The Magic of Mushrooms
This morning we found the first morels of the season, which caused me, much to the dismay of my sweetheart, to start singing “The First Morel” (think “The First Noel”). But morels! We found eleven beautiful morels, most of them large, a couple of pounds worth as well as a couple of pounds of nice young oyster mushrooms. Tonight it’s going to be wild mushroom pizza, and a new season of mushroom hunting has begun. Mushroom hunting is my most favorite outdoor activity, because it involves hiking very slowly through the woods, and then finding delicious mushrooms which you can take home and eat, sautéed in lots of butter and garlic. What could be better? Fresh air, exercise, and food. When I got terribly sick in graduate school with a mysterious low-grade illness, one that involved intermittent fevers over a couple of years and that finally blossomed into a full-bore health crisis, I recovered by hunting mushrooms. I’d drive from Salt Lake City an hour and a half up into the Uinta plateau, where I’d wander aimlessly through the late-summer rains gathering chanterelles and boletes. Very slow hiking, in nature, not thinking about your Ph.D. exams, can do wonders for a shattered immune system. And then you get to come home and fill your tiny apartment with the scent of drying porcini and chanterelles sautéing in butter. It restored my will to live.
Mushroom hunting is one of those things that you do need someone to take you out the first several times so you can make sure you have the right mushrooms. I cut my teeth during my ski-bum years in Telluride, where they happen to have a fabulous mushroom festival in the fall. David Arora, who wrote the classic mushroom identification guide, Mushrooms Demystified, usually shows up, and the irrepressible Art Goodtimes leads the mushroom parade through town (in his red truck spotted with white dots to look like the deadly amanita muscaria), but most important, they set up tables in town park where you can bring in what you find and have real mushroom experts identify your haul. I have a limited repertoire: chanterelles, boletes, oyster mushrooms and morels. I can usually identify the agaricus species with some certainty, but since there are several varieties of white mushrooms that are very poisonous, I tend to steer clear of even the two agaricus that grow around here, agaricus campestris (the wild version of the common supermarket button mushroom) and agaricus arvensis, the horse mushroom. Every forager has his or her own pocket rules, mine is “no white mushrooms.” If you’re interested in mushroom hunting, I highly recommend finding a festival, or looking online for a mycological society near you. They’re often attached to universities, and through them you can often find someone to take you out and show you what the local mushrooms are. Sometimes you can find a mushroom expert by finding a grocery store who stocks fresh wild mushrooms and asking who they buy from. Even if you don’t want to go find them on your own, it’s well worth exploring the wild mushrooms as they start turning up in markets again. Morels will show up first, and with some luck, depending on where you are, in midsummer the boletus edulis, the porcini mushrooms, will start appearing. Then as fall glimmers on the horizon, the glorious egg-yolk orange chanterelles will appear.
And what should we do with such bounty? I turn to three books, the Jane Grigson classic The Mushroom Feast, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Cookbook, and a recent and beautiful cookbook given to me by my beloved stepmother, The Complete Mushroom Book by Antonio Carluccio.
Jane Grigson was one of the grandes dames of English cooking, and her book The Mushroom Feast has all the charms of English country cooking. She opens with a short primer on edible mushroom varieties, then includes chapters on preserving mushrooms, mushroom dishes, mushrooms with fish, mushrooms with meat, poultry and game, and a final chapter that covers the mushrooms of Asia. I’m sort of boring about my mushroom finds -- I tend to rely on butter, garlic and perhaps some cream as a vehicle for mushrooms which can then be served on noodles, or rice, or over a chicken breast or pork chop. But looking through this book once more I’m seeing recipes I want to try this summer. Funghi porcini al tegame, or Porcini Mushrooms with Mint. Mint? Sounds terrible! But look at the recipe -- it’s Italian, and there are anchovies and garlic and some tomatoes and just a hint of lovely fresh mint, served over “slices of French bread, fried in butter.” Sign me up. If this wet weather holds up, we might even have a few boletes this summer. I lucked out last summer and found enough that I’ve still got two quart mason jars of dried porcini slices in the pantry (which I hoard shamelessly). There are recipes for various gratins of potatoes and wild mushrooms, several of which I’ve made in years past, and all of which I remember with great fondness. The potatoes soak up the mushroom flavor, and seem to amplify it somehow. Scrambled eggs, omelettes and soufflés: there’s a whole section full of variations on these themes and eggs are always a good match with wild mushrooms. While I find the fish and mushroom chapter interesting, we’re so far from the sea that I tend not to eat so much fish, but there are several quite delicious-looking recipes including one for fish in parchment with mushrooms. Meat, poultry and game are all natural matches for wild mushrooms, although my copy of Grigson falls stubbornly open on the two pages containing recipes for Chicken with Girolles (chanterelles) and Poultry and Game Birds Stewed with Ceps (porcini). These are the two recipes I have cooked most often, especially since I think that chicken and chanterelles were absolutely made for one another. There are also several slightly terrifying recipes in here for things like Brains Baked with Mushrooms and Cheese. Thanks, but no thanks -- I know offal is trendy right now, but ugh. Jane Grigson was one of the great writers of the cookbook genre and this book is simply a pleasure to read through. During my graduate school breakdown, I’d sometimes take a break and tuck into bed reading her descriptions of mushroom hunting in England, think of Virginia and Leonard Woolf out with their mushroom baskets on a Sunday morning, and revel in the idea that even they came home wondering what to do with their bounty.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is another Englishman -- he’s a floppy-haired guy with a farm and a show on the BBC and he seems always to be out foraging for something or raising a couple of pigs at the bottom of his garden. I have something of a crush on him, actually, especially since in The River Cottage Cookbook he gives instructions for how to kill and butcher a pig, and make the attendant hams, bacon and sausages. My beloved does not share my love of livestock, and feels that such tasks should be left to the professionals, but there’s something in me that longs to make my own sausages. I’ve cured bacon and pancetta, both of which worked out well, and my Christmas pâtés seem to have become something of a hit; however, in the absence of a sufficiently large space in which to raise more than a couple of chickens, I’ll have to settle for Fearnley-Whittingstall’s descriptions. In the meantime, though, he does have a short section in this book about foraging for mushrooms with good descriptions of habitat and what foods go well with which mushrooms, but he really only includes two specific recipes, one for a snail and wild mushroom risotto (which resides in the section about foraging your own snails) and one for fried wild mushrooms with thyme. This is one of those books that has a lot of instructive general information, if it is a little short on recipes at times. Since I a prefer cookbooks that teach you how to get off the recipes, this is one of my favorites. Plus, it has that fantasy element that can be so compelling about cookbooks. One can imagine oneself on some farm in the English countryside, raising pigs and chickens, foraging snails and wild mushrooms and hedgerow berries with your kids, without any of the blood or gore or complaining that are sure to accompany the actual accomplishment of said tasks. (Although I keep trying to convince my favorite children, who are adventurous eaters, to forage the snails from their backyard in Los Angeles. So far, no go.)
The wild mushroom cookbook I turn to more than any other in my house is Antonio Carluccio’s The Complete Mushroom Book. Published by Rizzoli, it’s a gorgeous book, full of glorious and fantasy-inducing photographs of mushroom hunting in Carluccio’s native Italy. The whole first half of this book is devoted to descriptions of both wild and domestic mushrooms, their habitats, edibility, and basic instructions on picking cleaning and cooking them. For several years now I’ve been putting up the late, large oyster mushrooms that are often the consolation prize when hunting for morels, using Carluccio’s recipe for Pickled Mushrooms in Brine and they’re a real treasure. I particularly enjoy them in nori rolls during the winter, or tossed in pasta for a quick lunch. And opening a jar of my own pickled mushrooms makes me feel like a character out of Anna Karenina, a novel in which they always seem to be eating pickled mushrooms at banquets. I can’t tell entirely if it’s simply an Italian technique, but Carluccio quite often calls for cooking mushrooms for ten minutes in boiling water to which a little vinegar has been added before tossing them with olive oil and a little more vinegar -- and I have to say that it’s one I’ve used with great success on the sturdier mushrooms like chanterelles and oyster mushrooms. There’s a very simple recipe in here for Potatoes and Porcini, sautéed together with a little sage, that was a huge success last summer when my beloved stepmother and I found a horde of porcini up in the Gallatin range. It’s dead simple, but so good -- porcini and waxy potatoes, cut to similar size, sautéed in a mix of olive oil and butter, then add sage leaves at the end to crisp them up. We ate it right out of the skillet with forks. There are a number of delicious pasta and risotto recipes in this book, from the simple Pappardelle with Porcini to the more complicate Sardinian Ravioli with Fairy Ring Mushrooms. Carluccio also includes several Asian recipes in this book, including Mushroom and Chicken Casserole that includes both shiitakes and morels, and which was given to him by Ken Hom. The meat and game recipes all look delicious, but I have to admit that when I have a cache of wild mushrooms, I tend to want to cook them very simply, and eat them without anything else that might distract from the taste. Pasta, risotto, eggs and chicken are my favorite backdrops for wild mushrooms, although in the winter I’ve been known to add big handfuls of dried porcini to elk or venison stew (even though neither myself nor my sweetheart hunt, we live in the midst of big game country, and we usually trade access to land for a share of the bounty).
While correct identification of wild mushrooms is a skill that is best still taught one to one, by someone who knows what they’re foraging for to someone who is interested (although if you’re familiar with biological keys, and have some basic knowledge, the Arora book can take you far), it’s not the terrifying high-wire act that it is too-often portrayed as. Yes, there are some poisonous mushrooms out there, and yes, they can kill you, but there are also several easy-to-identify species of mushroom that are delicious, and learning to identify and forage from them can be a fabulous addition to anyone’s culinary knowledge. A morning spent in the woods looking for mushrooms is a terrific way to spend time outdoors, either alone or with someone you love, and there is absolutely nothing to compare with the scent of fresh wild mushrooms sautéing in your kitchen.