Since my inaugural column in March 2011, we’ve covered a lot of ground searching out nature’s hidden pantry. The weird and wonderful kingdom of fungi has been a regular touchstone for me, and we return to it again this month.
Though winter knocks, it’s not too late to lace up hiking boots and make tracks for mountain woods in search of wild fungi. Most of our local edible mushrooms have gone to bed for the season, but a few varieties persist—even with a dusting of snow on the forest floor. One of them is the saffron milk cap, a member of the Lactarius genus, so named because it will exude a latex-like substance when cut.
Recreational foragers frequently refer to these mushrooms as “bleeding milk caps,” but commercial vendors prefer the more palatable name “saffron milk cap,” which is how you’re likely to see it in the market or on a restaurant menu. Widely distributed from coast to mountains, there are a number of edible species in this group; the one we’re after prefers high-elevation old-growth forests late in fall, where it tolerates the cold rain and snow of the season. Jeremy Faber of Seattle’s Foraged and Found Edibles calls it an “alpine saffron milk cap” and says he likes its crispy texture in the pan and its smoky flavor. Classically shaped and a medium size, this orange mushroom with well-defined gills will often show a faint pattern of concentric bands on the cap in various shades of pink, orange or red. It oozes a reddish-orange color immediately when cut, and bruises will slowly stain green.
Milk caps are not high on the wish list of most North American mushroom hunters, but they’re a favorite of Eastern Europeans, who put up huge quantities of a species that many others either don’t recognize or willfully ignore. I know a Russian woman on the Oregon coast who cures hers with salt and lemon zest, while Ukrainian and Polish immigrants I’ve met in the woods speak fondly of all sorts of traditional pickling and canning recipes from the old country to stretch their harvest well into the new year.
When cooked fresh in the pan, these mushrooms turn an attractive pink color, and they retain a toothsome al dente texture even after prolonged roasting or sautéing. Considering the species’ strong mushroomy flavor and firm body, it’s odd that more local hunters aren’t seeking out this relatively common edible, but I suppose that just means more opportunity for those of us who want to walk the quiet mountain woods of late autumn. After all, to be a forager is to be privy to a few of nature’s secrets.With that, it’s adieu. May your boots travel far and your baskets overflow.
Pan-fried Chicken with Saffron Milk Cap Ragoût
3-4 chicken thighs, skin on
1/2 pound saffron milk caps,
cut into bite size pieces
2 shallots, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
2-3 fresh sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium-high and pan-fry, skin side first, until golden, a few minutes on each side. Remove to an ovenproof dish and continue cooking in oven until juices run clear, about 20 minutes.
In same saucepan, melt butter and sauté diced shallots until soft and translucent. Add mushrooms, thyme and crushed garlic and continue cooking together a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Deglaze pan with white wine and reduce by half. Add stock and heavy cream and reduce until desired consistency is reached. Spoon mushroom sauce onto plates and then place chicken atop sauce.