I love reading stories of foragers and the treasures they unearth. Especially in the fall. Especially mushrooms, the very essence of autumn. But when I came across this article recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, I thought, heck, I’d tag along just to line up for a “steaming bowl of pho at the mess tent.” This isn’t a steaming bowl of pho, and I’m a little short of mess tents, but it more than makes up for the lack with an abundance of mushrooms. Think of it as a steaming bowl of 30-minute goodness on a chilly evening.
Reading the stories of others is as close as I’ll get to wild foraging. In reality, I can get lost faster than a fifth grader. And my urban corner of Montana is surrounded by flat fields. If I went out treasure hunting tomorrow, at best I’d come home with one pocket full of sugar beets and an Angus steer in the other. Clearly, my foraging is limited to judiciously stalking grocery stores.
That said, I stopped at Costco yesterday for cat litter. Winding my way back to the check stands, I cruised through the produce department to see if there was anything new. I quite literally stopped in my tracks, clasped my hands, and whispered a worshipful, “Ohhhhhh,” to a display of orangey-golden chanterelles. I am sure Costco clerks have seen it all when it comes to weird things people buy, so when I finally got to the checkout lanes, the nice young woman didn’t even bat an eye as my two purchases – 35 pounds of cat litter and a package of chanterelle mushrooms (1 pound) – rolled towards her. I think it was my cheapest Costco stop ever.
Chanterelles (the “s” is silent, and though their name sounds French, in France they are known as girolles – also with a silent “s”) grow in clusters among forests from beech to birch to coniferous. Nowhere near me, in other words. They are high in vitamin B3, iron, and potassium, and are an excellent source of vitamin D; 3.5 ounces of them comprise over 50% of one’s minimum daily requirement. Nearly 90% of their weight is held in water, so while they are extremely tender, they are equally fragile. For the same reason, their season and shelf life are short, so try to restrain yourself and buy only what you can use within a few days.
The minute you get a package of chanterelles home, or any fresh mushroom for that matter, immediately remove the plastic wrapper around the container. Mushrooms need to be able to breathe, otherwise they go soggy and spoil quickly. Especially chanterelles. If you’re not planning to use them right away, simply set a folded paper towel over the top of the container and refrigerate them.
I digress. Just as the thrumming buzz of cicadas defines summer, their sudden silence announces the arrival of autumn. My backyard symphony went silent just over a month ago, and day- and night-time temperatures have been declining steadily ever since. Late this afternoon, a stiff, damp wind blew in, pulling storm clouds along behind it. I got home in time to get the dogs out for a run, and we returned just as rain began to plop on the carpet of golden ash tree leaves. As we tumbled into the house, I felt that exhilarated chill that you know can only be warmed by soup.
Yes. Soup. On a weeknight.
Serves 4, fewer if you return for seconds
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, marjoram, for example
1 pound chanterelle mushrooms – if that sounds like a lot, remember: 90% water
1 quart chicken stock – your own or a good organic one
Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Italian parsley for garnish
Leeks are a staple in my refrigerator. They melt lusciously into either butter or olive oil (or both), and the tops add a light, lovely flavor to stocks.
Trim off the root end and the green tops just above the light green part. Split them in half lengthwise and hold the halves under cold running water, fanning them well. Lay cut-side-down on paper towels to drain. Chop them into 1/4″ slices across the middle.
Chanterelles need no trimming at all, as the stem is of virtually the same consistency as the cap. Do sort through them, wiping away any visible dirt on the fluted caps with a dry paper towel.
Discard any that are dark and wet. Slice them into thin ribbons the long way.
1. Warm a soup pot over medium heat. Add the butter and olive oil – the combination will enrich this gently-flavored soup perfectly. Once the butter has melted, add the leeks, along with a pinch of salt. The salt is going to encourage the leeks and the mushrooms to give up some of their water more quickly, thereby concentrating their flavor.
2. When the leeks have softened after about 4 minutes(do not let them brown), add the mushrooms and minced herbs – I used rosemary – along with another pinch of salt. Cook, stirring now and then, until the mushrooms have lost much, but not all, of their water. As they first begin to cook, you will notice abundant water simmering away in the bottom of the pot. That’s good. After about 5 minutes it will begin to concentrate and look a bit syrupy, for lack of a better word. It’s is time to add the chicken stock.
3. Add the stock and bring the soup to a simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes.
4. Just before serving, season soup to taste with salt and pepper. Mince some Italian parsley. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the parsley for a burst of bright flavor. Serve with some good crusty bread.
From start to finish about a half hour, soup doesn’t get any better than this. Hold the cat litter.