Fabulous fungus

Chef, restaurant find several uses for wild mushrooms

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2004

DAYTON, Ore. Jack Czarnecki raked away a layer of pine needles to expose chocolate-brown earth, in search of the Oregon white truffle.

He found one as large as a golf ball.

''Look at this moonrock!'' he exulted, his voice echoing through the woods.

One of the foremost mushroom chefs in the country, Czarnecki was in his preferred element out in the wild, in quiet working meditation.

Hours later he would step into his other element, the kitchen, and use the newly unearthed truffles in mouthwatering dishes like puree of butternut squash soup with white truffles and crab cake salad with white truffle shavings.

Czarnecki, 54, owns Joel Palmer House, a Dayton restaurant in the heart of Oregon's wine country that's devoted to mushroom cuisine. He gathers most of his mushrooms himself.

''(Czarnecki) is a chef with a great knowledge of mushrooms and every bit as sophisticated as the most sophisticated of French chefs,'' said Mildred Amico, program director for the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit that identifies important contributions and key players in the world of cooking.

What Czarnecki brings to the table, Amico said, are wonders of the forest usually not experienced by food lovers. His dishes are ''certainly for the adventurous type.''

Czarnecki says he subscribes to the philosophy that a restaurant should reflect the region in which it is found.

With truffle rake or mushroom knife in hand, for 10 months of the year Czarnecki heads to the woods nearly every day to make that philosophy a reality. When he isn't doing that, he's locating fresh ingredients for dishes or testing new Oregon wines.

Czarnecki has written three books on cooking with mushrooms. The second, ''A Cook's Book of Mushrooms,'' received a James Beard Foundation award.

''There is only one speed on Jack and that is full-speed ahead and that includes hunting mushrooms,'' said Ken Becket, 62, a prominent member of the Oregon Mycological Society. He's seen Czarnecki in action in the mountains hunting mushrooms and truffles. And he's tasted the results of his work in the kitchen.

''On a scale of one to 10 I'd say Jack is a 20 on finding mushrooms and cooking them.''

Czarnecki's restaurant features wild mushrooms in almost every dish. In-season mushrooms are favored: Filet mignon with pinot noir porcini sauce, truffles and mashed potatoes; beef stroganoff with wild truffles and mushrooms; matsutake wonton soup with lemongrass and green onion.

Czarnecki said people tend to overlook the power of wild mushrooms, and how they can best be used.

''What I discovered ... is the holy trinity of mushroom cookery. When you season the mushrooms you season them with soy sauce, salt and a pinch of sugar. Basically, that combination enhances their flavor the most,'' Czarnecki said.

The chef likes to pair morels with sweet peppers and caraway seeds, and to use matsutake, which carries the flavor and texture of shellfish, in a chowder with ground-up seaweed.

Porcini mushrooms take very little work, he said, just some butter, onions and a little savory. Czarnecki's favorite way to cook portabellos are with Chinese oyster sauce and vegetables, while chanterelles, which have a natural fruity character, get a splash of lemon.

''The less you do to mushrooms the better you shouldn't be fussing too much over them. Let them speak for themselves,'' Czarnecki said. ''I like to walk around the restaurant with an open bag of truffles and just let people smell them when they are ripe.''

And the smell of the Oregon white truffle, when it is ripe, is overwhelming. Heady like liquor, round with a hint of citrus and apple cider. It is nutty, earthy and alive. Oregon white truffles can be found in the spring and again in the fall. Black truffles can be found from November through April.

Truffles can be found in other Pacific Northwest states, but Oregon is tops for quality and quantity, according to industry experts.

Czarnecki mail-ordered Oregon truffles to use for cooking at his first business, Joe's Restaurant in Reading, Pa. That's where he caught the mushrooming bug. His father and his grandfather were passionate mushroom hunters and chefs as well, he said.

When he sold the Pennsylvania building and decided to move, Czarnecki's first thoughts turned to Oregon, home to some of the best mushroom and truffle hunting in the country. A visit to the state sold him and his wife, Heidi, on the place.

''When we came out here for a visit and smelled the fresh air, we knew where we wanted to be,'' Czarnecki said. ''We found mushrooms in Pennsylvania, but nothing like we do here. ... It is a natural place for a mushroom restaurant to be.''

IF YOU GO ...

The Joel Palmer House is located 30 miles southwest of Portland on Oregon 221, off state Route 99W. The restaurant's address is 600 Ferry Street. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. For reservations, call (503) 864-2995.

On the Net: http://www.joelpalmerhouse.com/directions.html



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