To spend several days with matsutake pickers in Oregon and not come home with even a flag for my efforts was something of a dropped ball. So I spent a day at the coast yesterday picking yellowfoot and hedgehogs plus a few lingering kings and chanterelles—and a surprise late flush of matsi. Yes!
They were fruiting on the edges of an old railroad grade in private timberlands where the steam donkeys once worked. The rusted donkeys are mostly gone now—scrapped by tweakers who have already stolen every catalytic converter they can scrounge—but the Aloha Tavern still waits faithfully at the edge of the cut, a plume of smoke curling out of its wood stove chimney, serving Busch tallboys at the end of the day beneath the conniving grin of the shake rat.
Apparently the coastal matsutake have been infested with cap-worms in a big way this year, but I got lucky with a bunch of nice, fat worm-free mushrooms.
Every fall I develop more appreciation for this truly singular mushroom. Recently I learned why I like it more in Eastern preparations than in Western: unlike mushrooms favored by French, Italian, and other Western culinary traditions (think porcini, chanterelle, morel), the flavors in matsutake are water-soluble (as opposed to fat soluble). This is why these mushrooms respond so well to soy, sake, and rice vinegar rather than butter, cream, and cheese.
For those keeping score at home, since picking up a copy a year ago I’ve been working my way through Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, a treasure trove of Sichuan recipes, adding my own forager’s twist. Let’s see. So far I’ve made Fish-fragrant Geoduck with Morels, Dry-fried Chicken with Fiddleheads, Sea-flavored Noodles with Porcini, and a few Kung Pao dinner party dishes with geoducks and morels that disappeared before I could get photographs for the blog.
This recipe is based on Dunlop’s Chicken with Vinegar, with a few tweaks. Obviously the inclusion of matsutake is the biggest change. Also, I added dried red chili peppers and substituted chili bean sauce for pickled chili paste (which I’d like to try next time). The textures of the three main ingredients—chicken, matsutake, and celery—work in harmony, with all of them velvety smooth but with varying resistance to the tooth. The egg-battered chicken is tender as all get-out, and the matsutake mushrooms make an aromatic accompaniment that is in keeping with the original recipe, their spicy flavor mixing with the chili peppers and black vinegar in a way that amplifies the overall dish.
I guess everyone liked it because there were no leftovers.
1 lb chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch by 1-inch pieces
1/2 lb (or more) matsutake, sliced 1/4-inch thin by 1-inch
3 celery stalks, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 heaping tbsp garlic, diced
1 heaping tbsp ginger, diced
2 tbsp chili bean sauce
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 handful dried red chili peppers
1 1/2 cups peanut oil
1 1/2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp egg white
3 tbsp cornstarch
1 1/2 tsp white sugar
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
3 tbsp chicken stock
1. After dicing chicken, mix with marinade in a bowl. Set aside.
2. Mix the sauce in a small bowl.
3. Add batter ingredients to marinated chicken and stir well in one direction.
4. Heat 1 1/2 cups peanut oil in wok over medium flame. Add the chicken and then the celery. Prod with chopstick to eparate chicken pieces and cook until just white. Remove chicken and celery from wok with slotted spoon. Drain all but 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil.
5. Return wok to high heat and add matsutake. Cook 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, and then remove with a slotted spoon.
6. Add chili sauce to wok, stirring, and cook 30 seconds. Stir in garlic, ginger, and chili peppers and cook another 30 seconds before returning chicken, celery, and matsutake to wok. Give the sauce a quick stir and add to wok. Cook all together another minute or two until sauce thickens. Serve immediately over rice.
Serves 4 with rice and another dish.