Wild mushroom season gives us …

illustration credit: chris m collenberger

It’s 9:35 am on the Wednesday morning before our Indian Indian Summer market dinner.  For this particular dinner we are fusing Indian flavor profiles and techniques with new American and French sensibilities.  Being that we’re at the time of year when seasonal goodness sort of fuses itself together we want to highlight the “now” in local eating and cooking, utilizing the last picks of summer and the first offerings of fall.

We are on our way to Green City Farmer’s Market to pick up a few last minute items.  Already armed with some of Alison’s gorgeous tomatoes, some fresh quails, baby lamb legs, curry leaves and plenty of spices, we have six courses in mind.  Our remaining shopping list is short.  Honeycrisps, lima beans, corn, some flowers, maybe some ground cherries or some okra.  Our menu is beginning to take shape.  This should be a quick trip, in and out.

First stop is Nichols Farm.  These guys are all business.  Not really willing to haggle, but they’ve got the goods, so no messing around.  Super sweet Mirai corn? Check!  Crimson lima beans? Check!  New head for Jenkins? Check!

marai corn

crimson limas

And there it was … sitting next to the scale, a beautiful, honeydew-sized puffball mushroom!  Perfectly spherical, and light for its size, with a wonderful marshmallow/nougat-like texture when cooked and an outstanding earthy aroma. Oh, hell yes!

puffball

And just next to it, the majestic “hen of the woods” aka maitake mushrooms – brown, gray and feathery.  Looking like coral of the forest, these guys present to the palate wonderful toothiness and earthy/woodsy flavor.  That’s right, baby.  Come to papa. This was an opportunity not to be missed.  So we snatched the funky little fungi and pushed forth for our apples and flowers.

hen of the woods

Because we realize a trip to Green City Market is never complete until we go see Beth and friends over at Green Acres, we head on over to see what they’ve got.  They typically have the largest assortment of “exotic,” seasonal produce to be found at GCM.  And there it was, shining in the sun, like a day-glow orange life preserver, the king, the sulphur shelf, the magnificent “chicken mushroom!”  Two toned, orange and yellow, this fantastic shelf mushroom gets its name from its resemblance to chicken in texture and flavor.  Yes please! If you are a longtime vegetarian with an occasional twang of meat fancy, check one out!

chicken mushroom

The shopping experience before each dinner is always a little bit of an adventure.  Filled with mini discoveries, bright ideas, and sometimes hopeless pipe dreams, when we come across these “eurekas” at a specific moment in time, we are compelled to share these rare opportunities with our guests.  Regardless of budget and time constraints, regardless of workload, regardless of our own very sanity, if we get an itch and we can make it happen we’re going to scratch that bad boy.  So, seven courses it is!

Our goal with these mushrooms, rather than incorporating them into a preexisting dish, was to create a dish around them.  But what?   What were we going to do with all these awesome mushrooms where they could shine on their own and not take a back seat to anything?  Ideas were brewing … Through quick discussion, we stumbled on the idea of biryani.  Biryani is a fantastically aromatic and colorful rice dish that is cooked twice in a dough sealed pot.  The rice is cooked separately from the vegetables/meat and then brought back together and layered, giving us the perfect opportunity to cook each one of these mushrooms separately to their perfect texture/consistency and yet still use them together in one balanced dish.

biryani ingredients

One of the great experiences as a cook that the diners don’t often get to indulge in is the cracking open of the pot and partaking in the rice steam vapors that arise from the casserole. That first blast of aromas is the food equivalent of love at first sight where that first wave hits you and you instantly know that something special is in the works. We want to recreate this experience for each and every one of our 25 dinner guests and the wheels start turning.  One idea that works right into our theme of “French sensibilities” is the “en papillote” method where the ingredients are baked inside of folded or bound parchment paper parcels to trap in moisture and fragrance.  Upon opening the paper pouches you get that same euphoric blast as if you just opened the oven up yourself to reveal the freshly baked dish in all of its glory.  We decided we would create a traditional biryani utilizing aromatic spices, individually cooked vegetables and our new found fungi friends.  These individually wrapped parcels would then be baked in the oven so flavors could meld, creating the impending mouthwatering vapor to be released into our diners’ naval cavities.

en papillote

This is how our biryani went down:  We took our beautifully par-cooked fragrant basmati rice (cooked in mushroom stock trimmings), and surrounded that with whole spices (star anise, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom), layered it with pistachios, almonds and smoked raisins, drizzled it with ghee and finished it off with the individually cooked mushrooms, topping them each with a saffron cream.   The vapors that came out when those parcels were untied were intoxicating.  They would even make The Biz jealous.  The combination of the crunch from the nuts, the chewiness from the raisins and the meaty texture of the mushrooms surrounded by a bouquet of whole spices and a wonderful saffron cream revealed a treasure trove of flavors and textures for our guests to behold in the “opening of the pot” experience.

vapors

That’s the beauty of being able to improvise in a Market Dinner.  When an opportunity comes up in the market, you’ve just got to take it.  And maybe it’s all a great and profound metaphor for life on this crazy planet too… or maybe that’s just the mushrooms talking.

Chow

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