perennial favorite restaurant A16, named for the primary highway into Rome, arrived first, with their golden roasted porchetta, the front halves of young pigs, boned out and stuffed with a mixture of innards and fresh rosemary, skin and heads intact. One of my cherished marketplace treats when I am in the Italian countryside are the rustic bread rolls stuffed with chunks of this juicy roast pork, a good mixture of tender meat, chunks of fat and crispy skin. These sandwiches need no condiments, and the juices soak into the bread and meld the flavors into a delicious whole. Today, the mixture was served on thin slices of crusty bread, as tasting portions were the norm.
Perbacco, one of several restaurants specializing in fabricating their own salumi, was presenting a Tuscan fermented sausage known as finocchiona. This salami-style concoction of pork shoulder and fatback mixed with fennel seeds is stuffed loosely into a 4” natural casing and hung until dried and slightly chewy. Traditionally sliced paper thin, allowing the large chunks of fat to virtually melt in your mouth, accentuating the velvety texture of the meat. Rather than dominating, the taste of the fennel seed underscores the savory flavor of the free range pork. I returned to their table several times, unwilling to let go of the incredible combination of taste and texture reminiscent of a visit to Maceleria Falorni on the square in Greve in Chianti, where I first tasted this sausage made in the ancient manner. Commercial American versions are much drier and saltier and do not begin to convey the character of the traditional version.
I was a bit disappointed with the offerings from Fra’Mani, Paul Bertolli’s artisan salumeria in Oakland. I find their sausages better and more authentic than most commercial products, but still leaning closer to the north American flavor profiles and preferences. Their sausages tend to be leaner and less unctuous, with a nod to our cultural obsession with reducing fat content. Their mortadella was tender and smooth, but still did not have the incredible texture of the Bolognese version. True mortadella should also melt on your tongue, almost a mousse-like consistency rather than the grainier texture of American bologna. The surprising addition to their offerings was a turkey roulade, which, though a version is produced in Italy, is not usually sold as salumi. I would choose this over generic deli turkey rolls, but it lacked the singular piquancy of properly cured pork sausages.
The standout pork offering of the day was, surprisingly, from Charles Phan’s Heaven’s Dog. Pioneering Asian fusion in San Francisco with the Slanted Door, Charles’ Vietnamese heritage merged with southern European influences has produced dishes that truly reflect the multi-cultural nature of San Francisco itself. The table was filled with a row of Iwatani butane burners topped with towering bamboo steamer baskets. Emerging from the baskets were warm steamed clamshell buns stuffed with a thick slice of long-braised pork belly and slivered scallions. Perfect striations of meat and fat melted together in your mouth, the juices redolent of ginger, sesame and soy. The spongy tenderness of the rolls absorbed the flavors and also melted into the whole.  The taste was pure Asia, but the texture was reminiscent of Lardo di Colonnata, the cured fatback of Tuscany’s northwestern coastal mountains. Having prepared pork belly without such spectacular results, I suspect the pork was brine cured prior to braising, transforming the cut to an almost butter-like consistency. The components of the flavor balanced salty with sweet, with the slight bite from the scallions as counterpoint, leaving me wanting another.
I was fortunate enough to share a row of tables with another popular restaurant, Emporio Rulli. The creation of pastry chef Gary Rulli, the casual shops feature the kind of sweets and cookies commonly found in homes in Italy’s countryside. During Slow Food Nation’s seminars last summer, I gorged on Amaretti, Brutti ma Buoni (Ugly, But Good) and small knuckles of pasta frolla stuffed with jams or poppy seed paste seasoned with fennel and bitter orange peel and dusted with powdered sugar. These cookies were accompanied by rich, dark espresso, making this table popular with the Italian wine merchants in attendance. A casual conviviality ensued, and the conversations merged English and Italian in a musical patois. On the other side of the table, his executive chef was busy preparing risotto. I was familiar with his expertise in this area, again from the hospitality suite at Slow Food Nation. Last summer, his plates of perfectly cooked nettle risotto sustained me between marathon sessions of pouring wine in the Taste Pavilion for the tens of thousands of attendees. Today he was preparing a Venetian style version complete with tiny rings of fresh spring onion and a paste of black summer truffles. Several of the Italian patrons slathered my L’Autunno Tuscan-style olive oil over plates of the steaming rice, adding a hint of bitterness to the creamy yet chewy delight. I was disappointed when, just as I was poised to photograph him lavishing the mixture with a fistful of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, the battery on the camera died. As a result, I am forced to convey his aura of absolute confidence and mastery via the written word. Whereas many prepare this dish with careful and concise measurement of all the relevant ingredients, he worked from instinct, adding just the correct proportion of hot broth to a pan full of parcooked Vialone Nano rice, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon, and tasting for both texture and seasoning as the cooking progressed. At precisely the right moment, he added large dollops of sweet butter, letting them melt into to rice. To finish the dish, he added the onions, a lashing of salt, and a deep swirl of the black truffle paste. The risotto was then ladled into a large chafing dish, topped with the cheese, and served up to the awaiting patrons, lined up three deep in front of the table. With every batch, he scraped the edges and bottom of the pot, dishing up the fragrant and creamy goodness on a paper plate and passing it over to me with a wink and a smile. The trick is to eat from the edges to the center, consuming the risotto while almost too hot to swallow, but before it cools and thickens.  The Piemontese prefer their risotto firm and chewy, while the Venetian style dictates “al ‘onda” or “like a wave” as the correct texture. Both regions disdain the starchy yet mushy mouth feel of overcooked or reheated risotto, preferring to form any leftovers into cakes or balls, and breading and frying them for a crispy but creamy snack. This still remains one of my miracle foods of Italy, elevating the simplicity of rice, broth and seasoning to a gourmand’s delight that yet remains the ultimate comfort food.
My only regret is that I was unable to visit my favorite salumeria at the Ferry Plaza market, Boccalone, the retail outlet for Chris Cosentino of Incanto fame. Summer traffic in San Francisco precluded a quick jaunt prior to setting up for event. I will be reduced to prevailing on city friends to procure the tasty specialties, or to order online. Short of a trip to Italy, financially impossible at this time, it is one of the few ways I can reprise my cooking school experience there. We are incredibly fortunate here in northern California to have such a wonderful collection of artisans of preserved pork and other traditional Italian treats.  Ciao!


Post by Julia Conway on June 22nd, 2009