Saturday, December 18, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole with David Arora, Part 2

It's no secret that I enjoy spending time with "the mushroom people." (Think 1950s sci-fi flick, with a menacing invasion of creatures who fail to conform to the American standard of ignorant mall-walker.) Many of the mushroom people I know, while being a diverse lot overall, share a few similar traits in common. They like to tromp around all day in the outdoors. By night they're in their kitchens, cooking up the day's catch and drinking wine. They take pride in lost skills such as recognizing the plants and animals around them; cooking from scratch; and home-brewing, distilling, and wine-making. What's not to like? These are my people.

And so it was a pleasure to recently visit the home in Gualala, California, of one of the mushroom people trailblazers ("take me to your leader..."). After the Albion weekend concluded a couple dozen of us drove an hour down the coast to David Arora's house, where another week of foraying and feasting went on, capped by a Saturday workshop on the magic of fire—hearth-cooking—taught by Arora's good friend William Rubel. Imagine lighting out for the universe only to find a planet where the people looked  a lot like you but actually respected the natural environment and used its offerings to make wonderful food and drink.

Arora's house is the ultimate shrine to the mushroom people. The San Francisco Chronicle has already done a piece on it (click for slideshow), so I won't belabor the point. Just try to picture a labyrinthine cabin in the coastal mountains overlooking the Pacific, a place designed to entertain scores of mushroom people at once, with beds tucked away in corners and in lofts all over the house (including the amazing mushroom loft with its giant toadstool steps), five fireplaces for warmth, and several additional out-buildings for the overflow, including a "princess suite" and the "Saloon," where games of dominoes and cards are waged with drams of the hard stuff. I didn't see a single TV.

Arora is a collector. A collector of mushrooms, antiques, stories, even people. Guests included husband-and-wife jump blues musicians from Oakland, a public defender from Spokane, a Sonoma wine maker, a Washington State wine distributor, a wandering poet of unknown address, a local Mendocino forester, a Vancouver Island hotelier and co-founder of Slow Food Canada, another Canadian"nature awareness mentor," two seaglass divers from Santa Cruz, a San Francisco web developer, and the Ashland, Oregon-based discoverer of the world’s first aquatic mushroom.

The first night's revelry included a big sit-down dinner using Thanksgiving leftovers (Turkey and Chanterelle Tetrazzini), Hedgehog Crostini, a salad of baby lettuces and wild wood-sorrel, and an arsenal of wines complements of the guest distributor and hotelier. The toasting sticks (pictured left and below) got plenty of use and the musicians helped us work off dinner with a wild set of boogie-woogie.

Over the next few days a few of us made mushroom forays to Salt Point State Park, Jackson State Forest, and even on the property itself, which, during a midnight foray lit by headlamp, yielded baskets of white and golden chanterelles, matsutake, saffron milkcaps, shrimp russulas, and man on horseback mushrooms. Arora is a big fan of grilling marinated russulas over the fire, and I have to admit I'm now a believer in this edible mushroom that nevertheless often earns the distinction of being "better kicked than picked." After thoroughly cleaning the cap, just brush on some olive oil and chopped garlic before roasting over hot coals until both sides are lightly browned. 

My last night was the hearth-cooking class. Along with a dozen students up from the Bay Area, we string-roasted legs of lamb by the fire, cooked wild greens and a mushroom tart over the coals, and made an amazing apple tatin—all by the hearth, with instruction (and occasional poetry readings) from Rubel. Great merriment and food enlivened a rainy night. It's hard not to see the hearth-cooking as a metaphor. 

If this all seems like hagiography, let me say that in these dark days of the Republic, when our elected officials on both sides of the aisle will mostly be remembered as the butts of late night TV jokes, it seems high time to present an alternative vision. I couldn't imagine a better place to be on Black Friday than Mendocino County, among the mushroom people. The rest of the week only confirmed my belief in the need for Americans to cease trying to fill the voids in their lives with stuff and instead reconnect with immaterial things of true and lasting value.

I know, it's a tough choice: fight your way through the mall-walking throngs in search of the latest Furby—or sit around a table having a pointless discussion with other humans about such useless endeavors as art, travel, and natural history. After all, didn't we have a recent U.S. president who made a political virtue of his lack of curiosity?

If you think you'd like to present yourself as a candidate for mushroom people abduction, I'd recommend joining a local mycological club. My own, the Puget Sound Mycological Society, is one of the great deals in clubdom, with an annual membership of $30 that gets you invited to free forays all over the state during the  spring and fall mushroom seasons as well as monthly meetings with speakers and slideshows and much more. Other storied places where the mushroom people meet include the annual Breitenbush Mushroom Conference in the Oregon Cascades, which includes all of the above fun plus natural hot springs, and SOMA Camp, a three-day event in January sponsored by the Sonoma Mycological Association.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole with David Arora, Part 1

"Whhhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwww..." That's the sound of me chasing the White Rabbit.

And there before me, with a Cheshire Cat grin, is my bespectacled host, holding a platter of not-your-everyday food steaming in the kitchen of the Albion Biological Field Station.

Any trip to Mendocino County can feel like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll, but when it involves a half-dozen or more species of wild mushrooms that have never met this blogger's taste buds, including the iconic fly agaric—the pyschoactive mushroom rumored to have inspired some of Carroll's magical mayhem in Alice in Wonderland—the scene is set for a tea party of Mad Hatter proportion.

But we are not here to do psychedelics. We are here to learn about fungi—and eat. My host is mycologist David Arora, author of the celebrated field guide Mushrooms Demystified. Arora has been a fixture on the mushroom hunting scene for four decades, and for the past 20 years he's put together a Thanksgiving weekend event in the coastal California town of Albion, just south of Mendocino. Two days of forays are capped by an evening of extensive tasting, with everyone involved in the "woods to plate" drama.

The kitchen is warm with gas burners and camaraderie as each student pitches in to help. Attendees clean, prep, and cook dozens of species of edible mushrooms, including several species I've never eaten before: the midnight blue entoloma (Entoloma bloxamii), amethyst laccaria (Laccaria amethysteo-occidentalis), and beefsteak mushroom (Fistulina hepatica), which looks like fillet mignon when sliced open.

More than any other species, though, Arora is known for serving his guests Amanita muscaria. This practice is not uncontroversial. Amanita muscaria, also known as the fly agaric for its ancient use as a pesticide, is generally considered by English-language field guides to be a dangerous toxic mushroom. It’s been documented as a hallucinogen and used as a drug by social groups as varied as middle-class American hippies and Siberian reindeer herders, and occasionally it’s implicated in deaths, though not directly. In one recent case a victim ate the mushroom for its psychotropic effects and died of hypothermia.

But, as Arora points out in his workshops, Amanita muscaria is also used as food. It turns out the mushroom can be easily detoxified and consumed.

Still, many mycologists object to such teachings. Michael Kuo talks about "Amanita bravado" in his book 100 Edible Mushrooms, suggesting that novices might be tempted to sample dangerous mushrooms out of peer pressure. Arora scoffs at this notion. For him, the use of Amanita muscaria as food is simply a case of scientific research triumphing over prejudice. He cites two main reasons for serving it: First, "to introduce people to the huge menu of edible and delicious mushrooms available if we would but open our minds."And second, that the classic form of Amanita muscaria—red cap with white warts—is among the easiest of organisms to identify, and while there is risk in preparation, there is no risk in identification. 
As to the risk, he points out that red kidney beans are also quite toxic raw and even more toxic when undercooked, and humans eat numerous other plants and vegetables that require careful processing to be edible (e.g. tapioca and pokeweed).

Besides being strikingly beautiful, Amanita muscaria can be a large mushroom and in certain locales quite common. These qualities make it an attractive choice. More importantly for the table, it's also quite flavorful, with a firm texture and a sweet nutty taste that is unlike other mushrooms. Despite being sliced up and boiled in a large vat of water for 15 minutes (the main toxins are water soluble), the drained mushroom sautés up nicely, crisp and slightly browned.

When I told a commercial picker that I had tried Amanita muscaria and found it tasty, he replied "So are scorpions! Not worth the effort."

Arora is undeterred. "What effort?" he asks. "The effort of carrying a pot of water from kitchen tap to stove? The effort of slicing up the mushrooms? And if extra effort is to be avoided, then why go foraging in the first place when you can buy food at a corner store?"

If you’re interested in eating Amanita muscaria as food you must first do your homework. When not processed properly, these mushrooms can be dangerous, unpredictable, and result in a trip to the hospital—not just a bad trip. First, read William Rubel and David Arora’s paper from Economic Botany, "A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Mushroom Edibility Using the Iconic Mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as an Example.” Then read Lawrence Millman and Tonya Haff’s account of an accidental poisoning, "Notes on the Ingestion of Amanita Muscaria," to see what can go wrong, and why.

Some believe that it's irresponsible to even talk about the potential edibility of Amanita muscaria, especially considering our own species' propensity for faulty reasoning and bad decision-making. After all, the Amanita genus is home to some of the most toxic mushrooms on the planet, including the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and Destroying Angel (Amanita ocreata et al).

Obviously this writer feels that ignorance and stupidity are not good enough reasons to censor a discussion about using Amanita muscaria as food. That said, my own interest lies elsewhere. Most days I'd rather see the colorful fly agaric on the roadside than in some curious forager's soup pot. But I find it incredible that a mushroom eaten around the world can be so vilified in our own culture where a box of Fruity Pebbles is kept on the supermarket shelf at eye-level for five-year-olds.

Who's nuttier—the people who eat Amanita muscaria for food, or us?

Comments are open.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Super Duper Truffle Dog

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of watching a truffle dog in action. Cooper, the super duper truffle hound, is half lab, a quarter bernese mountain dog, and a quarter shepherd. His owner, Anne Seward, like the owners of many interesting pets, has her own distinguished pedigree: she's related to the man responsible for "Seward's Folly." History buffs and denizens of America's Last Frontier know that folly as the great State of Alaska. Secretary of State William H. Seward practically raided the U.S. Treasury himself to make sure it was purchased in 1867.

I joined Cooper, Anne, my friend Jack Czarnecki, and Jack's friend Chris in Oregon's Willamette Valley to give the dog a workout in search of the first black truffles of the season. In addition to owning the Joel Palmer House restaurant in Dayton, Oregon, where his son Chris is the chef, Jack is also the owner and chief producer of Oregon Truffle Oil, one of the few truffle oils on the market to use real truffles rather than test tube chemicals to produce its powerful flavor and aroma.

Last year I hunted white truffles with Jack. In the right habitat, coming across white truffles is about as challenging as finding chanterelles. Black truffles, on the other hand, require more skill. For one thing, unlike whites they blend in with the duff and dirt. Also, they tend to hang out a little deeper beneath the surface, requiring more digging (though sometimes you can find them poking right through the moss, as if coming up for a breath of air). And lastly, they just don't seem to be as numerous as whites.

It doesn't take much to train a truffle dog. Anne spent a week or so hiding little balls of truffle-doused cotton around the house. For a dog expecting a reward, latching on to the truffle scent is puppy's play. The canine smeller is a biological wonder of evolution, and though not as developed as a bear's, a dog's sense of smell is way overmatched for truffles. Some dogs like a food treat to reward a successful retrieval; Cooper wants ball time.

Once we arrived at the site, Anne pulled both a rubber ball and a baggie of truffle-scented cotton from her pockets. She gave Cooper a whiff, holding the ball tantalizingly out of reach. "Find the truffle," she commanded. Cooper barked and whined, then got down to business. He put his snout to the ground and started weaving among the sword ferns and second-growth Douglas firs. You could hear his nose in action as he brought the scent in and circulated it around with a snort. A moment later Cooper was scratching at a patch of duff.

"Good boy!" Anne played ball with Cooper while Jack raked the spot. Sure enough, he unearthed a nice walnut-sized black truffle, and then another. "His brother," Jack said, explaining that wherever you find one black truffle you're sure to find another.

Without Cooper on hand I'm sure our haul would have been appreciably less impressive. As it was we lined our buckets with truffles while the rain kept up through most of the morning. I'd guess we found truffles in roughly 80 percent of the spots where Cooper scratched; the other 20 percent we chalked up to human error. By mid-afternoon it was cold and miserable enough to call it a day. That's when the Volvo pitched into the mire. We enlisted the aid of a local farmer, who pulled us out free of charge, knowing that a batch of truffle oil was in his future.

That night we capped our successful truffle hunt with dinner back at the Joel Palmer House, where a Candy Cap Martini kicked off a mushroom hunter's feast, including Matsutake Chowder, Fungi Tart, Fillet of Beef with Porcini Sauce, and many other finely executed fungal delights washed down with excellent local Pinot Noirs.

I could get used to this Willamette Valley truffle hunting thing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rose Hip Jelly

I've never seen as many wild rose hips as I saw in the upper Skeena watershed of British Columbia this fall. I was there to fish for steelhead and I suppose I might have earned a few raised eyebrows if I'd put down my rod and spent the rest of the trip picking hips, but when opportunity knocked I made sure to fill a bag. The banks of the Kispiox River in particular were covered with the bright red globes. No doubt Mister Griz was picking his own share.

A rose hip is the seed pod of the rose, and nearly as attractive as the flower it replaces. It's famously loaded with vitamin C. Last year I made rose hip syrup. This year, jelly.

My first morning in steelhead camp I awoke to a shiny white veneer covering the ground. Rose hips gleamed in the sun. This is the best time to harvest your hips—after a hard frost. The hips endured a long drive back to Seattle and a month in the freezer, but this didn't seem to matter.
Back home I did a little research before realizing that, as with most jellies and jams, a recipe is merely a guideline. Add and subtract according to your own taste. If I'd had another lemon I would have squeezed in more lemon juice. I used less sugar than many recipes because I like the tanginess of the hips. I chose jelly for the warm, diaphanous color, because it was easiest, and I was short on time, but a marmalade-like jam would be a good choice too.

If I had not have been so focused on the giant wild steelhead finning around in the river beside me, I might have picked a more reasonable amount of rose hips to preserve, certainly no less less than 8 cups. As it turned out, I came home with a scant 6 cups. Consider doubling the amounts below for best use of your time.

6 cups rose hips
4 cups water
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 packet pectin
1/3 cup lemon juice (1 lemon)
3 to 4 8-oz canning jars

1. Wash and stem the rose hips, then cover with water (4 cups in this case) in a stainless steel pot and simmer for an hour or so until the hips are soft and easily mashed with a potato masher.

2. Strain the liquid. A jelly bag is ideal, but a combination of strainers and cheese cloth will get the job done. I used a food mill for the first pass and then lined a fine mesh strainer with a double layer of cheese cloth. After the liquid passed through I balled up the remaining mash and squeezed out the juice. The point is to extract as much juice and as little pulp as possible. This yielded 2 cups of juice.

3.  Return juice to pot. Add lemon juice and pectin and bring to a boil. Add sugar and continue to boil for a minute or so while stirring. Remove from heat, skim off any foam, and immediately ladle into sterilized jars.

4. Secure lids and process jars in hot bath for 10 minutes.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Last Ditch Chanterelle Soup

Chanterelle season is coming to a close here in Washington State. Though we have yet to see a killing frost in Seattle, fall rains are transforming the chanties into big floppy, waterlogged monstrosities.  The other day I found some twice the size of my fist.

This time of year it pays to locate microclimates free of frost where chanterelles have enough cover to keep relatively dry. Even so, moisture from ground-soaking rains will be absorbed into the fruiting bodies and they'll balloon into what the commercial pickers call flowers, with tattered edges and deep vase-like caps (see photo at right). Many a neophyte mushroom picker has been overjoyed to find such huge specimens in the woods only to wrinkle a nose at the way they cook up slimy in the pan.

Here's what you do with soggy chanterelles.

First, choose your equipment wisely. Use a bucket or basket in the woods. A lidded bucket is best. If you're concerned about spreading spores, drill holes in the bottom of the bucket. The point is to have a solid receptacle and keep forest litter out. A soft-bodied receptacle such as a canvas bag allows for too much jostling, and a moisture-trapping plastic bag is just plain bone-headed. 

Second, brush off the mushrooms carefully after picking and make sure you have a clean cut stem. This time of year I only high-grade when I'm picking chanterelles, which means I pick the very best and leave the rest. I look for smaller and firmer ones. Most of the flowers I ignore unless I find a dry one. A few overly wet mushrooms can infect your whole batch.

Third, if you have a long drive, take care of your mushrooms en route. Empty them into a  newspaper-lined basket or box. When you get home, immediately spread the chanterelles over newspaper so they have a chance to breathe. Change the newspapers if necessary. It may take a few days to allow excess moisture to evaporate. I'm not talking about dehydrating them, just getting them into decent cooking shape.

One problem with drying your chanterelles over a couple days is that I suspect some of the flavor leaches out. With this in  mind, another option for soggy chanterelles is to cook them right away—but be warned, they will cook up slimy. On the other hand, I have an excellent recipe to neutralize the slime factor and make the most of the intense flavor that develops in large, mature chanterelles.

Cream of Chanterelle Soup

This is nearly identical to an earlier recipe I posted, with one major exception: the immersion blender, one of the great deals in kitchen gadgets. By blending the soup you get rid of any unpalatable chunks of slimy mushroom. The dried porcini is not absolutely necessary, but it's the secret weapon in any good mushroom soup.

6 tbsp butter, divided
1 med onion, diced

1 lb fresh chanterelles, diced

3 oz. dried porcini, rehydrated in 2 cups warm water

1/4 cup flour

4 cups beef stock

1/4 tsp white pepper

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

salt to taste

1 cup or more heavy cream

1. Melt half the butter in a large pot. Add onions and cook over medium heat until caramelized.

2. Meanwhile pulverize porcini into dust with food processor and rehydrate in a bowl with warm water.

3. When onions are nicely caramelized add chanterelles and remaining butter, raise heat to high, and cook 5 minutes or so, stirring, until mushrooms have expelled their moisture. Cook off some of the liquid. The time required for this step will vary depending on how moist the mushrooms are. They should be slightly soupy before continuing to the next step.

4. Lower heat to medium and blend in flour with sauteed mushrooms and onions. Pour in beef stock slowly, stirring. Add porcini stock.

5. Bring to boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Add spices. Use an immersion blender to puree soup or blend in a food processor. The soup should be smooth and creamy.

6. Lower heat and add cream before serving.

Optional but highly recommended: In a separate pan, saute black trumpet mushrooms, chanterelles, or other wild mushrooms in butter for garnish and added texture. If you can get your hands on black trumpets, by all means do so. They taste a lot like chanterelles on steroids and add exceptional flavor to the soup.

Serves 4 - 6

I've seen plenty of Chanty Soup recipes out there on the Interwebs that use exotic ingredients and techniques. This recipe is quick, easy, and delicious—and it highlights the main event, the mushrooms! You can make a complicated soup if you'd like. Then try this one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Porcini and Eggplant Parmesan

I was on the Oregon Coast last weekend—Rockaway Beach, to be exact—and can report that the coastal porcini north of Tillamook are on the way out. The beach pick is definitely over in Washington, for that matter. But as you move down the coast into California weather patterns change. A soaking rain in Mendocino a couple weeks ago kicked their season into gear and we should be hearing favorable fungi forecasts from places like Salt Point State Park any day now.

The point is, even if your own region is at flood stage or under a blanket of snow, someone is enjoying wild mushrooms in another part of the country. So, while I roasted the last of my Washington porcini the other night, it is with a sense of vicarious pleasure that I offer this outstanding recipe to my mushroom-hunting brethren in California, who I plan to join at the end of the month for a week of picking and roaming.

I use Marcella's Eggplant Parmesan recipe as a guideline. It's decadent, with plenty of frying in oil. If that's not your thing...well then, move along, nothing to see here.

1 large eggplant, sliced 1/4-inch thick lengthwise
1-2 large king boletes, sliced 1/4-inch thick lengthwise
oil for frying
marinara sauce
1 lb mozzarella cheese, grated
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
fresh basil
salt and pepper

1. Heat oil in a large, deep-sided pan or skillet. Dredge eggplant and mushroom slices in seasoned flour. You may need to immerse mushroom slices in water before flouring. Fry in batches until golden, then remove to paper towels. (Note: Marcella recommends sprinkling eggplant slices with salt prior to frying so they release moisture; your call.)

2. Meanwhile prepare marinara sauce. You can take a shortcut and use a 28-oz can of store-bought sauce or make your own. We make our own simple red sauce by sautéing chopped garlic in olive oil, adding a 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes plus herbs, and simmering until the sauce attains desired taste and consistency. Add water as the sauce cooks down, and a pinch or two of sugar if necessary.

3. Grease a suitable baking dish. Line the bottom with a single layer of fried eggplant. Spoon over a third of your red sauce and top with half the mozzarella and a third of the parmesan. Dot with leaves of fresh basil. Repeat the layering, this time with all your porcini followed by another third of the red sauce, the rest of the mozzarella, another third of parmesan, and more fresh basil. Complete the final layer with the rest of your eggplant followed by the remaining red sauce and parmesan.

4. Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove from oven and allow to cool for several minutes.

Serve over spaghetti.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook

Here at FOTL Headquarters we're honored to announce our selection in the brand new Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook!

Last year food bloggers from around the world submitted entries to Foodista's contest—the first ever of its kind—and now the winners have been collected in this handsome full-color cookbook, which includes the text, photos, and recipes from the original blog posts.

You might remember my winning posts: Salmon Head Soup and Geoduck Ceviche.

The book is divided into "Cocktails and Appetizers"; "Soups and Salads"; "Main Dishes"; "Side Dishes"; and "Desserts," with 100 recipes in all. Included are other wild food recipes such as Chanterelle Mushrooms with Blue Cheese Pie; Scallop Sandwiches; Tagliatelle with Wild Boar Ragu; Prickly Pear Granita; and Blackberry Sorbet.

You can read more about it here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Delivery

In my ongoing effort to be a commercial mushroom gadfly—or maybe just a fly in the ointment—I hung out with the fellas at Foraged and Found Edibles the other day while they packed up a couple dozen restaurant shipments and made deliveries.

It was a relatively quiet day. When I arrived at the warehouse (the owner's basement), Jonathan and Shane were busy sorting and cleaning mushrooms. Order by order, they packed chanterelles, porcini, and other mushrooms into cardboard flats and weighed them. A fan in the corner dried porcini and watercress soaked in a washbasin.

An hour later the packing was done and it was time to make deliveries. Jeremy, owner of Foraged and Found (pictured with a stack of baskets) owns a fleet of three Astro vans for the purpose, all of them used and cheap. He beats these vans like rented mules on the logging roads of the Pacific Northwest, but not before squeezing a couple hundred thousand miles out of each one, averaging more than a 100,000 miles a year.

Jonathan would cover east side restaurants for this delivery; Shane had the city. I hopped in with Jonathan, a CIA (NYC) graduate and former sous chef. Our first stop was his old employer, the Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington, one of the Northwest's most celebrated restaurants. I had the good fortune of eating there last spring with my food blog pals Hank Shaw, Holly Heyser, and Matt Wright. The Herbfarm doesn't serve lunch, so the atmosphere was relaxed. Owner Ron Zimmerman came out to greet us (pictured taking possession of his beloved fungi at top of post). Right now he's doing his popular annual Mycologist's Dream menu and his order was both the biggest and most diverse, including chanterelles, yellowfoots, matsutake, both #1 and #2 porcini, a cauliflower mushroom, saffron milkcaps, hawkswings, and man-on-horseback mushrooms. Ron picked through the mushrooms with a knowing hand. We made some friendly chitchat and then headed off.

Next was Cafe Juanita, a perennial favorite on the north shore of Lake Washington in Kirkland. Chef-owner Holly Smith won a James Beard Award in 2008 and just seeing her face light up at the sight of a 10-pound bag of wild watercress was worth the trip. She teased out a strand and munched it approvingly.

Our last stop of the day put these first two deliveries in stark relief. The cook looked stressed out and annoyed at our presence for some reason that was never articulated. "How's it going?" Jonathan said, trying to be friendly. "Busy!" the cook snapped. I have two children under 11, so I know "acting out" when I see it. It's not a pretty sight in an adult. The cook slapped his dishrag on the table and grabbed Jonathan's receipt book, which he slammed against the wall before signing for the goods, then handed it back without a word. He kicked his new box of watercress to one side and had someone take away the mushrooms.

So much for fresh local ingredients. Some people are in the wrong line of work. Jonathan told me one of the hardest parts of his job is trying to educate clients who don't get the grading system. Even well known and long-standing restaurants don't always understand that #1 porcini and matsutake buttons will be varying sizes, not always cute and petit. "It's not as if mushrooms are grown like tomatoes in a mold," he said. "They're wild."

That's the point, but sometimes people want their wild ingredients to behave like conventional supermarket produce, domesticated and submissive. For years now a variety of cranks and schemers have tried to figure out the secrets of ectomycorrhizal fungi in order to grow them like a crop. Let's hope they fail.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grilled Matsutake

Matsutake, which means "pine mushroom" in Japanese, isn't among my favorite of the wild edible mushrooms, but it's fun to forage and I enjoy preparing it in traditional Japanese recipes.

Look for matsutake under conifers in well-drained, even sandy soils. Like porcini, it can be found near the ocean beaches of the Northwest and also in the mountains, especially in areas where volcanic soils are present. Matsutake fruits in other regions of North America including the woods of Maine and Ontario.

Though the Japanese prefer the mushroom in its button stage with gills entirely covered by the veil, I find that it becomes even more aromatic as the cap begins to open.

It has a singular aroma. David Arora of Mushrooms Demystified fame refers to it as "a provocative compromise between 'red hots' and dirty socks." In my opinion this spicy cinnamon-like flavor marries with Eastern culinary ingredients such as soy, rice vinegar, shaoxing wine, and so on, better than Western dairy ingredients such butter, cream, and cheese.

Probably my favorite preparation is Matsutake Sukiyaki. Gohan is another way to showcase this unique tasting mushroom. But if you want to experience the flavor in the most dressed down way, try grilling it. Slice the mushroom and grill over low to medium heat until light golden. It should be slightly crispy on the outside with a moist, meaty inside. A dipping sauce of equal portions soy sauce and rice vinegar completes this simple and flavorful dish.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Ukrainian Connection

You might not see these people around town. They stick together and avoid attracting attention. But in your local mushroom patch you're sure to find them. Eastern Europeans, that is. Poles and Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians, many of them recent immigrants in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. They have a long tradition of scouring the woods of their homelands for edible fungi.

Mushrooms are often thought of as basically nutrient-free. This is not the case. Fungi can boast a number of important nutrients, including protein, and while a meal of mushrooms isn't equivalent to a steak dinner, to an Old World peasant not that long ago it might have been the difference between making it through the winter and starvation.

No wonder Eastern European fungal folkways have been handed down over the centuries—and they're alive and well in North America.

There's a mushroom patch that I frequent in the mountains east of Seattle. Actually, it's more of a huckleberry patch, but sometimes I'll pick mushrooms when I'm there. Every October I see the Eastern Europeans parked in the many turnouts along the forest road that leads to it. They're in search of boletes, especially Boletus edulis, which they call the "white mushroom" as well as a number of other species in that family that most recreational mushroom hunters rarely consider for the table. They vacuum up the many slippery jacks and scaber stalks of the forest.

Last year I happened on a troop of them in the bush and I wish I had been able to get some clandestine photos. They looked as though they'd just stepped off the set of a Hollywood movie about gypsies, wearing handmade clothes—the women in ankle-length skirts and babushkas in the middle of the wilderness—and calling to each other through the woods in an indecipherable tongue. As soon as they saw me they turned tail, as if engaged in some sort of furtive, illegal activity. Many of the Eastern Europeans, for reasons that are obvious to even the most casual student of history, are reluctant to talk to strangers and view anyone outside their cohort as a potential authority figure best to be avoided.

Just the other day I was more lucky. I found a group of Ukrainians working a patch who were willing to talk. Already they had a couple five-gallon buckets filled with slippery jacks, red caps, and the odd king bolete. One of the two women spoke decent English and explained that they were from a village outside Kiev. She wouldn't submit to a photo but her picking partner agreed to hold up what they called a "brown cap." They differentiated between three different types of Leccinum: red caps, brown caps, and black caps. This is a notoriously difficult genus to key out at the species level, and there is some debate even about the edibility of these mushrooms in general since they are known to cause illness on occasion, with one poisoning case in particular that has made the rounds recently.

The other prevalent genus, Suillus, which includes slippery jacks and jills, is ubiquitous on the forest floor but as the common name suggests, often slimy. The Ukrainians said they peeled the cap and then boiled the mushrooms in salted water before pickling or canning. A dash of lemon juice, they said, made all the difference. These are seriously labor-intensive mushrooms and I've never done much with them. Some people will dry and powder various kinds of Suillus for use in soups and stews.

Also that day I met a man from Moscow named Eugene. He was picking with his wife and had a basket filled with similar species (shown at the top of this post). Eugene said he sliced and salted the mushrooms before preserving them. We exchanged email addresses, a level of communication that initially surprised me, but when I tried to send photos to Eugene the next day my message bounced.

I don't mean to sound like a cultural tourist, but I think it's cool that an activity like mushroom hunting can introduce you to a diverse group of people from around the world. I'm hoping that I can get to know a few of these folks and learn their methods of mushroom preparation. But asking questions in the bush doesn't always get you far. You can understand why people hailing from the former Soviet bloc might be suspicious. The Ukrainians were surprised that I was alone.

"Not good to be alone in woods," one of them said to me. As if putting an exclamation point on the statement, a quick volley of gunfire echoed through the hills. Just target practice, I said. They looked at me with raised eyebrows. "Yes, maybe."