Sunday I am pattering around the kitchen working on my 5-hour roast duck. I'm just stuffing the cavity with ginger and scallions and getting it in the oven when I see Dad pull up. I pull open the door and he wanders straight over to the kitchen table and digs his hand in a bag and starts extracting the most gorgeous giant mushrooms.
Maitake! Hen of the Woods! But, Where, How?
Someone with a '59 Pontiac who comes by the museum sometimes to hang around and check out the cars brought them over for him. Every year he goes to a certain location and picks them and being a mushroom forager myself I don't press further. Never will a mushroomer divulge their locations! This year in Maine was horrible for mushrooms, at least in my neck of the woods. Nary a chanterelle or a lobster mushroom was had and I was rather bereft at not having any delicious wild mushrooms. There is nothing I love more than being the beneficiary of foraged mushrooms.
There are a whole host of medicinal claims associated with the maitake from helping with insulin levels for type II diabetes to shrinking cancer cells. Are they true? Are they just the usual hype? I don't know, but they certainly taste good so any added benefits are just the icing on the cake.
I spent some time Sunday afternoon removing the dirty base, filling the sink with water and a little salt and floating them upside down and swishing them around. Rinse, repeat. Please, don't believe the mushroom is a sponge blather. A quick weigh before and after showed negligible water gain, but I witnessed maximum creature, worm and dirt demise. I'd rather be clean and a little waterlogged thanks. Good luck trying to just 'gently brush' the interstices of a Maitake or a hedgehog.
On Monday I brought some into work and sauteed them with a bit of salt, butter, thyme, pepper, madeira and cream and had them over a few slices of toasted Iggy's Francese. maitake or King mushroom have a nice texture, a chew, that you don't get with other mushrooms. Wild mushrooms also have a more pronounced earthy taste that I love. It would be very easy to treat these like meat in a braise or a hearty dish they are that substantial.
That afternoon Heather had an 11+ class and somewhere around 6:00 she came strolling into the office with a sample bowl of this crack that she had made from Barbara Lynch's book Stir. She knows my affection for polenta or as I put it "Oh polenta. Peasant food of many countries in various guises under various names. How I love your cheap comfort food happiness". I obsessed about those few spoonfulls all night long and by tuesday I knew what I had to have for dinner.
I hit Russo's on the way into work for a few chanterelle which are plentiful lately at around $12.99/lb vs the usual $25/lb, a tub of mascarpone, a few shallot and a piece of tartufo cheese for grating and I headed into work.
Dinner on Tuesday was the following bowl of heaven.
Cleaned and torn pieces of maitake, chanterelle or fabulous wild mushroom of your choice
Butter and olive oil
Shallot, peeled and diced fine
1 - 2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 - 4 sprigs of thyme stripped of leaves
Splash of Madeira
2 - 3 TBS cream
Heat a saute pan to medium heat and add a bit of butter and olive oil. Once the butter melts, add the shallot, turn the heat down a bit and cook 1 - 2 minutes stirring until it is soft. Don't let it get brown. Add the garlic and stir, cook 30 seconds or so. Add the mushrooms, a sprinkle of kosher salt over the top and turn the heat back up to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms exude their juice. Add the thyme leaves and continue to cook until the pan is almost dry and the mushrooms begin to brown. Add the Madeira and cook until it has been absorbed. Add the cream, continue to cook until the cream begins to brown a bit and then thicken. Taste and adjust seasonings. Keep warm.
For the polenta:
3 cups milk
3/4 cup cornmeal
5 tablespoon unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup mascarpone
In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle high simmer. Pour the cornmeal slowly into the milk whisking all the while to prevent clumping. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add 3 tablespoons of the butter, season with 2 teaspoons salt and a few good grinds of pepper, and let the polenta cook gently, stirring occasionally, until it’s thick and the cornmeal is tender, about 20-30 minutes depending on how course your polenta is, finer grind will cook quicker.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and then the mascarpone and cook an additional 5 - 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with more salt and pepper.
Place the polenta in a bowl and top with the sauteed mushrooms. I grate over some truffle pecorino or other truffle based cheese.