Posted By bbinns on January 18, 2010The phone rang at 8:26 am.
“What are you doing right now?” I overheard the female voice asking my husband. “Can you be here in five minutes? This isn’t going to last for long.” I cocked a sleepy eye over the top of Stella’s smooth, warm head at C, who has been sleeping late during our luscious month-long stay in San Luis Obispo, so welcome after the three months apart. Outside, the warm morning sunshine was quickly drying the glistening remnants of last night’s rain from the rose bushes.
“Honey….?” I queried. But C was dressed and roaring off down the long gravel driveway before I could finish the sentence. One and a half hours later he was back, disheveled and smelling a little musty, grinning from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat.
“Look!” he crowed, and opened up a large brown paper bag.
Pounds and pounds of plump, firm gold and cream-colored chanterelles met my gaze. Flecked with leaf mold and still moist and pliable, they were like flanged harbingers of flavor, full of the promise of early spring in the second week of January here on California’s Central Coast.
Erin, the immensely generous soul who had called C, is known locally as The Pig Lady—so I knew she was a kindred soul from the moment we met. On her 100-acre property in mumble-mumble Canyon, about 5 miles from the center of San Luis, the clustered oak trees offer a harvest that’s far more valuable than acorns. Whenever the conditions are right (moist, deep leaf-mold and mild temperatures), her forests literally teem with these sought-after fungi. (When we offered a bag to French friends who make award-winning wine in the Templeton Gap area west of Paso Robles, they were gob-smacked. “I have acres and acres of oak trees, and I have never, ever found any chanterelles,” complained Beatrice sadly. Paso is, of course, much dryer and appreciably colder than San Luis in the winter. Fine for vines, but not conducive to the spores that produce one of France’s most beloved mushrooms.)
Whenever the heavens conspire to provide these fungi-friendly conditions, Erin must move fast. If she doesn’t get out there and forage under the roots and tree canopies, searching for that tell-tale flash of French-vanilla color, then the wild pigs—or, sadly, poachers—are likely to beat her to the punch. Sometimes, she traps a smaller pig and roasts it up for supper (the really big pigs, although destructive, are far too gamy to make good eating). Every April, Erin buys a few piglets from a local farmer, and they cavort in bliss and freedom on her canyon ranchette. (That is, until the day—usually about 90 later—that she carts them up to Paso Meats, a bespoke slaughterhouse in Paso Robles. I yearn to live close enough to share the cost and upbringing of one of these swine someday.)
Faced with this plethora of potent shroomage, I leapt into action. C set to work gently brushing the leaf-mold from all sides of the fungi with a soft brush. (Just say “no” to washing—they soak up water like a sponge, and it never goes away. Besides, leaf mold is not exactly dirt.) Soon, he had batch number one of the haul ready to tumble.
First, I pulled out the three-day rustic red-wine short ribs leftover from New Year’s Eve. After I’d warmed and shredded the meat, I combined it with some of the attendant red wine reduction sauce and shards of precious chanterelles that had been butter braised until golden. I showered the mixture with a drift of flat-leaf parsley, stirred in a few minced anchovies and a little more cultured butter for good measure, then spooned the resulting ragout over rigatoni. That was night number one.
Two nights later, our host, cousin Robert, requested fish. At New Frontiers, the estimable market in San Luis, there was wild sockeye salmon, and there was kale. Garlic from Robert’s vegetable garden awaited me back at home, so the dish had taken on a shape and identity even before I began to ponder.This time, I sauteed the chanterelles in olive oil, so I could take them beyond tender into the realm of crispy and concentrated. When they were edged with a slight char, I stirred in five or six minced cloves of garden garlic, and turned down the flame. In the oven I was roasting kale to the shatter stage, to the delight of cousin Robert (“I’ve never had roasted kale before,” he exclaimed). I decided not to turn cooking the salmon into brain surgery. It was, after all, already perfect: an almost neon orange, moist, and dense. When the kale came out, the salmon went in. Twelve minutes later I lifted the filets from the skin, which had obligingly stuck to the baking parchment. I topped the filets with garlic-forward champignons and mounds of rustic-delicate kale chips. Woodsy. Ethereal. Dirt-simple.
Eureka! We have found them!
Recipe: Wild Salmon with Garlicky Chanterelles and Kale Chips
Olive oil, sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and balsamic vinegar
1 bunch kale, leaves pulled from stems in bite-sized pieces, washed and dried
About 1 pound fresh chanterelles, brushed clean, stem end trimmed if dry and woody
5 or 6 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds wild salmon filet
Preheat the oven to 375F.
On a large rimmed baking sheet, drizzle the kale with some olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss and massage with your fingertips until each piece is coated with a thin layer of salty oil. Bake for 15 minutes, then toss with tongs and roast for 5 to 6 minutes more (the kale should be deep, dark green with occasionally brown edges).
Meanwhile, slice the mushrooms about 1/3-inch thick, then cut into manageable chunks. Warm some olive oil in a saute pan and cook the mushrooms until they give up their liquid. Keep cooking until all the liquid is evaporated and the pieces begin to brown. Add a little more olive oil to keep them from scorching. Season, then stir in the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar; cook for 1 minute more.
Place the salmon skin side down on baking parchment, on another baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the kale and let rest while the salmon goes in for 10 to 12 minutes per inch of thickness. Divide the salmon among warm plates and top with chanterelles and kale.