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What I learned on an expedition with Blackberry Farm’s Cassidee Dabney.

April 20, 2017

Cassidee Dabney was, in her own words, “geeking out.” Dabney, who runs the kitchen at The Barn, the haute dining room at Blackberry Farm, was far away from the idyllic resort where she works in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. She was spending a late March weekend in Carmel, California, cooking at GourmetFest, a four-day party thrown by the Relais & Châteaux hotel group, of which Blackberry Farm is a member. At the moment, she was standing in the receiving hall of The Hacienda, the private restaurant at Santa Lucia Preserve, a community of homes tucked into the woods on 20,000 ecologically conserved acres on California’s Central Coast. Dabney’s newfound friends, members of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz and assorted hangers-on, had just emerged from those woods with some coveted finds: mushrooms.

The chef was jealous. Her big eyes widened as the self-named “ministers” of the Fungus Federation showed off their haul. “I wanted to go out with you this morning, but I guess it’s for the best because we had to prep lunch,” she told me. But she was itching to explore California’s edible landscape. “As soon as my team got here we were like, ‘Look at all that fennel growing everywhere! And miner’s lettuce, and it’s huge here! And then there’s chickweed and nasturtium just everywhere and mustards growing wild and bay. We were just picking everything.”

Dabney, 38, was born to forage. Her father was a wildlife biologist who worked for the U.S. Forest Service. The family moved a lot—the Ozarks, Georgia, Tennesse, Virginia, Colorado, Alaska—but only to rural places. “We were always out finding edible things,” she said. “I had to go hunting with my dad. We grew a lot of our own food. He was adamant, and my mom too, that we knew where all of our food came from and what it takes to get food on the plate.”

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At Blackberry Farm, where she started as sous chef in 2010 and moved up the ranks to executive chef five years later, Dabney has turned the lifestyle of her upbringing into an art form. “Most of our products are cooked based on what they’re bringing to the table, so recipes for us are super hard. It’s all about technique and cooking with the ingredient.”

With 4,200 acres on which to hunt for wild edibles, choosing those ingredients is always an adventure. “All of our sous chefs are huge into foraging,” she said. They score ramps and chickweed, green blueberries and nasturtium buds for making capers, and best of all, black truffles and mushrooms: morels, chanterelles, boletes, hedgehog mushrooms with their fringelike gills, brain-shaped cauliflower mushrooms.

As she’s done all her life, Dabney tracks her wild mushrooms by the intricacies of seasons. “Morels should just be popping up right now in Tennessee,” she said. “And if I’m seeing these giant centipedes that are big and fat, black and gold, and the May apples just kicking the bucket, then I’m gonna find chanterelles.”

Fungi were the focus of the meal that Dabney, along with The Hacienda’s Jerry Regester and chef Fiorenzo Barbieri of Florida’s Royal Blues Hotel, was cooking for us that afternoon. She reached down to a foyer table the Fungus Federation had covered in newsprint and grabbed a soil-encrusted, rust-colored mushroom, which was the size of this tall chef’s forearm. It was a California Golden Chanterelle—at up to 2 pounds a piece, the largest of its kind in the world—and it left Dabney a bit competitive.

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“Ours are big, too, except they’re little bit dipped down and a little lacey around the outside. And they’re not this dirty. Did it just rain or something?”

California Goldens sit deep in the dirt; they’re nicknamed “mud hens.” But also, of course, it had rained. After nearly six years of drought, California was now soaking wet. Monterey County, where Carmel is located, had been hit with up to 400 percent more precipitation than average since December. That, said the Fungus Federation’s Phil Carpenter, is good for the mushrooms.

“I am a firm believer that the mycelium can actually just sit there and preserve their energy and survive and then when the conditions are right, they start producing mushrooms. We saw that this year,” he said.

Stout and low to the ground, Carpenter is as sure-footed as a Sherpa. He had had no trouble that morning ferreting out mushrooms along precipitous slopes blanketed in poison oak as the rest of us scrambled after him. Much of what we had been finding wasn’t chef-worthy: turkey tail, a shelf mushroom that’s an immune system booster; knobby, black carbon balls that Carpenter said would be “like eating charcoal;” a woody, flat-headed mushroom nicknamed the “artist’s conch” because people use it as canvas.  

The spirits of our group of mycologists-for-the-day had started to flag. Then a mustachioed mushroomer emerged from the woods carrying a wicker basket brimming with bright orange chanterelles. The group ran up the hillside, whooping, and ended up with a bonanza.

They were the last of the season’s mushrooms. Chanterelles grow slowly, so it was still possible to find them, but peak foraging in Central California occurs November to January, when the Fungus Federation closes the season with a festival at which they display some 300 varieties. The chanterelles we ate when we sat down to our lunch had been picked by Hacienda chef Jerry Regester the day before; he had the arms covered in poison oak to prove it. On a bed of beluga lentils sauced in a garlic-leek velouté, Regester had draped his sautéed chanterelles and an ingenious “boudin” of poached octopus ground with garlic, porcini, dried chanterelles, cream, and eggs. “It just turned out awesome,” he said, and he was right.

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For her dish—smoked duck breast with golden beets that had been oven-steamed and twice-seared so that their flavors concentrated deliciously and they came out dense and sticky—Dabney brought a slew of wild edibles to the plate: a drizzle of spruce and hemlock bud syrup; a tangle chickweed pulled from the lawn; shavings of Tennessee black truffle; and a gorgeous purée of roasted creminis and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms finished with sherry vinegar and black truffle oil. “You have the richness of the vinaigrette purée and then the sticky sweet of the syrup and the earthiness of the mushrooms.” The chef clicked her tongue. “It’s really all you need.”

Indeed. The group polished off the meal gleefully and trooped out with their baskets of fungi. Then Dabney sat down with me and schooled me on how to prep, cook, and even cultivate mushrooms.

Cassidee Dabney’s 9 Best Mushroom Tips:

1. Wait to salt. “When you’re sauteeing,” says Dabney, “salt leaches out the water, and you end up steaming your mushrooms in the pan. You’re not going to get any color, and you’re not going to layer in flavors.” Instead, sautée mushrooms in oil, “get some nice color on them,” and then add salt.

2. Use vinegar. Add a splash of sherry or white balsamic vinegar to the sauté oil. “Mushrooms are kind of ‘fatty,’” says Dabney. “They have this richness to them.” The  acidic vinegar balances out the fungi’s earthy richness.

3. Make mushroom jus. Once you add salt to sautéed mushrooms, “you can watch the liquid run out of them,” says Dabney. Mushrooms’ natural moisture “deglazes its own pan.” Add a little bit of butter to this liquid and use it to coat your mushrooms.

4. Wash and dry. Many experts say don’t get mushrooms wet; instead, brush dirt off. Dabney disagrees. “You’re going to want a clean mushrooms,” she says, especially when you’re foraging. “I put them into a big pot of water, agitate them a number of times, and then pull them out. I do that, maybe, two more times until the water runs clear.” But wet fungi don’t sautée properly. So, Dabney lays her rinsed mushrooms on a rack in the refrigerator overnight where the dry, cool air sucks up the moisture.

5. Sample them raw. “You have to taste them before cooking them to figure out what the mushroom needs,” says Dabney. Deep roasting or sautéing can bring out bitterness, so mushrooms like king trumpets that are naturally a bit bitter need to be braised or cooked sous vide instead.

6. Be gentle with morels. Dabney prizes morels with their honeycombed heads. But they require a delicate hand. “I don’t like to get too much texture on them because they can get tough,” she says. “I like my morels to be a little bit more supple, so I cook them a little bit less.”  

7. Use it all. There’s no need to throw away any part of a mushroom. “We have bins of mushroom trim,” says Dabney. “We make stocks, consommés, and gelées out of those.” She grinds dehydrated trim into powder to fold into doughs, and she smokes mushroom stems and steeps them in olive oil. “You put that on something and people think they are eating barbecue,” she says. “It just ups everything.”

8. Cage and grill ’em. “At home, I do a lot of grilling because I don’t like to do dishes,” says Dabney. “I have a grill basket. I just toss my mushrooms in a little bit of oil and salt, and grill them off, flipping them around once in awhile inside the basket. It’s so easy.”

9. Grow your own. Dabney, who’s been known to hand out mushroom growing kits to staff at Christmastime, cultivates shitake using pre-innoculated logs available online. All they require is some shade and water. “The logs just went off this year. We got tons,” says Dabney, who likes to roast the shitake in hazelnut cream, a touch sweetened vinegar, and garden herbs. She also grows oyster mushrooms by taking the boxes in which her supplier delivers them and scattering them in the woods, where leftover spores in the cartons sprout into full-sized fungi.