Like many, my grandpa was a hunter. However, unlike most he was not after a prey with feet and a face, his game had only a cap and a stump. My Grandpa Bill hunted mushrooms. As far as I'm concerned he was the king of all mushroom hunters. His simple equipment consisted only of a freshly honed Swiss Army Knife and a bucket to collect his bounty. He outfitted his broad chest in red plaid flannel with suspenders clipped tightly to his Levi's. A pair of heavy leather work boots encompassed his size 15 feet. With his shoulders squared and a red bandana handkerchief tucked into his back pocket, Grandpa stood as mighty as the lumberjacks who cleared the land where my family's sturdy cabin now stands.
In the spring Grandpa came out of the woods laden with soft crinkly capped morel mushrooms. The morels of Northwestern Washington are born from ground saturated by melted snow and late winter rains. Their flavor and color encapsulate the mineral deposits and composting fir needles they push through to be able to catch fleeting glimpses of the pale sun. These soft delicate mushrooms need to be cleaned very gently and eaten soon after harvesting. The deep umami of morel mushrooms was difficult for me to appreciate during my elementary school years. I liked them best when my mother and grandmother folded them into a creamy sauce with spaghetti or linguini. The morel cap's distinctive honeycomb folds served as tiny little pockets for the creamy sauce.
In fall, after the wood for the cabin's winter fires was split and stacked, Grandpa would gear up for the second season of his mushroom hunting year. This time he set off in search of sturdier honey colored chanterelle mushrooms. Growing during a warmer drier part of the year chanterelles are firm with a smooth wavy cap. They have a light nutty flavor that comes from quickly springing through the dry forest floor. The firm flesh of chanterelle mushrooms makes them easy to dry and store for later use. We never fully dehydrated them, only arranged them on newspapers to dry and then kept them in paper sacks for a week or two. Eating chanterelles with closed eyes you should hear the crunch, and smell the perfume, of dry fir needles on the soft forest floor.
During his heyday, Grandpa collected some impressive hauls of wild mushrooms from the patch of woods surrounding the family cabin. There is one picture in particular that springs to mind of half a dozen onion bags bulging with chanterelles lined up along the bed of his butter-yellow 1979 F-100. My sister and I loved to go out on a hunt with him. We would carry buckets of our own and fix our eyes on the ground looking for telltale irregular lumps and bumps created by mushrooms. Each time we located a specimen Grandpa would inspect it. If it was of the edible variety he would swipe the blade of his knife so low on the soft ground many mushrooms went into our buckets with bits of moss attached.
The memories of my time in the woods with Grandpa live in all of my senses. The sharp crunching of fir needles and the ceaseless white noise of our rushing river fill my ears. I can feel the soft moist air so acutely that its a wonder my hair doesn't begin to curl. My nose tickles with smells carried by untainted mountain air; a tapestry of evergreen pitch, damp earth, and wood smoke. Companies try to bottle and sell this kind of experience but nothing in a store can match the real thing.
Local clear-cutting and decreased physical ability have forced my Grandpa Bill to put away his mushroom hunting buckets. These days he spends most of his time amongst the hipsters of Ballard on the same streets he explored as a boy in the 30's. If you happen to be on Ballard Avenue you are likely to find him perched at the bar of the Noble Fir. For the small price of a pint, he will lavish you with stories about pretty much anything including hunting mushrooms, growing up in prewar Ballard, family farming in rural Arlington, or his career teaching in the Seattle Public Schools.
This Thanksgiving I want to share a bit of my family, our cabin, and its woods with your family and friends. I infused this oat risotto with simple but luscious ingredients to transport you into the snowy Northern Cascades. I hope these mushrooms remind you of the dark rich earth while the rosemary conjures soaring evergreens. The creamy al dente oats are your cozy flannel and the sweet woody wine a cedar log stoked stove. With each ladle of vegetable broth sprinkle in your own memories of family and earth.
Share lovingly, eat heartily, and have the happiest of Thanksgivings.
Forest Floor Mushroom-Oat Risotto
- 1 cup Marsala wine allow time to breathe
- 1 ½ pound Crimini and Oyster Mushrooms or assorted rehydrated wild mushrooms
- 1 ½ teaspoons fresh rosemary finely minced
- 5-6 large sage leaves whole
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 cup water
- 1 ½ cups steel cut oats
- ½ teaspoon minced garlic
- ½ teaspoon salt or more to taste
- cracked black pepper
- olive oil or non-stick spray
- Measure wine and set aside to breathe. Gather a bowl for the mushrooms to rest in, a large skillet, a large sauce pan, a ladle, and a wooden spoon.
- Use a soft brush to remove any visible dirt from your mushrooms. Slice or coarsely chop mushrooms. Saute the mushrooms with a pinch of salt in the large skillet over medium high heat.
- While mushrooms are beginning to warm pour your liquids into the large sauce pan and warm them over medium low heat. The liquids should be warmed through but not cooking in the sauce pan.
- When the mushrooms have begun to soften stir in the minced rosemary and whole sage leaves (these will be removed later). Continue to saute the mushrooms until they have become tender and brown. Once fully cooked, transfer the mushrooms to a bowl and set a side.
- Using the same skillet - toast the oats over medium high heat, stirring constantly, until they have become richer in color and smell "oaty".
- Begin adding the warmed liquid to the toasted oats in ½ cup increments. Stir constantly and allow the oats to absorb each ladleful before adding the next.
- Continue stirring and adding liquid until all the liquid has been incorporated and the oats are creamy and al dente (they have a little bit of a chewy texture). This step takes 20 - 25 minutes.
- Following the final ladleful of liquid return the mushrooms to the pan (remove the sage leaves) and stir in the minced garlic and a pinch or two of cracked black pepper.
- Serve hot from the skillet or transfer to the serving vessel of your choosing.