Wednesday, October 6, 2010

into the woods and onto my plate

Chanterelle mushrooms sing of autumn, of moss carpeted forests, damp soil and decaying leaves underfoot.  Their appearance on menus and in farmer’s markets is a sure sign summer will soon give up the ghost.  As peaches and tomatoes give way to pumpkins and potatoes, these earthy, meaty morsels are nature’s harbingers of good things to come. 

In early September, my husband’s parents flew to Seattle from Holland, for a weeklong visit.  On the sun-dappled eve of their departure, the five of us ambled up the street to our home away from home, Volunteer Park Cafe (VPC).  As I scanned a narrow chalkboard which acts as the fresh sheet, my pulse quickened at the mere mention of chanterelles.  Cozily gathered around a window table lined with plush benches, we shared a juicy bottle of Cote du Rhone, seasonal salads and plates heaped with melt in your mouth brisket over cheesy polenta and braised greens.  To finish, there was gooey chocolate toffee bread pudding, warm and satisfying under the weight of a generous scoop of ‘a la mode’. 

The worlds is right side up in the skilled hands of VPC’s chef and owner, Ericka Burke.  By day, the cafe menu is consistent, offering a satisfying array of comfort fare and irresistible baked goods.  Come dinnertime, diners gladly surrender their taste buds to Ericka’s nightly whims.  Her staunch commitment to local, organic ingredients is the backbone of inspired, rustic fare with emphasis on seasonality.  Dinner specials are thoughtfully balanced while tried and true favorites are deliciously reliable. 

Suffice it to say, the five of us walked away fat and happy.  Mouth-watering brisket fit the bill for my meat and potatoes loving in-laws and decadent bread pudding proved the icing on the cake; but the showstopper was without a doubt the chanterelle salad.  In their first appearance of the season, Ericka wisely paired the mushrooms with arugula, bacon, heirloom tomatoes and Estrella Creamery blue cheese.  Tossed with a creamy vinaigrette, the salad had all the trappings of a sophisticated BLT, sans bread.  Both familiar and unexpected, it was the sort of food which elicits contented faraway gazes and involuntary sighs.

A week later, while wandering the cobbled streets of the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market, I happened upon Foraged and Found Edibles, where shallow baskets overflowed with yellow and white chanterelles and larger than life porcinis alongside green mesh sacks filled with the last huckleberries of the season.  Before long, my canvas tote was brimming with earthy apricot-hued chanterelles, spicy arugula, Billy’s heirloom cherry tomatoes in reds, oranges, yellows and greens and Estrella Family Creamery’s Wynoochee River blue cheese.  On the way home, I swung by Rain Shadow Meats for thick slices of house cured bacon.  In an homage to my first taste of fall, I would recreate that memorable salad in all its autumnal glory. 

The salad is quite simple to assemble yet elegant when plated.  My interpretation is slightly different from the original but delicious just the same.  Sometimes, I serve it alongside pizza or roast chicken.  Other times, I pair the salad with generous wedges of dense, crusty bread and call it dinner.  The following recipe makes 4 dinner-size portions. 


arugula salad with chanterelles, bacon, heirloom tomatoes and bleu cheese

serves 4


10 ounces arugula or baby arugula
1 pint cherry tomatoes (heirloom, when available)
12 ounces chanterelle mushrooms
8 ounces thick bacon or lardons
4 oz. semi-firm bleu cheese (i.e. Rogue, or Little Boy Blue)
extra virgin olive oil
coarse sea salt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 – 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
freshly ground black pepper
sea salt


Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit

Prepare vinaigrette (see recipe below).  Rinse arugula well and pat dry.  If using standard arugula, it may be necessary to tear the leaves in half and remove the stems.  Set aside.  Rinse cherry tomatoes, halve with a serrated knife and set aside.  Slice bleu cheese into four slab-like pieces.  Place each slice, separately, on parchment or waxed paper to keep from sticking to one another.  Chill until needed.

Place chanterelles on a clean dish towel or paper towel.  Use the towel to brush off any bits of dirt or forest debris still clinging to the mushrooms.  Discard any that are discolored or overly soggy.  Keep small chanterelles whole and halve or quarter larger ones.  Place on a baking sheet lined with foil.  Drizzle with 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt.  Toss to coat.  Roast in a hot oven for 25-30 minutes.  Drain occasionally (reserving juices for stock, if desired).  

While the mushrooms are roasting, slice bacon into 1/4 inch pieces.  In a heavy bottom skillet, fry over medium heat until crisp. Remove from pan and place over paper towels to drain.  Divide arugula between four dinner plates.  Scatter tomatoes, chanterelles and bacon evenly throughout the arugula.  Drizzle each salad with a few spoonfuls of vinaigrette and top each with a thin slab of bleu cheese. 

Whisk together balsamic vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper, until sugar and salt are dissolved.  Add olive oil in a slow stream, whisking constantly to emulsify.  Alternately, vinaigrette can be prepared by combining all ingredients in an airtight jar and shaking to emulsify.  Taste and adjust as desired.   

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