Matsutake New Year

Perhaps an acquired taste, but for me, the matsutake–or pine mushroom–rice is a nostalgic dish I crave. Some describe the distinctive scent of raw a matsutake as “cinnamon red hots through a dirty sweatsock,” which isn’t far from the truth, but once cooked the aroma is piney and fresh, not unlike a Christmas tree. That’s three generations (my mom, Skyla and me) with a gorgeous matsutake to go with traditional Japanese New Year’s feast.

My grandmother made matsutake rice, my Mom makes it, and now I do too. Soon, I’m pretty sure my kids will make it. It’s simple, delicious, and a special treat. I use water from rehydrating shiitake mushrooms for a hit of umami, Japanese short-grain rice, a bit of rice vinegar, salt and sugar, and fresh-chopped matsutake. And I always try to make more than we’ll eat in one meal, because it’s even better the next day as onigiri rice balls.

This year, as the the rice cooked, the aroma reminded me of the last time I made it for my late friend Bruce up in BC. We were fishing and staying in The Shack up on the Kispiox. Bruce loved matsutake rice. A fishing buddy came by with a single big matsutake and we talked all day about how good the rice would taste. When I started cooking, I discovered the mushroom was riddled with maggots. Bruce and our friend Yvon said “make it anyway,” so I did, and we ended up eating the whole batch that night. Miss that guy a ton. But it seemed a fitting way to end the year we lost him, and kick off 2018 on a good note. Happy New Year, everyone. I think it’s going to be a good one.

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Matsutakes

matsutakes

“Next year,” our neighbor, Mr. Terashita, would say year after year, whenever I asked where he picked the coveted matsutake mushrooms here on the Island. But then he passed away, and his secrets went with him. Of course, I always figured I’d just stumble onto some matsutakes while hunting other mushrooms, but so far, it’s yet to happen. The only people who know where to find ’em locally anymore seem to be the old Japanese guys, and they aren’t talking. At least not to me. I completely understand.

But it leaves me to rely on the kindness of others to slake my craving for these unique, cinnamon-scented fungi. Like the ones in the picture, which are currently on their way to me from my good friend Bruce Hill up in BC. He’s dehydrating the mushrooms for shipping, and I’m stoked to cook with them. Thanks, Bruce!

If you have a secret matsutake spot, or cave in and buy them like I often consider doing, here’s a recipe: Wash and drain two cups of Japanese white rice. Add 2.25 cups of the liquid from rehydrating dried shiitake mushrooms, along with 1/3 cup rice vinegar and two tablespoons of soy sauce. Sprinkle in two generous pinches of kosher salt. Dice two medium sized matsutakes and add to the pot. Then bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes in a covered pot. Other options: for a sweeter finish, add a bit of sugar to taste (as my grandmother did) or a quarter cup of mirin. Some use bonito-dashi broth for the cooking liquid as well. But however you cook it, the result is simply amazing. Umami City! Spread a little of that ikura I posted about a while back over a mound of this rice and you’ll have what Bruce calls “The most Zen meal I ever ate.” Makes me hungry just thinking about it.

So, I’m going to try it with the dried matsutakes from Bruce, and I think it’ll be just as good. Perhaps, if they intensify their flavor during the drying process the way shiitakes do, the rice will be even better.

But if you live near me and know where to find matsutakes, and for some strange reason, want to share, by all means, let me know. But I’m not holding my breath.


Back From The North Country

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Apologies for the long gap in posts here, but I’m just home from a little trip up north. It started with a surprise birthday party for my good friend and conservation mentor, Bruce Hill, who lives in Terrace, British Columbia. But what self-respecting steelhead bum visits Skeena Country in September without fishing? So the trip turned into a weeklong gig with Bruce and another great fishing buddy and mentor, Yvon Chouinard. I also got to spend some time with Gerald Amos, yet another longtime friend from whom I continue to learn. Hanging with these three environmental superheroes is inspiring, educational and a ton of fun. That’s YC above, giving Bruce and me a tenkara fly rod demonstration. (The remarkably fun and simple tenkara technique uses a rod without a reel, and I actually caught a fish the first time I tried it.)

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As luck would have it, fishing was lousy. Headwater rains following a summer-long drought had the Skeena running low and dirty, and most of the fish had already moved through the lower sections. But fishing was really the smallest part of the whole trip. Mostly it was about hanging out with good friends, cooking together, eating and telling stories. And boy, did we eat. We were joined for part of the time by Chef Colin Sako and had free run of the Hill family’s incredibly well-stocked freezer. Wild mushroom season was in full swing, too, with matsutakes (aka pine mushrooms), chanterelles, oysters and porcini sprouting throughout the nearby woods. In the picture above, Bruce and YC are just getting started with appetizers of coho ikura (which we made from a gorgeous silver we caught earlier that day) and white king salmon sashimi. The main course involved lightly smoked black cod broiled with balsamic vinegar glaze, salt-broiled coho bellies and aromatic matsutake mushroom rice. A truly memorable meal. Hard to believe, but by the end of the week, we’d eaten that whole bowl of salmon eggs–over chicken eggs and toast for breakfast, on crackers and bread for snacks and on pretty much everything else at dinner.

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We did find a few fish, too. Had to range far and wide, bust brush, scramble down steep banks and, one day, even hike across a wildly beautiful lava field to reach good water. I think a lot of it was simply to work up an appetite for the evening meals we dreamed up while fishing. That’s me with a 37-inch hen steelhead taken on the last day. Huge thanks to Bruce, Anne, Julia, Aaron, Amanda and Zosha Hill, YC and Malinda, Colin, Bob Clay, Tom Derry, Lindsey, Lisa and everyone else who pitched in to make it a week I will savor for a long time.