Thursday, October 30, 2008

White Chanterelles


Chanterelle season is winding down here in WA state. The coast is still kicking some out, but with low temps and more rain they're not the firm, dry chants of earlier. In a couple weeks I'll head south to the Rogue River Canyon country of southwest Oregon to catch the last gasp of the PNW 'shroom harvest (and maybe a steelhead or two), then it's time to put away the basket and start cooking all sorts of winter comfort foods with the fungal stash.

One of my favorites for hearty meat dishes and pasta sauces is the white chanterelle. Everyone is familiar with the golden chanterelle in its many guises (Cantharellus formosus, Cantharellus cibarius, et al), known as girolle in France and pfifferling in Germany. In the Pacific Northwest we're blessed with another species of Cantharellus that some consider even tastier, the white chanterelle (Cantharellus subalbidus).

White chants are found on both sides of the Cascades in similar habitat as goldens, although in drier climates they're often the dominant chanterelle. They tend to grow in clusters beneath the duff and often require excavation. My own experience suggests that white chanterelles are even more delicious than their golden cousins. They're more aromatic (despite what Mykoweb says), meatier, and seem to endure more prolonged storage in the fridge. I save whites for my favorite dishes.

Chicken with Boozy Chanterelle Sauce

Here's one adapted from Jane Grigson's Mushroom Feast, which she calls Poulet aux Girolles. You can eyeball the amounts according to your own tastes. Mrs. Finspot likes this recipe because it's not necessary to use a lot of cream to get good flavor.

2 lbs chicken thighs
1 lb white chanterelles (or goldens), chopped
butter
2 shallots, diced
cognac
port
chicken stock
heavy cream

Brown chicken on both sides in a few tablespoons of butter, then add diced shallots. Cook until shallots are soft and translucent. Deglaze with a good splash of cognac (1/4 cup or so) and turn chicken again, then pour a splash of port (again, around a 1/4 cup). Scrape pan well so all the chicken bits are mixed into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Add a 1/4 cup or more of stock and stir, then an equal amount of cream. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for a half-hour. Meanwhile in another pan, saute chanterelles in butter over medium-high heat, careful not to overcook. When the chicken is fully cooked and tender, remove to a covered dish. Raise heat and cook sauce down as desired, adding chanterelles for final minute or two of cooking. Lay chicken over rice pilaf and pour sauce over. Serves 2, with leftovers.

P.S. Apologies for the lame photo below. My main light source in the house, an old standup lamp, was summarily kicked over and stomped by the drunken midgets that routinely take this place by storm (i.e. the kids). This year I'm asking Santa for a digital SLR so I can banish these low-light dinnertime blues once and for all.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Shaggy Parasol


Warning: this is a wonky post, and while it might bore some readers, it also explains why mycology is an excellent discipline for the budding biologist. The study of mushrooms and other fungi is accelerating quickly now that we have genetic testing tools. There are huge strides to be made in simply categorizing mushrooms across North America. Many well-known species—well known by their common names, that is—still carry Latin names borrowed from their European look-alikes. For instance, I fully expect our many species of morels to go through radical changes in nomenclature in the not-too-distant future. Such work is exciting for scientists. Even more exciting: there are many species left to discover and name.

In the past couple weeks the mushroom pictured above has been fruiting all over western Washington. Commonly known as a shaggy parasol, it goes by the Latin name of Chlorophyllum olivieri, and apparently it's quite common in the PNW as the fall weather turns colder.

There are now three species of shaggy parasol that used to be lumped into a single species (in a different genus) called Lepiota rhacodes (also spelled rachodes). This species was moved from Lepiota to the Macrolepiota genus, and now, thanks to DNA sequencing, it resides in Chlorophyllum, where it's been split into three different species: Chlorophyllum rhacodes, Chlorophyllum brunneum, and Chlorophyllum olivieri. Interestingly, Chlorophyllum is home to the mushroom that poisons more people annually in North American than any other, Chlorophyllum molybdites, or green-spored parasol. Here's a quick overview of the naming musical chairs.

Though known as choice edibles, the shaggy parasols are viewed with suspicion. It may be that, as with Leccinums, a small percentage of the human population is allergic to them. Or there might be a culprit in the trio that is responsible for most of the poisonings. No one knows.

I've eaten parasols before without incident, so my plan is to saute these for a mushroom soup. You don't see them in the market much because they don't travel well. If you do come across an "edible" parasol for the first time, remember to sample a small bite to make sure you're not one of the few unlucky ones who becomes violently ill from this beautiful fungus. (Top photo by Damien Murphy.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Beef Wellington with Lobster Duxelles



Now that you've mastered duxelles with lobster mushrooms, here's an elegant old-timey recipe to put those duxelles to work: Beef Wellington. Don't make this dish, however, if you're not willing to pony up for top-drawer ingredients. You need a beef tenderloin and bona-fide pâté de foie gras; a lesser cut of meat and cheap pâté will compromise the Wellington beyond repair. That said, I do urge you to make one life-saving short-cut: buy frozen puff pastry.

For a small Wellington that will easily feed four, you can get away with a tenderloin that's 1.5 pounds. You'll also need:

olive oil
4 oz pâté de foie gras
1 egg, beaten
butter
1 lb lobster mushrooms (or buttons)
1 large shallot
1 cup heavy cream
cognac (optional)
parsley, chopped
1 sheet puff pastry
beef stock (for gravy)
madeira wine (for gravy)

Note: The duxelles can be made a few days in advance.

1. Season the meat with salt and pepper, brown quickly in a hot skillet with olive oil, then set aside to cool. Now get your puff pastry out of the freezer to defrost; you'll need one sheet.

2. Make your lobster duxelles while the puff pastry is defrosting. Finely chop shallot and mushrooms, saute in butter, season, deglaze with cognac, stir in heavy cream to taste, and garnish with chopped herbs. (Click here for detailed recipe and images.)

3. Spread a thin layer of foie gras on the pastry, leaving an inch untouched on all sides, then spoon duxelles over the foie gras. Place the tenderloin in the middle and then tightly wrap the pastry around it, folding the edges. Brush egg on the folds, then roll the Wellington over onto a greased baking tin and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4. Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Remove the Wellington from the refrigerator and brush all surfaces with egg before putting in oven. Bake 10 minutes, then lower temp to 375 and bake another 15 minutes or until pastry is golden. Remove from oven and allow to sit 10 to 15 minutes before carving.

5. Make a gravy while Wellington is cooling. Reduce equal parts beef stock and madeira, then finish with a knob of butter.

Serve with potatoes and a green vegetable. And a good cabernet!

Hints: Make sure your puff pastry hasn't defrosted too much (and gotten soft and gooey) before spreading foie gras and duxelles. Also, make sure your duxelles and beef are cool during this step to prevent puff pastry from tearing.

About the lobster mushrooms: The season is just about over in the PNW, but you can still find them along the sides of old logging roads and elsewhere where the duff composition is good. If you see lots of Russula brevipes, then you have a good chance of finding lobsters. And once you find one, look carefully in the vicinity because there will usually be others lurking under the duff nearby. Here's a video illustrating lobster mushroom habitat along a mountain biking trail.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Oyster Po' Boys and Beer for Everyone!


My friends and fellow oyster lovers, as a finalist candidate in the Great Oyster Decider Election of '08, I'm asking for your vote in the upcoming election, sponsored by MarxFoods.com, so I can win four dozen fresh Puget Sound oysters. I promise to fete my supporters with Oyster Po' Boys and Beer 'til the cows come home. Just stop on by Oyster Headquarters in Seattle's lovely Mt. Baker neighborhood. Now that's a promise, y'hear!

Vote early...and often!

I'm a Finalist in the Marx Foods Oyster Contest

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cauliflower of the Woods


Mycophagists are nearly unanimous in their love of Sparassis crispa, the cauliflower mushroom. It's cool to look at and tastes great, provided you cook it long enough. Cleaning can sometimes be a chore, with needles and dirt clods sneaking into all those folds, but for the most part it fruits above the fray at the base of trees and doesn't collect too much of the forest floor.

Cauliflower mushrooms can be quite large—a 20-pounder was collected on a recent PSMS foray to Deception Pass State Park near Anacortes, WA—so it's an exciting find for the pot hunter. This one pictured below, only a few pounds, came from a patch of old-growth fir and hemlock near Mt. Rainier. I don't find many of these mushrooms. Older forests are probably a good bet for habitat. A professional forager told me about a spot on the Olympic Peninsula loaded with cauliflower; it's on my long list of hunting locales to visit.

If you've noticed that the cauliflower might be more aptly named the day-old-clump-of-egg-noodles-stuck-in-the-collander mushroom, then you're already halfway toward an understanding of how to cook it. In fact, I like to substitute cauliflowers in recipes that call for egg noodles. It's ideal for a beef stew because you can cook the mushroom in the stew, then scoop it out as the bedding that the stew will be poured on.

Beef Stew over Sparassis

This is a basic (read: classic) stew recipe, codified by Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything. You can make any number of changes to this recipe, from the stock to the spices to the veggies, to make it more interesting. Ingredient amounts are largely up to you. As far as I know, Mr. Bittman hasn't tried it over cauliflower mushroom.

1-2 lbs. stew beef, cubed
2-3 tbsp vegetable oil
2-3 large yellow onions, cut up
2-3 tbsp flour
2-3 cups beef or chicken stock
5-6 large carrots, cut up
3-4 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
3-4 stalks of celery, cut up
1-2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 lb cauliflower mushroom, cleaned and cut into smaller clumps

Using a heavy pot or dutch oven, brown the beef all over in a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil, then remove from pan with slotted spoon. Cook the onions for a few minutes, then add the flour and cook another minute or two, stirring. Pour in the stock along with the bay leaf and thyme and add the beef back in. Stir well. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer half an hour, covered. Add the carrots and potatoes. After an hour, add the celery and the cauliflower mushroom. Cook covered until tender. Season to taste. Before serving, scoop out the cauliflower mushroom and divide into bowls; ladle stew over mushroom.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fried Chicken Mushroom



That's no joke. Lyophyllum decastes is commonly known as the fried chicken mushroom, and the answer is Yes, it does taste a little like fried chicken—at least to me it does, although Wildman Steve Brill begs to differ. It's greasy like fried chicken and a little bit chewy. The stems are fibrous, so you're better off using just the caps. I floured mine and pan-fried in butter. Pretty simple.

Fried chicken mushrooms grow in clumps (sometimes huge clumps of several pounds or more) in disturbed areas. They're common along roadsides, but beware: these same roadsides are often sprayed with herbicides and other nasty chemicals which get biomagnified by the mushroom; make sure you pick these in safe areas.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Salmon Sashimi


We're taking a break from the forced mushroom march at FOTL to enjoy a stellar lunch of silver salmon sashimi. I caught an immature silver and decided it would be put to better use raw. Normally I toss the younguns back, but this one was bleeding profusely from what looked like a mortal hook-wound, so I added it to the punch-card.

1 cup sushi rice
rice vinegar to taste
1 small salmon fillet, deboned
pinch or two of fresh ginger, minced
pinch or two of toasted sesame seeds
pinch or two of chives, chopped
pinch or two of cilantro, chopped (optional)
1/4 cup soy sauce
ponzu sauce (or make your own: 2 tbsp soy sauce plus 2 tsp fresh lime, lemon, or orange juice, or combination)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp sesame oil

Make the sushi rice. While it's cooking, wrap your salmon fillet and place in freezer for five minutes. Prepare minced ginger, chopped chives and cilantro, and ponzu sauce (if necessary). Remove salmon from freezer and using very sharp fillet knife, slice into sashimi strips, cutting in one direction (no sawing). Season rice with vinegar, wet hands, and form two hockey puck-sized patties, and set aside on plates. Place salmon strips in bowl with soy sauce. In small saucepan, heat oils until smoking. Drain salmon and pile on top of rice patties. Sprinkle with ginger and chives. Spoon a tablespoon or so of hot oil over salmon to sear it. Spoon a tablespoon or so of ponzu sauce over salmon. Garnish with cilantro and sesame seeds. Serves 2, with rice to spare.

Monday, October 13, 2008

That Scabrous Bolete


I knew I was on the right track. Off in the woods the voices of Eastern Europeans sing-songed back and forth. A moment later two lanky men came bounding down the mountain with full grocery bags. "We are finding the porcini," one of them admitted to me warily. I continued up. On top of the ridge the forest gave way to the stumps of an old clearcut and the dense growth of new firs. Huckleberry bushes glowed red in slanting afternoon light. More voices and a rustling of brush. A trio burst out of the undergrowth and landed on the trail in front of me. They looked like they'd just stepped off a Hollywood set for some low-budget gypsy movie: two stout women with heavily lined faces attired in peasant dresses and kerchiefs; an older man, sinewy and graying. They all held 5-gallon buckets piled high with giant mushrooms. A moment of indecision. They were surprised to see me and looked ready to flee. "Mushrooms," I said, stating the obvious, and they nodded furtively. I wanted to take their picture but thought better of it. We all looked at each other some more and then they eased their way back into the bush and out of sight.

Eastern Europeans are mad about mushrooms. Those who immigrate to this country must think they've woken up in heaven, because there is so much porcini and so little competition. They pick huge amounts of several species that the rest of us ignore, or mostly ignore. Like these scabrous Leccinums, so named because of the diagnostic scabers on the stem.

Scabrous. Doesn't sound too delectable. Would you eat a mushroom with "scrabous tufts" on it? In fact, this is how mycologists describe the raised bumps on the stem of Leccinum mushrooms. The genus Leccinum is a member of that same bolete family that boasts so many globally famous edibles, including the porcini of Italy. But they are not the equal of the king bolete, Boletus edulis. I like to dry Leccinums to concentrate the flavor, then grind them up into powder to enhance soups and stews. When cooked fresh in the pan they will often turn an unappetizing gray—or even black in an iron skillet. Their texture is not as firm as the king bolete, their flavor not as pleasing. But the Poles and Russians and Czechs and a host of other nationalities across Eastern Europe gobble them down anyway. These boletivores just can't get enough of their beloved Bolitaceae.

Here's what MushroomExpert.com's Michael Kuo says about Leccinums:

...while recognizing that a bolete is a Leccinum is usually relatively easy, figuring out what species you have found can be truly frustrating. In fact, if you are a North American collector at this point in time, it is probably not possible to identify most Leccinum species with scientific certainty... If this reality frustrates you, I'm sorry--but try looking at it this way: this is an exciting time to be collecting Leccinum, and amateur mushroomers and mushroom clubs are in a position to make substantial and important contributions to mycology.

According to a mycologist who identifies mushrooms for the Puget Sound Mycological Society, the Leccinums at the top are all Leccinum aurantiecum, one of the better edibles in the genus. I'm pretty sure I've been eating this one for a number of years, along with another species called Leccinum manzanitae, which may well be represented by the next image below the top, one of the many Leccinums I found in the vicinity of Vaccinium and in the company of those Eastern Europeans. However, if you read through Kuo's remarks, you'll see there is much debate about the nomenclature. Happily, all the Leccinums are edible, if not all delicious—with one important caveat: it seems a small percentage of the population at large, for reasons not entirely understood, is allergic to the mushrooms in this genus. As with any wild fungi landing on your plate for the first time, try a small portion first.

The firm buttons in the top photo got sauteed for a red sauce, while the larger, more mature mushrooms I sliced up and dried.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Meal Fit for a King


The admiral is a dandy but the king is...well, the king. Boletus edulis, the king bolete, the true porcino, is always an exciting find.

The more kings I capture, the more I realize how little I know about this mushroom. Here in the PNW we are graced with kings galore. There are spring kings in the Cascades (probably a different species from Boletus edulis, but the DNA sequencing has yet to be done), summer kings high in the mountains near treeline, and fall kings from below freezing all the way to sea level, from mountains to coast. The fall kings are the most flavorful; their nutty taste permeates whatever ingredients you use.

In my experience, if I find Amanita muscaria in numbers, Boletus edulis is often nearby. Both in the Rockies and Cascades I've stumbled onto huge fruitings of the two species in the same habitat, with individuals sometimes nearly touching cap to cap.

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know I like to eat. To eat well. And especially, to eat well without getting all technical. Here's a rich recipe that's perfect for the tuckered out fungi forager at the end of the day, when you've spent thousands of calories in search of the king and could care less about piling them back on, the sort of pasta dish that's started with a pot of water on the boil and ended when the noodles are al dente—about 10 minutes from start to finish. Yet I guarantee you it will taste like a heavenly creation from the best of Italian retsaurants.

Porcini in Cream Sauce over Pasta

1 knob butter
1-2 shallots, diced
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large king bolete, chopped
dry vermouth
salt and pepper
heavy cream
1 lb. pasta
parmesan for grating
parsley, chopped

1. Get that pot on the boil. Meanwhile, as the water's heating up, finely chop a couple shallots (or an equivalent amount of yellow onion if that's what you have on hand) and saute in butter. Mince a clove or two of garlic and add to the saute. Chop up a large porcino or a few buttons and add to the saute, cooking for 5 minutes or so over medium-high and stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Deglaze with a splash of vermouth, then reduce heat to medium-low and stir in heavy cream to taste. The pasta should be nearly done. Drain pasta and serve. Pour porcini cream sauce over pasta, then sprinkle generously with grated parmesan cheese and a pinch of chopped parsley.

Not only is this an ideal meal for the weary mushroom hunter, it's also a fine lazy day repast to go with the Sunday papers and all the wonderful news in the world.


Here are a few other king bolete recipes from previous posts:

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What would you do with 48 oysters?


To commemorate the onset of another oyster season, Marx Foods is offering four dozen of the sublime bivalves to the winner of its latest contest. All you need to do is leave a comment on their contest page saying what you'd do with 48 oysters. The winner will be voted by readers. The contest runs through October 19; polling will be from the 21st to 24th at noon, and a winner will be announced on October 27th.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Admiral


The admirable bolete, aka "Admiral" (Boletus mirabilis), is one of my favorites, for its beauty, its lively flavor, and its fleeting collectabilty. Rarely do I find one before the bugs.

Unlike the king bolete (Boletus edulis), which can be used in all manner of culinary ways, the admiral is probably best by itself, sliced and sauteed, an amuse bouche for the table. The taste of lemon is distinctive and usually requires something to balance it such as butter or soy sauce. That said, I'm told the lemony flavor is produced by a compound in the velvety "skin" of the mushroom's pileus, or cap. Presumably one could peel this off and then use the admiral in any standard porcini recipe.

The admiral is a mushroom of damp Pacific Northwest forests. I generally find it in older hemlock stands with spongy moss carpets where it likes to fruit off nurse logs, and though it can get quite large, with a cap approaching the size of a salad plate, edible specimens are usually smaller.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Matsutake Sukiyaki

This is the mushroom that kick-started a fungal gold rush in the early 90s, introducing hundreds of hopeful new commercial pickers to the "mushroom trail" and changing the non-wood forest products economy probably forever. It's the matsutake, or pine mushroom (matsu for pine, take for mushroom). The Japanese species is Tricholoma matsutake, while the closely related North American species is named Tricholoma magnivelare.

Here's what happened. The Japanese love their matsutake, and having depleted their own resource in the red pine forests of Japan, they turned to the export market. Commercial pickers in the Pacific Northwest, where the mushroom is found in abundance, cashed in for a few years, getting absurd prices like $50 or even $100 per pound, and then the market collapsed. Turns out matsutake are fairly common in many other temperate conifer forests around the world, including those in China, Korea, and even other parts of North America. It was a simple case of supply outstripping demand. Right now pickers are getting around $6-8 per pound. What galls them most, though, is that Japanese consumers at the other end of the supply chain are still paying top yen for their beloved matsutake, if not the ridiculous prices of a decade ago. Even in this country prime matsutake buttons command an exorbitant price; in Seattle's Uijimaya market the other day they were going for $49.99 a pound.

During the go-go years, huge mushroom camps popped up outside of places like Terrace, B.C. (the "Zoo," as it's still called) and Crescent Lake, Oregon. The camps grew into little cities where open-air soup kitchens and even brothels catered to the pickers. Meanwhile these same pickers laid claim to productive patches and legend has it there was the occasional gunfight in the woods. When prices fell back to earth many of the pickers stayed in the game, expanding their expertise to other mushrooms or non-wood products such as salal and berries.

There's this lingering rumor that you can still make some money picking mushrooms, so the woods remain full of commercial pickers. The good is that wild mushrooms are now a staple of the best restaurants around the country; the bad is that recreational pickers such as myself must look a little harder for a patch that hasn't already been picked; and the ugly is that some commercial pickers continue to see the patches, even those on public land, as their own private stashes and will use threats, intimidation, and sometimes even violence to protect "their" crop. Mind you, I've never personally encountered such miscreant behavior, but I've heard stories and been threatened in an online forum.

Emotions tend to run high when it comes to matsutake. If commercial pickers or buyers get ahold of this post, don't be surprised to see angry comments or corrections. To get an idea of the current picking imbroglio, check out this YouTube video made by a buyer in B.C. who's sympathetic with the plight of pickers (there are several installments).

On to culinary matters. The matsutake, when young and fresh, is known for its pungent smell, what David Arora, author of Mushrooms Demystified, calls "a provocative compromise between 'red hots' and dirty socks." The aroma is unforgettable, and so is the taste. It only takes a small amount of the mushroom to put its stamp on a dish, and a bunch of them can quickly fill a room with their smell.

As with other cultural icons in the East, many westerners wonder what all the fuss is about. The matsutake is an odd bird, with a flavor that is frankly too intense or unusual for many. It doesn't work well in traditional western cuisines such as French or Italian. Don't try cooking it with cream or butter. But when matched with ingredients from the Far East it can be exquisite. There's a reason why it's a delicacy in Japan. Try lightly grilling it and eating with a dipping sauce. In stir-fry dishes its meaty texture can be a substitute for animal flesh, as the porcino is in Italy.

Matsutake Sukiyaki

This is a traditional dish made by matsutake hunters while in the woods. A cast iron dutch oven is perfect for cooking it, whether indoors or out. I adapted the recipe from one in Hsiao-Ching Chou's informative article on matsutake from the October 13, 2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, with a few modifications. For one thing, I prefer bean thread noodles in sukiyaki, but because they're dry they soak up much of the broth, so I increase the liquid ingredients and add extra stock or water. Mirin adds sweetness. Additionally, I use both Napa cabbage and bok choy. Despite the long list of ingredients, this is a nearly fool-proof dish and fast.

4 cups beef stock
3/4 cup sake
1/4 cup mirin
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 bunch green onions
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 small yellow onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1 cup Napa cabbage, shredded
1 cup bok choy, shredded
8 ounces matsutake mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed, and thinly sliced
8 ounces bean thread or cellophane noodles, cooked
1 package (about 14 ounces) firm tofu, cubed (optional)
1 pound thinly sliced beef
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

1. Combine the stock, sake, mirin, and soy sauce in a pot or kettle and warm over medium heat. Thinly slice enough of the green onion tops to make 1/4 cup; set aside for garnish. Cut the remaining green onions in half.

2. Heat peanut oil in wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the green onions (minus the garnish), yellow onion, cabbage, bok choy, and matsutakes and stir-fry until they begin to soften, 3-5 minutes. Transfer the vegetables and fungi to the broth along with optional tofu cubes, and keep warm over low heat.

3. Cook the beef quickly in batches, just until nicely browned, 30-60 seconds on each side, drizzling about 2 tablespoons of the warm broth and 1 teaspoon of the sugar over when you turn the meat. Bunch these pieces to one side of the wok/skillet and continue with the remaining meat.

4. Cook noodles separately, then add to bowl and ladle over hot broth, mushrooms, tofu, and vegetables. Top with beef slices and drizzle some of the cooking liquids over. Sprinkle with a garnish of green onion.



For more on the matsutake trade and the mushroom trail, check out this article from The Atlantic by Lawrence Millman, and this one from Whole Earth by David Arora.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Bear's Head


Check out this crazy looking fungus. From a distance it looks like a frozen waterfall. Close up you can see that all those little icicle-like projections are attached to arms, like the tentacles of an undersea creature. This is Hericium abietis, better known as the bear's head mushroom. Other mushrooms in the Hericium genus include the lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus) and the bear's head tooth fungus (Hericium americanum). I usually find the bear's head in old-growth forests, where it colonizes conifer stumps and logs and can be found fruiting in the same spot for several years. To harvest it, you slice off the appendages with a knife, careful to leave the attached stalk so it will fruit again.

I found this one while hiking in an ancient, moss-draped forest near Mt. Rainier with my friend Cora. On a day filled with edible mushrooms of various species, this one was the most spectacular. To give some perspective, the fungus in the photo above is about 18" X 18". Amazingly, we found it right in the middle of a trail where an old log had been cut to open a passage. How many hundreds of hikers and bikers had already brushed past this incredible mushroom without knowing they were rubbing elbows with a true delicacy of the forest? How many didn't even stop to admire its ornate, even outlandish form? We left some for those who do notice such things.

The bear's head is best simply sauteed in butter. Cook it longer and more gently (i.e. lower heat) than other mushrooms or it will be chewy. The taste is nutty and complex. Cora sauteed this one with both shallots and garlic and served it with a grilled halibut fillet topped with cherry tomato salsa.