The Fallingwater Chef at Home: Dinner from the Woods
May 7, 2020
Chef Tom Shuttlesworth here once more, eating my way through another week of The Great Quarantine of 2020. Once again, I can't possibly understate the current conditions on the ground: This is very serious business and I hope that everyone is keeping safe, keeping social distance and holding strong. The general shutdown looks to be coming to an end not only in Pennsylvania but across the country. In the opinion of yours truly, continued social distancing and the wearing of masks really shouldn't end when open doors beckon us, but when the spread of COVID-19 has truly stopped.
A Treasury of Foraged and Wild Offerings
The bounty of the forest intrigues and inspires more than most avenues of cooking in recent years. I was not brought up as a hunter or fisher, nor did we harvest ramps or pick mushrooms. We never graced the table with anything directly from the land but home-gardened vegetables.
It was when I began cooking in the rarified world of haute cuisine that I came across the treasury of foraged and wild offerings. In these kitchens, I was first introduced to pillars of French fine dining like foie gras, truffles, fine cheeses and well-tended domesticated meats and vegetables, but also to chanterelle, morel and porcini mushrooms, venison, ramps, game fowl and duck. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that happenstance and good old-fashioned luck pulled me into the world of hunting and foraging.
Every fall, I'm gifted an entire deer or more by a good and extraordinarily generous friend and veteran hunter. In late January of 2017, my wife, who comes from a family of hunters, bemoaned that we had already eaten our way through our supply of venison. My typical curmudgeonly response was something in the vein of “I guess you should have married a hunter then, huh?” Yet, reflecting on this idea, pondering my grandfather’s rifle sitting unused in my closet, I decided that though I might not be a hunter, a hunter I could become. I have now hunted three seasons here in my corner of Pennsylvania, chasing – occasionally successfully - white tail deer, rabbits and squirrels. I would like in the next few years to try my hand at waterfowl and other feathered beasts, but I’ve been perfectly happy with this new hobby as it stands.
An Accidental Find
Hiking is a mainstay of our discretionary entertainment time. Mrs. Chef Tom and I roam the wooded Appalachian mountains for miles around across a swath of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland. And although we’ve always spotted flora and fauna, and interesting features of the terrain, we’ve never looked at the woods with dinner in mind. One hot, humid, wet afternoon typical of the summer of ’17, we happened upon a few bright orange mushrooms growing directly on the trail. We often see mushrooms on the damp hillsides or growing on fallen or dying trees, but this one looked different, more familiar to me. I picked one, turned it over in my hands, smelled it and decided that we had stumbled upon one of my absolute favorite mushrooms, the chanterelle.
Never before had the idea of picking a 'found' mushroom and actually eating it ever crossed my mind. In my mind’s eye, every mushroom I’d ever seen in the wild came pre-stamped with a “Danger!!!” sign: inedible, dangerous, possibly deadly. Squatting near these mystery mushrooms, we pulled out our smart phones and began an impromptu research session. Deciding we had indeed found actual chanterelles, we harvested enough to test them in cooking and continued on our way.
I must now register my obligatory disclaimer and warning: By no means should anyone take anything I’ve written here as license to pick and eat random mushrooms. I did more online research before I cooked and ate that first batch, and though I have since watched many videos, purchased a number of books and gained more experience, I do not think myself an expert by any means. There are plenty of mushrooms that can cause serious sickness, even paralysis and death. Unless you know exactly what you have, do not eat random 'found' mushrooms!
But they were indeed chanterelles and absolutely delicious, and this random find spurred us to gather a larger range of mushrooms as time, and our research, progressed. Depending on season, we now look for morels, chanterelles, oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms, chicken- and hen-of-the-woods and other varieties while hiking. When we are rich in mushrooms or other foraged delights, we eat our fill and preserve the rest by drying, pickling or cooking and freezing.
I’d love to wax poetic, find the mystic and primordial in these harvests, claim some intangible connection that binds me to these foods through the millennia, but that’s not quite how I see the world. What I can see, and taste, is the connection between these wild foods and well-grown farm produce or genuine free-range chickens: Food that grows 'right' and 'naturally' simply tastes better.
When I eat a perfect tomato or a locally raised chicken and exclaim, “Wow that really tastes like tomato or chicken!” The unspoken truth is how little flavor or pleasure is found in the gorgeous but uninspiring tomato, or the huge, pale rubbery chicken breast from the local grocery store. I can tout the venison we eat as low in fat and rich in nutrients, but I love it for the depth and uniqueness of its natural, wild flavor. So it is with wild mushrooms, so full of vivid flavors and perfumes that reflect the forest floors from which they come, indeed all the foraged foods that enrich our table and palates here at my home.
Seared Venison, Morel Sauce, Braised Ramp Greens and Mashed Potatoes
A week or so ago, we were lucky enough to find a small clutch of morels as well as a large field of ramps. Pairing those with venison from last year’s hunt, I made a meal as perfect and desirable as any I have made: seared venison loin with morel sauce, and braised ramp greens. This is the culmination of all my favorite parts of my adult life, an exercise of kitchen skills and decisions honed over nearly 30 years, the satisfaction of ingredients gathered myself – with more than a little help from Mrs. Chef Tom – that all touch on my time in the woods that are the highlight of my day or week.
This week I again present a guide rather than recipe, as I suspect the ingredients difficult to collect by most and because I cooked off the cuff as I am wont to do. Please don’t feel hemmed in if you haven’t the exact ingredients. The home cook can easily use these techniques to apply to very similar dishes: a seared steak or chicken breast, a sauce of button or portabella mushrooms, a sauté of spinach or kale atop mashed potatoes.
This is a fairly standard technique and applies in the generic to any sauté.
- Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add oil, clarified butter or rendered fat (not whole butter).
- Immediately and gently place your pre-seasoned protein in the pan and sear until a nice caramelized crust has formed, then turn and sear the other side.
- When both sides are done, a thicker piece of meat will likely be no more cooked than rare to mid-rare, so finish in a pre-heated oven as desired. Allow the cooked meat to rest for 6-10 minutes before slicing or serving.
Another guide that applies to most mushrooms.
- Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat, then add your fat. (I like my pan a bit hotter for mushrooms to start, as they tend to cool the pan quickly, and I’m a little more generous with the oil; mushrooms tend to absorb some fat but you still need excess for the actual cooking.)
- Toss in the cleaned mushrooms and cook, stirring relatively often. Mushrooms will often go through stages: At first they simply cook in the oil, then they release their moisture. Thus, their own steam and the oil should cook them thoroughly; they’re done once any moisture is evaporated.
- Remove the pan from the heat, turn the burner down a bit and deglaze the pan with a couple ounces of wine before returning the pan to reduce the wine to nearly dry.
- Add some gelatinous, pre-reduced stock and reduce as needed to bring to a saucy consistency.
- Add chopped fresh herbs of your choice and a grind or two of black pepper.
- Whisk in a tablespoon or two of whole butter before tasting and salting. (Be careful of the heat when mounting with butter: If too hot the butter will break; correctly done it should be fully homogenized, velvety and gorgeous!)
Braised Ramp Greens
I used only the ramp greens, a few drops of vinegar and a dollop of butter for this recipe. This works well with other tender greens, like baby spinach. (A minor spoiler: The ramp bulbs were retained for a future article on pickled ramps!)
- Pre-warm a pan over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or two of whole butter.
- Once the butter is melted, toss in the cleaned greens and cook slowly, stirring occasionally until they are tender. (You will need a fairly large amount of raw greens per portion of cooked servable greens, as they undergo a massive transformation during cooking. I used a good quart and a half of chopped ramp greens for two people!)
- At the very end, add a drop or two of quality vinegar and season to taste.
I am a little particular on my mashed potatoes, and assume the home cook has his or her own perfectly delightful technique.
- Boil enough whole, cleaned but skin-on potatoes in a generous amount of salted water until a paring knife easily pierces through.
- Drain and set potatoes aside for a moment or two until they stop steaming. Using a towel to protect your hand from the heat, peel the potatoes, then process through a food mill. (The food mill really is a key to perfectly smooth and amazing mashed potatoes. Try to avoid a food processor, as over-processing can quickly lead to gluey and oddly textured potatoes.)
- Place back into a pot and incorporate as much butter as you are comfortable with into the milled potatoes (the late great Joel Robuchon was famous for his mashed potatoes, always made them “a la minute” or as ordered and with about a 50/50 ratio of butter to potato. I’ve never used quite that much.) You can also use pre-warmed milk, half & half or cream to get desired texture.
- Season with salt to taste.