In August, it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in our kitchen without tripping over a flat of heirloom tomatoes, a box of chilies, a bowl of peaches, or a bushel of apples. There is fruit everywhere, and the kitchen doesn’t have to stretch its imagination too far to write a brand new menu every week. Come January, and aside from leafy greens, the garden, once a festival of abundance, slows its production down to a near standstill. It’s this time of year that the kitchen really has to stretch its legs to put some color on your plate.
Pomegranates are an incredible dash of color and flavor in these cold months. Some scholars believe that it was the pomegranate, and not the apple, that led to Adam and Eve’s exodus from the garden of Eden, and, if that was the case, we have trouble blaming Eve for tasting a morsel of this delicious fruit. In Greek mythology, Persephone, the daughter of the fertility goddess Demeter, was captured by Hades and taken down to the underworld to be his bride.
While underground, she ate a pomegranate, which meant that she could not ever leave Hades for a sustained period of time. Hades and Demeter struck a bargain in which she would spend half her time with him and half her time with her, and it is for this reason that we have winter, because Demeter is mourning for her far flung daughter half the year. And it is for this reason that we have very little aside from pomegranates to work with all winter. Thanks a lot, Hades!
Persimmons got put into heavy rotation in November and are still running strong. This sturdy, fragrant keeper can last for months on or off the tree. We have several trees dotted around the property, and they were loaded in 2015. Despite rumors of being “woody”, persimmons are easy to handle and render into a delicious tapenade for meats and starches or as an accent to a salad or small plate. Simply dice the persimmon into small 1″ chunks and marinate them in citrus juice for several hours and they soften right up. Incorporate some diced shallot, parsley or mint and you have an eye popping orange and green medley for your platter.
Speaking of citrus, oranges, lemons, limes, kumquats and grapefruit become integral to almost every deep winter dish and salad for providing dynamic color and flavor. Meyer lemon zest in our gremolata, thinly sliced kumquat salsa on prosciutto slices, roasted orange wedges with olives and zanzabar duck, reduced satsuma juice in our vinaigrettes, you are doing yourself a disservice in California if you don’t cook with citrus this time of year.
The most eclectic of the fruiting bodies in our kitchen are the saprophytes, more commonly referred to as mushrooms. After each rain, our chefs scourge the hillsides under the cover of manzanita, oak, fir, and huckleberry, hoping to come across precious patches of wild chanterelles, matsutakes, boletes, oysters, and hedgehogs. After several rather dry winters and subsequent sparse harvests, this wet winter has been prolific for fungus out in the forest.
The key to preparing foraged mushrooms is getting them nice and clean. Store them in your fridge dirty, wrapped in paper, as the duff helps to preserve them. When you are ready to cook them, take a small brush and do your best to remove the dirt and debris, knowing that you can’t get it all. Then, cut the mushrooms into roughly 4″x 1″ slices and submerge them in a bowl of water. Remove the mushrooms into another bowl and if necessary submerge them again, wiping away dirt particles with your fingers. Repeat until they are clean. Then, spin them in a salad spinner to dry them out.
Now you are ready to sauté. The following is a great way to prepare chanterelles or boletes, but not matsutakes, which take a great deal more time and heat. For a fantastic treatment on how to prepare matsutakes consult a number of japanese cookbooks, as the japanese are absolutely crazy about matsutakes. For the most part, mushrooms are fairly easy to prepare. Thinly slice garlic, a la goodfellas (so thin they practically dissolve in the oil), and sauté the garlic in olive oil. Once it starts to brown, add the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. They will render a great deal of liquid, but don’t worry yourself, as it will reduce down and reincorporate its flavor back into the mushrooms (for extremely delicate, albeit less flavorful, mushrooms, pour off the liquid as it appears). Once they have dried out, throw in a slab of butter and thyme, as well as an additional speckling of seasoning. Cook until they have browned and softened to your liking. You can incorporate the mushrooms into a vast array of dishes, or simply eat them on toast.
Wild mushrooms are exceptional because most of them are incapable of being propagated. There is a very narrow window of time, temperature, humidity and ecosystem in which they can appear. They have such dynamic flavor that comparing them to most store bought “pizza mushrooms” is akin to comparing sushi grade ahi to tuna out of a can. They aren’t even in the same stratosphere. If you are fortunate enough to come across some chanterelles this season, don’t let them go to waste. There is nothing quite like the subtle hint of apricot, the tender, peppery, supple flesh of the chanterelle, be it in hand cut pasta, on a savory tart, or stuffed inside a roti. Fungi may be the most precious winter fruit of them all, so do not despair, though the days are short and the trees are dreary, there are still strange and wonderful fruits to be foraged and forged in the fires of your kitchen.