Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chef's Day Off with Chef Todd Leech

Morel mushroom season is just about wrapped up here in Iowa. The Chef and I ventured out on a handful of occasions and came home empty-handed each time. Darn it. I had big plans for those little woodland wonders. Our quest for spring foraged foods was fruitless- we found the stumps of already-snatched wild asparagus and one single, sad pheasantback mushroom that was a day past it's prime and too tough to cook. There's always next year.

Pheasantback mushrooms grow on a dead tree
In the meantime, we get to live vicariously through our friends. Our chef buddy Todd Leech lives in Wisconsin and while he primarily spends time in the woods taking amazing pictures of flora and fauna, he finds some of the most awesome wild mushrooms. Wisconsin is right next door to Iowa, just off to the northwest, and our climates are very similar. They have a harsher winter than we do here in west central Iowa, and I'd guess the cool spring weather hangs on a bit longer as well. 

Hey! What's going on out there?
Normally I ooh and ahh over his pictures of ducks and birds, deer and turtles. Loads of wildlife. Beautiful plants and flowers. Lately it's been mushrooms. Pheasantback mushrooms in particular. Of course this caught my eye immediately- not only the object I lust after while risking my life and limb in tick-filled muddy woods, tromping around like Bigfoot trying not fall and kill myself but also my favorite of all wild mushrooms (that I have been able to try so far, anyway).

The Chef and I found only ONE all season- Todd
finds them everywhere!
When I heard Todd was going to be on the news, I asked him to share the details with me. Always willing to help a friend he not only shared but provided all the fantastic photos for this story. So how did this all come about? Todd was out and about doing what he enjoys on his time off, wandering the woods looking for interesting subjects to photograph when we received a message from a buddy of his, Scott Steele, who is a weatherman on their local NBC affiliate, WTMJ TV. 

Chef Todd Leech with Scott Steele
Scott said he was working on a story about hunting wild mushrooms and wondered if Todd might be interested in doing a segment. Since he was already prowling the woods, he agreed. Good timing for the story too, as Todd had just found some downed trees with lots of mushrooms growing on the wood. The crew had never seen mushrooms like these, some were the size of dinner plates.

See the video.

Filming in the forest
Cooking with wild mushrooms is a real treat. Whether you bought them or actually found them yourself, they are unlike the plain old white mushrooms you can get in any grocery store. Morel mushrooms are often breaded and fried but they also are often braised and served with rich gravies and sauces. Caramelized with onions and draped on a pizza or a hunk of juicy steak is an out of this world preparation. The morels are hollow and are also great for stuffing. They are very versatile and have a mild flavor. As a chef Todd hasn't had the opportunity to use wild mushrooms all that often. He has prepared dishes for mushroom themed events in the past but used "wild" mushrooms from purveyors, not actually foraged. Many states prohibit using foraged foods in commercial kitchens.

Pheasantback mushrooms, also known as Dryad's Saddle, in many ways resemble the big portobella caps. They don't have gills to remove, which is a plus, but they must be found when young and tender- they quickly turn into a piece of inedible show leather if they are even slightly past their prime. Slice these beauties and you get to experience their watermelon-like fragrance. Saute is some butter and olive oil and use is any recipe you'd use mushrooms in. The definitely do not taste like watermelon. They taste like mushrooms, not as bland as button mushrooms but not overly woodsy either. Absolutely worth the effort to look for these guys.

In this part of the country there are many different kinds of mushrooms to hunt for, from chanterelles and oysters to chicken of the woods. Each one is unique and delicious. Be sure you have properly identified any mushroom you plan on eating. There are poisonous mushrooms in the wild and some are deadly. 

Creamy Potato, Leek and Morel Mushroom Soup

1 pound fresh morel mushrooms, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
3 cups chicken stock, divided
1 cup white wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper

Bring 2 cups chicken stock to a boil in medium saucepan. Add potato cubes, reduce heat, cover and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.

In stockpot melt the butter. Add the chopped morels and leeks. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until the morels are tender and leeks are very soft, about 15-20 minutes.

Add the fresh thyme to the pot and stir for a minute. Add the wine wine and cook until wine has almost evaporated (at least reduced by half). Add the remaining cup of stock.

Using an immersion blender (or regular blender if you don't have one) blend the cooked potatoes with the stock they were cooked in until smooth. Add to the stockpot. Taste for seasoning.

When ready to serve, add the heavy cream and heat thoroughly.

The soup is beautiful garnished with a sprinkle of fresh chives or additional thyme. This is such an upscale version of mushroom soup and it's just delicious. The potatoes add body and substance and the mushrooms are so earthy and savory. You can substitute any mushrooms you like.

So what happens if you spend a Saturday out hunting and you happen to get lucky and find....... well, tons of awesome mushrooms? Preserve them! Most mushrooms can be dehydrated and used later in all sorts of sauces and dishes. Some can be frozen as well, and in the case of Chicken of the Woods, the freezer is the preferred method of preservation.

Besides being an amazing photographer, Todd is the Executive Sous Chef at McCormick and Schmick in Milwaukee, where he is in charge of the day-to-day operation. He orders all the fresh seafood, produce and meats, handles fish fabrication and makes sure everyone in the kitchen has what they need to get the job done. He also manages the kitchen staff and monitors every dish for consistency, quality and plating. Every batch has to be the same, has to meet the same standards and if it doesn't, it's on him to figure out what happened. That is a lot of long days and late nights.

All photos by Todd Leech
Todd is a graduate of Des Moines Area Community College's culinary program. I asked him what he thought about culinary school versus real life experience and he feels a great chef can come out of either "school"- it's all about skill and execution. A successful chef, in his opinion, must have a mastery of butchering, knowledge of the mother sauces, and ideally started at the bottom and worked their way up, just as he did starting at The Embassy Club in Des Moines.

Originally from Des Moines, Todd moved to Wisconsin in the 1990s. He and his lovely wife Diane share their home with their two furgirls, Marley and Riley, and enjoy spending time with their family.

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