Chanterelle Dreams: The Secrets of One of the Most Coveted Mushrooms
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Edibility, Preparation, and Preservation
Thoughts of the first breakfast of chanterelles begin just after I have eaten my last spring-collected morel. When the first russulas are out and the early amanitas are fruiting, I know the chanterelles are not far behind. Chanterelles are worth waiting for. Their bright golden color in a good split ash basket can be excelled only by their heady aroma when you place your face close into the basket. A basket of chanterelles evokes the scent of an equal weight of fresh picked apricots. For me they recall the sinful pleasure of jumping the fence as a child to raid the apricot tree in the neighbor's yard in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and to smell the sun-warmed fruit as I took the first bite.
Chanterelles have a delicate flavor, and shine when they are blended with food and spices that respect their understated character. Simple preparations are the order of the day: scrambled eggs or omelets, cream sauces, or dishes as simple as a basic sauté with butter, salt, and pepper. Begin by wiping away any lingering dirt and debris from the trimmed mushrooms using a brush or a dry or slightly moist towel. Never wash them under running water or soak your chanterelles! They have a tendency to take on water easily. I generally slice all but the smallest of the caps, though the size will depend on the dish to be made. Young caps are the most tender and they get slightly tough as they age. Unless they appear quite dry, I often start with a dry sauté in a pan over medium heat with a touch of salt. Heating the mushrooms will cause them to express their water and further cooking allows the moisture to evaporate. Add butter when most of the moisture is gone and sauté for 5 or so minutes, adding salt and pepper as desired. This is the starting point for almost any recipe and a fitting endpoint for a simple preparation. The flavorful components of the chanterelle are fat soluble, so the step of simmering in butter is vital to release and preserve the flavors. The alcohol in wine will release other subtle flavors. From there add simple herbs such as tarragon or cilantro, cream, and mild cheeses.
Chanterelles make excellent soufflés or quiche. If you use onion or garlic with them, use a light hand so as to not overpower the mushrooms. I sometimes combine chanterelles with other delicately flavored mushrooms. My favorite combination is with the sweet tooth, Hydnum repandum, with its light flavor and a distinctive, almost crunchy texture. The chanterelle is one mushroom that will not stand up to a tomato-based sauce.
If you face the enviable prospect of being overrun with excess chanterelles, resist any impulse to dehydrate them for future use. I often see dried specimens devoid of color, aroma, and character in gourmet foot stores. It is a sad and wasteful use of a scarce resource! Everything that makes this mushroom memorable is lost in the drying process. Instead, consider a light sauté in plenty of butter followed by sealing serving-size portions in freezer bags before labeling and popping them into the freezer. They retain their essential goodness for several months and will bring back warm memories of summer well into winter.
Chanterelles are about summer and recognizing the gifts of the season embodied in a strikingly beautiful fungal form. One of these gifts comes through the activity involved in the gathering of the mushrooms. A trip to the forest to immerse yourself in the cool, shaded woods will calm your mind and is just the therapy needed for the summertime rush. Chanterelles are not to be collected in haste, while dashing between meetings. Walk the dog, bring a friend and a picnic, and revel in the process. One of my favorite summertime collection sites is alongside a lake with granite ledges. I bring a suit and dive in when I get too hot. Once home with your catch, the process of preparation for the table need not take tedious hours. Chanterelles lend themselves to quick, light, summertime meals. A glass of wine, a chanterelle omelet, and--well, you provide the rest.