Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Crustaceans of the Land

On Orcas Island this past weekend for a father-son campout, we played the traditional "Life and Death in the Woods." My boy lives for this game. It's carnivores vs. omnivores vs. herbivores, and you can bet that most of the kids wanted to be either meat-eaters or generalists; all the dads were left with the green flags that marked them as humble plant-eaters. Or, as it turned out, fungivores. Painting the forest floor with fluorescent flashes of orange and red were lobster mushrooms, dozens of of them just emerging from the duff. While the kids ran around devouring their parents, I slipped out of bounds to pick several pounds of the lobsters.

The lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum) is actually a combination of two fungi, with one parasitizing the other. The host mushroom is usually of the Russula or Lactarius genera. In the PNW, a favorite host is the short-stemmed russula (Russula brevipes), a normally unappetizing and rather unexceptional 'shroom. When parasitized by the lobster, however, it becomes the stuff of culinary dreams: a day-glo orange or red (or even purple) delight of fungiphiles, with firm white flesh and a slightly marine scent and taste. The lobster attacks while the host is still developing underground, sometimes twisting it into tortured shapes and covering the gills until they are nearly undefined, as you can see in the image above.

There are a couple of potential downsides to lobsters. First, depending on where they're fruiting, they usually require lots of cleaning. The rough, parasitized surface collects duff and dirt like a magnet, and the strange shapes can sometimes trap soil deep in contorted clefts and cavities. Second, bugs like the mushrooms as much as we do. Slice open a lobster and you might be confronted with a maggot-riddled interior. Luckily, mine were almost entirely bug-free.

I like making the classic French dish duxelles with lobsters. The contrast of the outer orange and inner white looks almost like lump crab meat, and the taste of the lobsters is perfect for this dish. Duxelles was reputedly created by famous French chef François Pierre La Varenne (1615–1678), author of Le cuisinier françois and one of the first to codify French cuisine, in honor of his boss, Nicolas Chalon du Blé, marquis d'Uxelles.


1 lb lobster mushrooms, cleaned and finely diced
1-2 shallots, finely diced
1/2 cup or more heavy cream
parsley, chopped
fresh herbs, chopped
salt and pepper

Saute diced shallot in butter until translucent. Add lobsters and cook on medium-high until the mushrooms have expelled all their water, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Deglaze with a splash of cognac. Slowly stir in cream along with whatever herbs you like and simmer until desired thickness. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Serve duxelles over thinly sliced baguette or mash into a paste for Beef Wellington and other recipes.

Duxelles Sauce

The above recipe can also be modified to serve over meat dishes. Simply add chicken or beef stock and more cream to make saucier.


Anonymous said...

do you usually try to identify the lobsters host? I just found a nice patch of lobsters with no other mushrooms around to use as hints. Every field guide ive seen urges caution.

Langdon Cook said...

Chief, I've never seen a lobster that didn't use a Russula as its host, although in other parts of the country it's apparently common to see Lactarius hosts. In any event, neither genus will kill you. The real danger would be a lobster parasitizing an Amanita; as far as I know, this has never been documented. Also, keep in mind that thousands of tons of lobsters are bought and sold across the globe every year. As a general rule, mycologists err on the side of caution. I wouldn't be overly concerned.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Dude. I will SO be able to top that one! My friend is giving me an eight-pound spiny lobster she grabbed on a dive in SoCal! I am picking up the monster tomorrow. You can have you lobster shrooms, I gots the real deal...

...any suggestions on cooking him? I've always been a steam-and-butter (or olive oil) guy...

Langdon Cook said...

Eight pounds?! Good thing those suckers don't have claws like Maine lobsters. With that much meat you should be able to cook whatever you want and then some. How 'bout lobster chanterelle pasta? You could freeze some for later too. The real question is how good a lobster of that size will taste--it might be kinda tough, requiring some novel technique... I'll expect to see a post with results in any event!