As you may have guessed by now, I get very excited about foraging for food. I’m not very good at it, and know next to nothing, but I feel exponentially more satisfied by a meal produced from gathered ingredients than I do about one from the supermarket.
Recently I stayed with my friend Leslie in Northern California. The natural resources there are incredible: one look at the local co-op reveals a finer produce selection than any I’ve seen, and every single tag shows the local farm on which it was produced. As another friend says, ‘California is the France of America.’ And you know how I feel about France.
One day Leslie and I took a hike through the woods and came across something unexpected. Last time I checked, February was not ideal mushroom season but on this particular day, after a picnic of stupidly good bread, salami, and goat’s cheese eaten on top of a lush green mountain, we got lucky. There under a clump of black soil, Leslie spotted a flash of orange. It was a massive chanterelle.
It was dusk and getting hard to see, but we spent another hour tromping around the woods looking for more. Unfortunately only one more fungus revealed itself, making a rather meager side dish for four adults that night.
Even still, we couldn’t quite shake the thrill of the hunt. A few days later Leslie and the husband and I went for a hike through the redwoods. That’s the sort of thing you get to do whenever you feel like it around those parts. We took a mushroom identification book with us called All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms, not expecting to see much but just looking forward to the idea of looking.
Eventually we found a hedgehog. They’re pretty cute, as the name would suggest, with funny little gills on the underside of the cap that look like the teeth of a plastic comb. The book said it was good eating, so we put it in a plastic bag and went on our way.
Next we found a yellowfoot, which apparently grows near hedgehogs, and lucky for us is also very tasty. Once we had seen our first examples, we couldn’t stop seeing them. Hedgehogs and yellowfeet were everywhere, in clumps of tree roots, spreading out through the undergrowth of the forest. We were like three little kids, running around the woods, screaming ‘I found another one!’ every few seconds.
That night we made a wild mushroom and butternut squash risotto. If you can’t make a basic risotto with your eyes closed, I encourage you to learn how. It’s a perfect way of showcasing one or two special ingredients, and can be adapted a million different ways depending on what you have on hand.
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
1/2 white onion, chopped very fine
1 celery stalk, chopped very fine
50 ml/ 1 cup white wine, any variety
200 g/ 1 cup uncooked arborio rice
1-2 litres/ 2-3 pints chicken or vegetable stock (you will need to use your judgment on the exact amount)
Melt 1 T of the butter in all of the olive oil on low heat in a heavy bottomed saucepan, and then add the onion and celery. Let the vegetables cook slowly until they are translucent, but be careful not to let them burn or color.
Turn the heat up to meduim and add the rice, stirring to coat each grain with the butter and oil. Do not let the rice burn or catch—keep it moving for 2-3 minutes.
Add the glass of wine and stir again, letting the liquid bubble away. Then add the stock in small amounts—one cup at a time- stirring between each addition until the liquid is almost gone. Keep stirring…
After about 15 minutes, taste your rice. It should be ever so slightly al dente, but not uncooked. When it reaches this stage, add enough stock to make the consistency soupy, a little bit more liquid than you want the final risotto to end up. In the end it should be oozy and creamy, not thick and stodgy.
Add a handful of grated parmesan cheese, another T of butter, and some salt and pepper. Be careful not to add too much salt, since the parmesan is pretty salty too. Mix it all together.
You can leave it just like this for an absolutely basic version, or add a couple of optional ingredients at this stage depending on what you have on hand. Then put a lid on the pan and let it sit for a couple of minutes—just enough time to call everyone to the table.
Butternut Squash and Wild Mushroom Risotto
At Leslie’s we dry-fried the mushrooms, and roasted and cubed half a butternut squash. At the ‘optional ingredient’ stage, add these to the risotto with a small handful of finely chopped sage leaves.