Matsutake Mushroom Madness
7 Nov 2006

A few weeks ago, I joined a group of fellow food-photo enthusiasts on a little trip to the West Seattle farmer's market. Although quite small, the market is still going full steam with gorgeous harvest produce... apples and onions every which way you turned, pumpkins galore, and of course, with the cool wet whether, more wild mushrooms. I can't seem to get enough of them these days. This trip, in addition to stocking up on some more chanterelles, I also picked up a beautiful matsutake. And when I say a, I really mean it... I just got one. At $50 per pound, I couldn't afford much more than one, and it cost me $5. The good news is that with these babies, a little goes a very long way. From that one mushroom, I made two different small dishes and still had a little bit left over. I first tried matsutake mushrooms at Seattle's Nishino restaurant as part of the Omakase (chef's dinner). If you are in Seattle and like Japanese food, this is something you must not miss. I've visited Nishino many, many times over the past 7 years for sushi, but somehow never ordered the Omakase. What a mistake! It is very likely one of the top five meals I've had in Seattle, delicious from end to end. One of the most special courses was a matsutake tea... a very light broth infused with the matsutake mushrooms. Matsutakes, also known as pine mushrooms, have a wonderfully perfume that is delicate and pungent all at the same time. They are the truffles of the wild mushroom world, and even simply steeped, they are remarkable in flavor. When I picked up the matsutake at the market, I knew I'd be making my own tea. There are quite a few recipes available online, but the most beautiful I've seen comes from the Nishino Omakase cookbook put together by the folks of Tasting Menu. While I didn't follow this recipe, it's worth checking out if you have access to some of the specialized ingredients like dried kelp and bonito flakes. My version uses just a little bit of chicken instead of fish in a sake broth. I won't claim to have the mastery of Tatsu Nishino, but I will tell you that this simple broth is one of the best soups I've ever made.

Making the broth only took a few slivers of the mushroom, and I had plenty left over for a dish that I'd earmarked to try in the October 06 Food and Travel magazine, Wild Mushroom and Saffron Custard. Could anything sound more decadent? Small portions are definitely called for, and it's simple to make in as individual appetizer sized portions. I did run into a few snags with the recipe though. Going against my better instinct, I added lemon juice to the searing mushrooms. This is probably a fine call for mushrooms without much flavor, but it really overpowered the matsutake which needed no additional flavors to be perfectly seasoned. Just the mushrooms lightly browning in the butter gave off the most amazing aroma of cinnamon and earth which were then masked by the citrus. Still, these little custards were amazingly flavorful and are a great counter point to the lighter and more subtle tea.
Matsutake Tea Ingredients for 1 serving Ideally, the tea should steep in a clay pot. However, if you don't have one, a ceramic or cast iron tea pot will do. 2 to 3 thin shavings of matsutake 1 to 2 one inch slices of chicken breast 1/4 cup sake 1/2 cup water Start by cleaning the mushroom and removing the base of the stem. Then very thinly slice a few shavings from the mushroom using a very sharp knife. The shavings should be a bit less than 1/4" each. In a heavy-bottomed pot, add the sake and the hot water and bring to a boil. Add the chicken slices, and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes at a simmer. Add a bit more water if needed. Add a bit of salt for seasoning. Place the matsutake in the teapot, and pour the hot broth over the top. Let it steep for at least 3 minutes before pouring. It is customary to drink the tea and to eat the mushrooms from the pot.
Matsutake and Saffron Custard Makes 2 to 3 small custards These custards can be made in a standard ramekin, but are also beautiful served up in tea cups 1/2 a medium sized matsutake 1/4 cup double cream 1/4 cup heavy cream 2 strands of saffron 1 whole egg plus one yolk 1 t tarragon finely chopped 1 T unsalted butter salt to taste Preheat oven to 300F. Clean the mushroom and remove the base of the stem. Then very thinly slice a few shavings from the mushroom using a very sharp knife. The shavings should be a bit less than 1/4" each. Set aside Add the creams to a heavy bottomed sauce pan, and whisk lightly together. Heat the cream mixture to just below the boiling point, and remove from heat. Add the saffron and give it a quick stir. Beat the egg and yolk together with a whisk and stir in the tarragon. Add a touch of salt, and set aside. Heat a heavy bottomed skillet on high heat. When hot, reduce the heat to medium and add the butter. When the butter is melted, add the mushrooms evenly distributed in the pan. Let the mushrooms sear on one side before moving them, about one minute. Then, using tongs, gently flip over each mushroom slice. Cook for another minute and then remove from the heat. The room should be smelling pretty amazing at this point. Whisk the egg and cooled cream mixture together until smooth. Place your cups or ramekins in a deep casserole dish, and add water to the bottom of the pan until it covers the bottom half or so of the cups. Spoon in enough of the custard to fill about half of the cup. Add a few slices of mushroom, and then top with more custard. Repeat with the other cups, reserving one slice of mushroom for each cup. Bake for 25 minutes, and then carefully place the reserved mushrooms on the top of each custard. Bake for another 5 minutes or until the custards are set. They should still be a bit shaky in the center.

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