This Week’s Spontaneous Sauce – Chanterelle and Bacon Pasta Sauce

It was Thanksgiving week,  so every time I opened the fridge in search of dinner inspiration I was faced with a wall of ingredients slated for other events. Things were a bit crazy. There were a lot of gravy-centric interviews on radio and TV. I can’t actually remember what I threw together for spontaneous midweek dinners – except for this magnificent chanterelle and bacon sauce. I had restocked my stash of chanterelle mushrooms last weekend because they were just too pretty and cheap to pass up. ($10.99 a pound I think. I’ve seen them for a lot less, but not this year.) Then I forgot about them. When I discovered them tucked away in their brown paper bag, I was thrilled.chanterelles

I grew up hunting chanterelles. Mom and Dad kitted us out in hiking boots, raincoat, compass, safety whistle, and our own special “mushroom knife” with a belt holster. We broke into teams and tromped through wet ferns and salal. We peered under fallen logs covered in velvety moss and along the base of “mother tree” stumps in our search for gold. Sometimes our collection bags would be busting, other times they would be empty. It  didn’t really matter. It was more about family adventures and bushwhacking in the deep green forest. The only chanterelle dish I actually liked as a kid was the salad Mom made with tiny “buttons” pickled in garlicky Italian dressing. These days, I adore them in almost every form.

This sauce took about 10 minutes start to finish. I tossed it with penne pasta but it would also be excellent spooned over chicken, pork tenderloin, grilled salmon fillets, or even thick pieces of toasted or grilled bread. For me, the key to a successful chanterelle dish is to cook the mushrooms hot and quick. They have a higher water content than many mushrooms, so if you warm them slowly they will wilt and get soggy. If you keep cooking them until all of that exuded moisture evaporates, they may eventually brown a bit, but they will be miserably tough and stringy. So, use high heat, smallish pieces, and never overcrowd the pan.  If you are cooking a bunch, sear them in batches. Scoop them out of the pan and arrange them in a single layer while you work on the other sauce components, then reintroduce them at the end so they maintain their flavor and texture.

I don’t cook with a lot of butter, but I tend to splurge on chanterelles. I first use vegetable oil to get a high-heat sear, then some extra virgin olive oil for a saucy consistency. I add an extra blob of butter at the end for richness and flavor. A touch of acid helps the balance. I particularly like sherry vinegar with mushrooms and garlic.  I topped our pasta with just a touch of  grated Parmesan and a scattering of finely diced fresh tomato. The leftovers were fantastic!

Chanterelle and Bacon Sauce

Yield: about 2 ½ cups – or enough to toss with ½ pound cooked penne pasta

2 slices thick cut bacon, cut into lardons

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

½ pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, cut into bite sized pieces

¼ cup dry white wine

1 shallot, minced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

Pinch of dried chile flakes

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, unsalted butter – or both

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley – use a teaspoon of chopped sage, rosemary, or thyme with the parsley if you like

Good pinch kosher salt

Plenty of freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon aged Sherry vinegar (optional)

Heat a large skillet, preferably steel, over medium high heat. Cook the bacon until it is evenly brown. Add vegetable oil if the bacon is lean, so the bacon crackles. Increase the temperature slightly and add the chanterelles. You want them to sear, turn brown and get slightly crisped. If you cook them at too low a temperature, they will start to weep and get floppy. Sear just a handful at a time if needed, so you don’t overcrowd the pan. When they are seared brown, scoop the mushrooms and bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon onto a plate and set aside. The residue at the bottom of the pan should be brown, but not burnt. Swirl in the wine to deglaze this residue and reduce slightly, then pour it onto the mushroom and bacon mixture. Reduce the temperature to medium and return the pan to the burner. Add the olive oil or butter, when it is hot, add the shallot, garlic, and chile flakes. Sauté until they are just golden. Return the mushrooms, bacon, and deglazing liquid to the pan, stir in the parsley and season with plenty of salt, pepper and the sherry vinegar.