Stalking the Wild Savannah

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Two culinary creatives prove that foraging is hardly a lost art.  Photos and story by Jason B. James. 

Meta Adler is running with scissors—well, shears, to be exact.  She has spied a patch of golden chanterelles flourishing alongside a dirt path on her family’s farm, and she’s ready to bag a bunch for a quail pie she’s making later.

“I get very excited about the chicken of the woods and lion’s mane mushrooms you start finding on the trees in the fall,” she remarks while she expertly harvests the fluted fungi.

Meta, an oft-requested caterer and former owner of the late Dept. 7 East restaurant, prefers to forage for her fall and winter favorites.  The farm, where she learned to hunt both fauna and flora, is a treasure trove of ’shrooms and the place where her appreciation of the culinary outdoors runs deep.

“The most important thing about hunting is being able to enjoy the beauty and bounty of the natural world,” Meta muses.  “Hunting is not only harvesting game, but also foraging for edible native plants.  I grew up harvesting wild plums and berries with my grandmother, and tromping through the woods with my mother looking for mushrooms.”

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Shh, We’re Hunting

Now that late fall’s introductory cold has snapped, we’ve got crisp-dry air and flawless blue skies beckoning us outside.  The fusty scent of fallen foliage on crunchy forest floors triggers that primal urge to hunt as the first frost settles in.  To walk in pitch-black fields early in the morning to explore the brush and discover new natural delights as the sun rises, illuminating the terrain.  Then to return with cold feet, hands and cheeks to an affable fire, a stew of meat and vegetables, and a nip of bourbon.

It’s a call as familiar to Meta as it is to Chris Nelson, who also grew up hunting and foraging in and around Savannah.

Formerly of Pacci Italian Kitchen, Chris is now at the helm of the Dorchester Shooting Preserve’s kitchen in Midland, Georgia.  He remains humble about his place in the food chain. Respect and a bow are all he needs.  Using pure muscle and concentration he focuses on the gentle kill—quick—to lessen the stress on the animal.  This provides a more tender cut and a better flavor for the diner.

But even at his lodge, where deer, quail, pheasant, duck and wild boar—braised, roasted, fried and stewed—are often the main event, Chris showcases the Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnips, squash, lettuce and kale varietals in abundance this season.  His favorites, though, are the beets because of how versatile they are.

“Beets can be spiced, pickled, roasted or shaved raw,” he explains.  “They’re also really cool to use in coloring other foods and giving them a great visual dynamic.”

A dinner table in the fall or winter will customarily include wild game, heartily prepared.  But as Meta and Chris remind us, the filling, richly colored sides that return with the cool breezes are not to be denied their place at the table.  If you hunt around enough, the good earth will provide the essential elements.

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Quail and Chanterelle Mushroom Pie

Serves 4 to 6

Meta’s grandmother has a library of recipe books, many of them written by chefs and home cooks throughout the history of Savannah.  This savory, woodsy pie is an adaption of a recipe from one of those heirlooms.  It features quail and chanterelle mushrooms hunted and foraged on her family’s farm.  If you are fond of the traditional chicken pot pie, break out the Madeira and let’s get this wild game celebration started.

Quail Stock

4 to 6 quail, depending on size

Bacon grease

1 Vidalia onion, cut in quarters

1 leek, cleaned and sliced

3 celery ribs, cleaned and roughly chopped

2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

2 bay leaves

6 sprigs fresh thyme

1 sprig sage

½ teaspoon whole peppercorns

Crust

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cubed

6 to 8 tablespoons ice cold water

Filling

½ cup diced carrot

½ cup diced parsnip

1 small Vidalia onion, diced

1 tablespoon bacon grease

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 pound chanterelle mushrooms, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh sage, finely chopped

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups quail stock

2 tablespoons Madeira

Salt and pepper

Egg wash

For the stock, brown the quail in bacon grease or olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  Remove the quail and let the birds drain on a paper towel.  Add the vegetables, herbs and peppercorns to the stock pot, then add enough water to cover.  Return the quail to the pot and bring to a boil.  Once the stock has started to boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours, or until the quail meat starts to fall off the bone.  Remove the quail and pick through for meat.  Set the meat aside in a bowl until ready for the filling.  Return quail bones to the pot and simmer the stock for one more hour.

For the crust, cut the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter until it resembles coarse corn meal.  Sprinkle cold water over the flour 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix with a fork until the pastry comes together and can be formed into a ball.  Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

To make the filling and assemble the pie, preheat the oven to 350? F.

In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté the onion, carrots and parsnips in 1 tablespoon of bacon grease and 1 tablespoon of butter until just tender.  Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside in a bowl.

Increase the heat to medium-high and add one more tablespoon of butter and the chanterelles.  Sauté the mushrooms until tender and the edges begin to brown.  Remove the mushrooms from the pan and add to the carrots, parsnips and onion.  Save any liquid extracted from the mushrooms as well.

In a saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons butter.  Add the flour and cook on medium-low heat until the roux becomes golden brown, about 6 minutes.  Slowly add warm quail stock, while whisking.  Whisk until the sauce is smooth and begins to bubble.  Remove the sauce from the heat, then add the Madeira, vegetables, mushrooms and quail meat.  Season with salt and pepper.

To assemble the pie, divide the chilled dough in half and roll it out on a lightly floured surface.  Roll the dough until it is large enough to cover the bottom of your pie pan.  Lightly butter the pie pan and line with the dough.  Add the quail filling.

Roll out the second half on the pie crust and cover the top of the pie.  Trim the sides or the crust with a paring knife and lightly press down to seal the edges.  Poke a few holes in the top of the crust to allow steam to escape while baking.  Brush the top of the crust with an egg wash.  Bake the pie for 35 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown.  Remove the pie from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Note:  If you can’t find chanterelle mushrooms, you may substitute baby portabellas.

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Cast Iron Brussels Sprouts with Country Ham and Chipotle-Lavender Pickled Pears

Serves 4

At a young age, Chris was not fond of many vegetables, especially the Brussels sprout his nanny would boil and serve.  Thus began his lifelong aversion to the cabbage-like cruciform.  All that changed when he decided to take his culinary career seriously.  While working in an Italian restaurant that served roasted Brussels sprouts and pancetta, he took the opportunity to open his mind and mouth. From there, he refined this straightforward recipe that pairs Brussels sprouts with cured ham, along with an oft forgotten fall fruit, the pear.  The salty ham and sharp goat cheese heighten the pears’ complex blend of sweet, spicy and bitter flavors.

1 tablespoon oil or lard

2 cups Brussels sprouts, rinsed, patted dry and halved

½ cup diced country ham

¼ cup crumbled goat cheese

Chipotle-lavender pickled pears (recipe follows)

Heat the oil or lard in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.

Once the oil has reached its smoking point, cover the bottom of the skillet with the Brussels sprouts and cook for two minutes.  Add the country ham and toss with the sprouts in the skillet until the sprouts are tender and have browned on the edges.

Remove the skillet from the fire and add the goat cheese, allowing it to slightly melt.  Top with sliced pickled pear and serve.

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Chipotle Lavender Pickled Pears

Makes 1 quart

2½ cups water

2½ cups white vinegar

3 cups white sugar

1 cup rose wine

6 whole cloves

10 whole black peppercorns

3 dried chipotle peppers, chopped

2 tablespoons dried lavender

6 whole Bosc or Anjou pears, peeled

In a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot, bring the water, vinegar, sugar, wine and seasonings to a boil.  Remove the liquid mixture from the heat and allow it to cool for 45 minutes.  Once the liquid has cooled, add the pears.  Place in a non-reactive covered container and refrigerate for three days or more until ready to use.

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