Back in the old country, potatoes were subsistence fare, the centerpiece of every meal from September to April as you waited for the earth to supply some springtime variety. Garlic confit was less an ultra-savory treat than a simple method of anaerobic preservation that kept the cloves flavorful through the cold winter.
And mushrooms, in whatever form you could find them on your local forest floor, were a rich source of protein and umami that you didn’t even have to grow yourself — if you knew where to look, they were free for the taking.
At Edmonds’ Fire and the Feast, Chef Dan Chittenden has long made a habit of elevating Italian peasant fare to a date-night experience. Food preservation and storage has come a long way since subsistence farming, and Chittenden essentially has the pick of the world’s litter before him as he selects ingredients. Potatoes of any variety can be bought all year round, and you no longer have to rummage through dead leaves and musty soil yourself to score choice fungus — there’s no less than three or four types available in most produce sections.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not still immensely rewarding to know where to look. Locally harvested blue oyster mushrooms are the focus of two favorite seasonal dishes at Fire and the Feast, and to Chittenden, their freshness and authenticity take his creations into the realm of a rare seasonal experience.
Chittenden scoops arborio rice into a pan on the gas range and splashes in a ladleful of mushroom stock from a pot simmering on the next burner. The rice is parcooked to shorten risotto’s notoriously tedious cooking time, allowing Chittenden to get the savory porridge in front of hungry customers in just a matter of minutes.
The blue oysters came fresh from Dog Island Mushrooms near Anacortes. They’re delivered to Fire and the Feast within hours of harvest, then cooked down into the aromatic stock thickening with rice starch on the stove or scattered by the handful atop a wood-fired crust.
“Italy loves mushrooms,” Chittenden said as he stretched a handful of dough, freshly cut from the mass of fermenting starter the restaurant’s bakers feed each day. “But if I tried to use what they’d use back there — porcini, portobello — I’d get a totally different flavor and texture, plus I’d have to buy them dehydrated, not fresh. We do it differently here in the Northwest.”
Chittenden finishes the risotto by adding in a scoop of fresh, milky mascarpone cheese for “unctuousness,” its luscious texture offset nicely by the meaty, chewy blue oysters. It stars as a winter favorite on Fire and the Feast’s seasonally-rotating menu, but it’s just as comforting on a cloudy April morning as it would be in the depths of the annual Big Dark.
Like the mushrooms he folds into the velvety risotto, Chittenden is a Pacific Northwest local. A graduate of Shoreline High, he joined the military and toured the world before finding a similar camaraderie (and a natural outlet for his innate people-pleasing instincts) in the restaurant industry.
As a self-described “food nerd,” Chittenden revels in the history of the ingredients he uses and works to create fresh, seasonal menus that highlight each ingredient to its fullest. Yukon Gold potatoes can be bought anytime, sure, but they’re featured on the wintry mushroom pizza because that’s when they’re freshest, when they retain most of their character before their long rest in a root cellar.
He acknowledges that the oyster mushrooms so treasured on his winter menu aren’t exclusive to the Northwest — they grow on logs and decaying leaves the world over, and are featured heavily in certain Asian cuisines. But these mushrooms take on something special from their Washington roots, Chittenden thinks, whether it’s some indefinable terroir or just the sheer freshness offered by their local origins.
Chittenden slices the potatoes paper-thin and layers them over the dough, dressing them simply with olive oil. When baked in the 500-plus-degree wood-fired pizza oven, the edges will crisp and the centers will take on a meaty chew, a perfect accompaniment to the mushrooms on top. He piles crumbled goat cheese, cloves of preserved garlic and shards of crispy sage leaves on the crust along with a generous handful of the local blue oysters.
Going into the oven, you can see how each element of the pie calls back to its peak fall season. Even the goat cheese is traditionally at its most handy during the lean season, when it was a key protein source, Chittenden said. But out of the oven, as he brushes the crispy-chewy crust with scented oil from the vat of garlic confit, the dish becomes something entirely its own, transcending its constituent parts and its seasons of growth.
Like all seasons, the mushroom’s star turn in the kitchen must come to an end each year, its place to be taken by fresh spring produce. But Chittenden is already looking forward to the height of next year’s season, when creamy mushroom risotto and flavorful mushroom pizza will once again be on the menus and minds of his customers.
And in the meantime, a discerning home chef can stave off fall nostalgia with a handful of high-quality ingredients and a knowledge of where each belongs on the stage.
Chef Dan’s Mushroom Risotto
The chefs at Fire and the Feast finish this creamy rice dish with Agrumato, a vivid green, citrus-infused olive oil from Abruzzo, Italy. But any bright and fruity variety will do in a pinch.
1 cup arborio rice, uncooked
2 cups diced yellow onion
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups mushroom stock (substitute vegetable stock if unavailable)
4 ounces blue oyster mushrooms, cleaned, stems off, and pulled apart into bite-size pieces
4 ounces mascarpone cheese
4 ounces parmesan cheese, finely shredded
Chopped parsley, chive batons, and Pecorino Romano, to finish
Heat mushroom stock in a small saucepan, bringing to high simmer, then hold.
In a saute pan on high heat, warm oil. Add rice to toast, stirring continuously until light toast marks appear on the rice.
Add mushrooms and onion. Cook until onions have softened and turned translucent.
Add wine, being careful of the splatter, and reduce heat to medium. When wine has almost completely been absorbed, add a third of the stock to the rice and season with salt. Cook, stirring continuously.
Repeat until all the stock is absorbed and rice is just about cooked through. This may take a while.
Finish with parmesan, mascarpone, and 1 teaspoon chopped parsley. Adjust seasoning to taste. Finished risotto should be creamy but not soupy.
Garnish with shaved Pecorino, chopped herbs and a drizzle of olive oil. Serves two.
Potato Mushroom Pizza, Fire and the Feast-style
Chances are your home oven doesn’t reach quite the scorching temps of the brick wood-fired one in Chef Dan’s kitchen. Heat yours to the hottest possible temperature and adjust time accordingly.
Also, garlic confit sounds fancy but is incredibly easy to make, per Serious Eats: peel garlic cloves, trim the root ends, and place in a pot with enough neutral oil to cover the cloves. Cook over medium heat until the oil reaches a bare simmer, then lower the heat until you see just a tiny bubble or two rising up every so often. The cloves are done when they’re completely tender and a light tan color. Store in an airtight jar in the fridge for a week or two.
300 grams pizza dough, store-bought or homemade
1.5 ounces fontina cheese, shredded
1.5 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
2 ounces blue oyster mushrooms, cleaned, stems removed and pulled into bite -size pieces
2 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, sliced 1/8” thick and roasted till tender
2 tablespoons garlic confit, whole cloves
1/4 cup red onion, sliced thinly
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 tablespoon fried sage, slightly crushed
1 tablespoon garlic oil (from the garlic confit)
Stretch pizza dough into a 12-inch circle. Brush top of dough with garlic oil, then scatter with fontina and goat cheeses. Top with potatoes, mushrooms, garlic cloves and onion.
Cook in pizza oven at 650 degrees (or highest possible temp) until dough is crispy.
Remove pizza from oven and brush crust with garlic oil. Top with parmesan and crushed sage. Serves two comfortably or one generously.