The Fallingwater Chef at Home: My Search for Elusive Morels
April 16, 2020
Good day one and all!
Fallingwater Chef Tom Shuttlesworth here once more, moving into 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.
Whilst we while away our days here at the homestead, the highlight of the day – not counting a lovely, quiet, daily date night dinner with Mrs. Shuttlesworth – is getting out on a local trail. Utilizing one of my special superpowers – the inability to sleep past 5 a.m. no matter what time I went to bed – we've focused on getting on the trail at dawn with the intent of putting the miles behind us before most people rouse and roll out for their own daily hikes. The mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania are filled with myriad lovely trails and we've been seeking less populated, less worn trails where we can avoid others and, as always, keep an eye out for delicious treats to forage.
Throughout the year we look for local wild and domesticated berries gone wild, like black raspberries, red currants, blackberries and blueberries, as well as any number of mushrooms from chanterelles and maitake to oysters and of course, the king of springtime mushrooms, the morel. As ground temperatures begin to rise in the spring, the morel pops up from the forest floor. The promise of the morel’s annual appearance stimulates many people to search for these delicious morsels, mushrooms so desired that even those who dislike all other mushrooms find delight in them.
Morels Elude Me
With many test hours devoted to this subject, I can say without hesitation that I simply cannot see the morel in its natural habitat. Traveling solo, I can guarantee that I will return home empty handed. Mrs. Shuttlesworth has an eye for them and can often find them, but even when I'm directly in the middle of a bona fide patch I rarely spot one, even when on all fours and scouting at eye level.
This week's focus was to be on the morel and its starring role in a springtime risotto; as it turns out, such hubris is always met with disappointment, as I gathered no morels with which to cook. Fear not! Risotto was still made, and foraged mushrooms were still used, albeit maitake mushrooms (also known as hen of the woods and sheepshead) picked, dried and vacuum packed last year.
Risotto is one of those dishes that many home cooks seem to avoid, a dish rife with myths, misconceptions and ill-conceived techniques. In reality, it is a rather simple dish of rice or similar soft, hull-less grain that gets most of its lush creaminess by capturing all the starch extracted during the cooking process. No need to stand over the dish and constantly stir, follow arcane stirring methods, use only a strict set of ingredients or serve immediately lest the joy be lost.
Barley Risotto with Maitake Mushrooms and Roasted Red Peppers
Below is the recipe I actually made, barley risotto with wild mushrooms and roasted red peppers, but feel free to flavor your risotto however you choose. It will shine with any number of permutations...try beef stock, red wine or beer. At the last minute you could stir in chopped shrimp, bacon, roasted veggies or sautéed fresh mushrooms. The world is your oyster!
- 1 C pearled barley
- 4 to 5 C chicken stock
- 3/4 C dry white wine
- 4-6 Tb olive oil
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 4 large cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 3/4 C roasted red peppers, diced
- 1 C dried mushrooms
- 1 1/2 oz grated parmesan
- 1 Tb whole butter
- 1 Tb fresh thyme, chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Warm the stock until barely simmering in a small saucepan. When warm, take some of the stock and just cover the dried mushrooms. Set aside.
- Heat a deep fry pan/sauteuse pan over medium heat. When hot, add the olive oil, then the onions, carrots and garlic. Cook the onions slowly until tender and fully cooked. Add the barley (or carnaroli or Arborio rice) and cook with the onions for 10 minutes or so, until the grain's outer shell is slightly translucent and soft. Keep an eye on the heat; err on the side of “cooler” heat so you don’t burn the vegetables or grain.
- Add your chosen wine and cook until the wine is absorbed.
- Keeping the heat stable, ladle in enough stock to just slightly “over-cover” the rice and veggie mix. Allow to cook until the stock is absorbed/evaporated. At that point, I added my re-hydrated mushroom-stock mix and more stock to cover the mix again.
- Repeat this process until the dish converges at a point where the grain is cooked to desired point of tenderness (by all means, sample frequently!) and all liquid is absorbed.
- With the rice/barley complete, this is the time to add in other flavoring ingredients. I used the roasted red peppers as a sweet foil for the earthiness of the barley and mushrooms. Thyme and other fresh herbs should always go in last to preserve their essential oils and flavors. A bit of parmesan (I used about an ounce in the risotto itself and used the rest as garnish) and butter will flavor, add richness to and heighten the overall creamy texture of the dish. A few violets from the yard gave a perfect bit of color for presentation.