One of my favourite farmers’ markets has reopened and I’m off to forage for wild mushrooms, a safer option than trying to avoid poisonous toadstools, snakes, ivy and oak in Ontario’s woodlands.
The only time I ever went fungi foraging was on the tiny island of Sark in the English Channel, where Grandma Falle, the cook (and mother of the then owner) at Stocks Hotel invited me to help pick early morning mushrooms in the fields. She spent more time telling me what not to pick, for fear of introducing poisonous species into the guests full English brekkie, than picking and scared me into never venturing out to hunt wild fungi again. For townies like myself, there are fortunately other options.
A limited outdoor market has opened at Toronto’s restored Wychwood Barns and I’m very pleased to see so many of my favourite vendors have survived the pandemic. First stop is to see Sean Declerc at Fresh and Tasty Mushrooms. Sean has been growing mushrooms on the farm his grandparents owned and where he grew up, in Amaranth, Ontario, since 2009. The farm is north of Toronto, but so far up Dufferin that the address has six figures. It’s easier to pick up fresh mushrooms at his Saturday morning booth and this day he has a good selection, either grown organically on his farm or picked wild in the woods. I’m hoping to find lobster mushrooms and chanterelles, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Lobster mushrooms are in fact two mushrooms, a white mushroom with an orange mushroom that covers them. The bright colour fades with cooking, and I only lightly sauté them to retain the delicate flavour. They have dense meaty texture and some can sense the aroma of steamed lobster. Chanterelles are apricot coloured, although when snapped open they are a paler creamy colour, not surprisingly with a mild apricot aroma. When sautéed, they add a woodsy, earthy flavor to my risotto.
Over at Forbes Wild Foods foragers from across Canada have been bringing in a variety of wild mushrooms, which are dried and packaged. Seth Goering tells me their pickers come from all parts of the community, young and old, farmers and professional foragers, and especially Indigenous people. He makes the point that they only pick what grows in abundance and is not endangered. As we get into autumn, many interesting varieties come to the fore.
Later in the year, I might find king bolete mushrooms, prized in Italian and French cuisine, where they are known as porcini or cèpe respectively. They grow naturally at the base of pine trees, brown-capped with thick, white stalks. The caps can range in size from an inch to nearly a foot, but most collected specimens are no more than a few inches. They are apparently very difficult to cultivate and although occasionally available fresh they are most often sold dried.
At the St. Lawrence Market my penultimate stop is Rube’s Rice. Rube was once the oldest merchant in the market and is sadly no longer with us, but the current owners keep the stall in the basement going just as he left it. Here I pick up Arborio rice, the best bet for a perfect risotto, named after the town in the Po river valley in Italy. And of course I visit my chums Alex and Geoff at Chris’ Cheesemongers for a fine chunk of Pecorino, a Sicilian cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Many cooks, myself included, have been intimidated by risotto’s reputation for difficulty. Dan Frenette, who hosted the final season of my television series, Market to Table, said when he was starting out in his career he was told by the chef: ‘It’s just f*ing rice—cook the damn thing!’ Dan also tipped me off that Pecorino is better than Parmesan for risotto. Since then I’ve been shown a few steps to success, which I will share.
The first step is to use a heavy pan the same size as your burner, keeping a deep layer of rice rather than spreading it out over a wider surface. The second is to practice the dish, so you become confident in cooking it perfectly. Third, know what texture you are aiming for—it can range from downright sloppy to stiff pudding—thick and creamy but still with individual grains should be the objective. Fourth, when in doubt don’t undercook it: crunchy rice makes it unpleasant. At the beginning, err on the side of over-cooking. Fifth, add warm broth that is neither too hot or too cold, about a fifth of the quantity at a time, so the grains absorb all the liquid before more is added. Lastly, don’t overwork the rice, just gently fold it back and forth, then leave it for a few moments, or the friction will release too much starch.
Risotto ai funghi selvatici (Wild mushroom risotto)
- 200 g / 1 cup Arborio short grained rice
- 1 medium onion, chopped finely
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- ½ cup / 150 ml white wine
- 2 TBSP EVOO
- Salt and pepper
- 4 cups / 1 L vegetable stock, warmed, plus balance of stock left over from soaking mushrooms
- 75 g Peccorino cheese, grated
- 25 g (dry weight) wild forest mushrooms, reconstituted
- 1 cup vegetable stock, room temperature
- 25 g fresh lobster mushrooms
- 25 g fresh chanterelle mushrooms
- 2 TBSP EVOO
- 2 TBSP brandy
Preparation and cooking
- Prepare the dried mushrooms. Soak them in room temperature (this is important) vegetable stock for 1 hr. Drain through a sieve and reserve the stock. Set the reconstituted mushrooms on a kitchen towel to remove excess water. Wipe any dirt from the fresh mushrooms, but try to avoid washing them. Introducing extra moisture will affect the texture. Tear all the mushrooms into bite size pieces and set aside.
- Warm all the vegetable stock to just below a simmer in another pot.
- Grate the cheese and set aside.
- Chop the peeled onion and garlic and sauté in some hot oil in a heavy deep pan until the onions are translucent. Deglaze* the pan with white wine and reduce until almost dry, to intensify the flavour, then add all the rice and fry until it begins to change colour.
- Keeping the pan on medium to low, ladle in about ¾ cup and stir in gently until it is fully absorbed. Then add another ¾ cup and repeat until only about a cup is left. Keep this in reserve. The risotto should now be thick and creamy. Taste and chew a spoonful and if it’s still too al dente, add a little more stock and keep cooking. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Expect this process to take about 25 to 30 mins. Practice will determine how long you take to get the best result.
- Just before serving, quickly pan fry all the mushrooms together in a little oil. When they have softened, flambé in brandy. TIP: Heat the brandy and set it alight in a small pan, then pour the flaming liquid over the mushrooms. Let all the alcohol burn away.
- Stir the grated cheese into the risotto until it is all melted, plate, garnish with the sautéed mushrooms and serve at once. TIP: If you have to delay service, hold the dish before adding the cheese and garnish. If the risotto becomes too sticky while waiting, add a little more warm stock to loosen the grains, then continue as before. TIP: Serve into heated bowls.
*NOTE: Deglazing involves adding liquid, such as stock or wine, to a pan to loosen and dissolve food particles, known as ‘fond,’ that are stuck to the bottom after frying, a great source of flavour. Reduction thickens and intensifies the liquid.
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This is Nigel’s 287th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Here is the link to Market to Table: The Cookbook, a bargain at $11.50. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, even better priced at $9.99 or £9.99.
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Categories: Simply food
A fine report on mushrooms from a fun guy! Did you know that pharmacists in France are trained to be able to distinguish edible fungi from poisonous ones? Mushroom foragers there can simply take their haul into their local pharmacy to have the good sorted out from the bad (and ugly).
I shall treasure this information the next time I think of going foraging for fungi in France.