"You get one shot," says Chris Weber, executive chef at The Herbfarm (Woodinville, 14590 NE 145th St.), about the uncompromising seasonality of the ingredients used for the menu at this legendary 31-year-old, farm-to-table restaurant on the Eastside. An East Coast transplant, Weber has long admired nature’s bounty in the Pacific Northwest. “The seasonality and ingredients and getting to revisit them every year is incredible.”
The youngest chef to run the kitchen at The Herbfarm (and one of the youngest to run a Five Diamond restaurant), Weber, 31, has the task of using hyperseasonal, local ingredients in skillful, new ways year after year. The Northwest produces wild mushrooms from spring through autumn, and so they play prominently on his menu, where Weber makes a point of creating food that is “so impractical, you’d never make it at home.”
Morels taste like their surroundings: woodsy. They’re found in hot, dry alpine conditions, says Weber, where “you smell rocks, you smell decaying pine needles. Morels have that same kind of flavor.”
At The Herbfarm, he makes caraway thyme caramel sauce with morel sabayon, a light custard-like sauce made with late-season burn morels, which bloom in late summer in areas previously burned by forest fires. “The textures are so subtle, but so similar, but because there are only two things [on the plate], it’s explosive.” Ever evolving, the dish morphs every year with slight variations. “Sometimes I use birch syrup, instead of caramel,” says Weber.
“How many places in the world can you get morels that are good and consistent?” he asks. They’re a huge part of our food culture.
Burn versus natural morels
“I think the natural morels are a little meatier and thicker in texture,” notes Weber of the difference between natural spring morels and summer morels that bloom in areas previously burned by forest fires. The color is the most remarkable difference, with burn morels being really dark and almost black. “They both have their place,” says Weber. Burn morels are drier and have lots of “nooks and crannies that can soak up anything and hold onto anything.”
“You find them in places that have burned before,” notes Weber of these late-season morels. While The Herbfarm sources its morels from local foraging company Foraged & Found Edibles, which has booths at several Seattle farmers markets all season long, casual pickers can forage on federal, state and local lands according to the entities’ rules. Permits may be required. For information on foraging and identifying morel mushrooms, check out the Puget Sound Mycological Society.
Photograph by Maria Billorou.
Foraged Morels with Caraway Thyme Caramel
Serves 4 as an appetizer
This is a simplified version of a more ambitious recipe (it is The Herbfarm, after all) for a savory take on a sabayon (a custard-like dessert).
12 medium morels for roasting (washed free of any dirt or pine needles)
1/4 cup hard cider, Madeira or white wine
Salt to taste
Unsalted butter for sautéing
Caraway Thyme Caramel:
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons minced caraway
Caramel: Start with a dry pan, preheated to medium high. Sprinkle about a quarter of the sugar into the pan at a time until it is all melted and starting to caramelize. Once the caramel has become dark and starts to smell like it is burning (think of the top of crème brûlee), add the stock immediately to halt the cooking. The sugar will seize and take a minute to dissolve but that’s OK. Add the soy sauce and the butter, and let it reduce by about two-thirds to a rich syrup (about 10 minutes) thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the caraway thyme at the very end.
To Assemble: Sauté the morels in butter until tender, splash with the cider, season with salt. Distribute the morels evenly among four plates. Top the morels with a couple of spoonfuls of the caramel, creating a glaze. Serve immediately.
*Find it at Swansons Nursery in View Ridge; swansonsnursery.com.