‘Tis the season to forage mushrooms.
Whether you find them in the gourmet grocery or walking in a drizzly wood with your shirt on backwards, they cook up the same: wonderful, exotic, slightly naughty, very savory dishes that extend the range of paired wines in the most compelling ways.
Certainly it’s true that a five-hour hike works like magic to stimulate the appetite. That and the price are the major advantages of foraging mushrooms for oneself. What most of us call ‘the mushroom’ is actually the fruiting body of the fungus. The rest stays in the ground, or in the log, after you remove the fruiting body. So mushrooms continue to re-appear in the same place you originally found them for years in the future whenever conditions are right. It’s not a sure thing; the required conditions are very precise. That’s why these things are not raised commercially by growers. Nevertheless, experienced mushroom foragers (mycophagists) never tell anybody where their secret troves are located. Share mushrooms? Of course. Share mushroom locations? Never!
There are two solid strategies for foraging mushrooms. One is to go out about ten days after the first rains in the Fall, pick all the mushrooms you find, bring them home, and identify them using a reference book, or ‘key.’ That technique is great if you own a microscope and have ready access to an academic with mycological expertise. Failing either of those assets, I strongly recommend Strategy #2: only gather those mushrooms with which you are acquainted and confident you can correctly recognize.
Thumbing through a good mushroom guide will reveal hundreds of mushrooms are listed as “edible,” which means they are safe to eat, but likely to taste much as you might imagine Styrofoam would. Only a handful of mushrooms will be listed as “choice,” which means they taste great. Learn to recognize those. There is no compelling reason to be a voracious guinea pig in some grand mushroom foraging experiment. Never eat more than a small slice of something you’re not sure you’ve had before. Two rules of thumb will help you avoid almost all really dangerous mushrooms: (1) Ignore the vast category which might be termed “little brown mushrooms.” They are hard to tell apart, and they are too small to make a worthwhile meal anyway. (2) Learn to recognize the genus Amanita. Might as well avoid all of those. Every year a handful of people die from eating a big pot of Amanita phalloides, otherwise known as the Death Cap. They’re big, and they’re pretty. Artists depict them all the time when illustrating fairy tales. All Amanitas have a small sock, like the bottom half of an egg shell, around the base of their stem. So don’t break the stem off when harvesting a mushroom; dig down in the leaf litter with a knife blade or a spoon so you can see what the base of the stem looks like.
One highly desirable mushroom which is widely found in northern California is the Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius). It usually pops up in the Fall, especially if there has been September rain. The most likely habitat is under oak trees. On the plus side, if you find one, there is probably thirty pounds in the same location. On the negative side, there may also be a ton of poison oak intertwined with the Chanterelles. Wear gloves; pick carefully. Or look for Chanterelles in your gourmet grocery. They’re often good size, bright orange, and trumpet shaped. Slice into bite-sized pieces, then sauté them in butter, with a little olive oil to keep the butter from burning. Then serve a large portion with a little parsley and a little Gruyere cheese inside an omelet. Chardonnay is your wine choice, and not just for alliterative reasons. Choose a malo-lactic driven, lees-aged Chardonnay with lots of new French oak. Rombauer comes to mind as a mid-price-range brand which is almost a cliché for this style of wine. Alternatively, an eight-year-old, premier cru Meursault should be wonderful as well, if you just happen to have one lying around. The Meursault will be more in line with the cost of the mushrooms (which are likely to set you back $25/lb in a store). So this event can be either a rustic evening supper after a vigorous day in the woods (wearing flannel shirts and suspenders), or it can be a very special brunch (sharing a pair of silk pajamas) with no particular plans for the rest of the day.
Another delicious fungi found commonly in the wild is the Oyster mushroom. Unlike my other mushroom suggestions, Oyster mushrooms have proven reasonably easy to cultivate. So, if you develop a strong craving, you might want to look into a kit which will allow you to inoculate logs in your own backyard. Two species in the genus Pleurota are most widely recognized among culinary fans of the Oyster mushroom: P. ostreatus in North America; and P. eryngii in Europe. Both grow on hardwood logs. P. eryngii, which is called King Oyster in Spain, has an obvious stem with a smallish cap. P. ostreatus looks more like a cluster of white, overlapping shelves, i.e. all cap and virtually no stem. They both have an earthy, steak Tartar kind of flavor. They work well sliced into strips, then fried with onions, sweet peppers, and strips of beef skirt steak to serve in soft tacos as fajitas. I’d serve those with a fairly robust Syrah, although in that technique the mushrooms tend to take on whatever flavor may have been added as a sauce. More unusual is to slice the Oyster mushrooms into fairly large, long pieces; dredge the pieces in flour; submerge them in an egg beaten with a tablespoon of cream; then dredge them in bread crumbs (with a little salt added). Fry the breaded mushroom slices in a skillet with a half-inch of hot oil. Use Thousand Island salad dressing as one dipping sauce. For a second dipping sauce thin some marmalade with a little rice vinegar. Don’t dip too vigorously. Serve these fried mushrooms as an appetizer paired with an old-vine Spanish Garnacha. Borsao is a reliable brand, widely available, and they almost give it away ($6 to $8 retail).
In the opinion of many connoisseurs, the greatest Fall mushroom is the legendary Boletus edulis, known as porcini in Italy and as cepes in Eastern Europe. These aren’t common in California, but they can be found. Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are better prospects. Boletes look somewhat different than (say) a Portobello. Instead of having gills on the underside of their cap, they appear to be a form of pin-cushion. As the name implies, the Edulis species is particularly fine. The smell alone is how most Eastern Europeans recognize it. And the smell is abundantly retained even when the mushrooms are sliced and dehydrated. So buying dried porcini to reconstitute in red wine and to use throughout the year makes very good sense. They are wonderful added to stews or anything done in a crock pot. I believe B. edulis also makes the very best mushroom soup. It has a hearty, rich flavor, and a smell which is just intimately human enough to be at once exciting and mildly discomfiting. You know you want to do it again, but it’s not the sort of sensation about which you would tell your mother. The wine of choice is, of course, Pinot Noir. And not one of those clean, fruity California examples either. You want a wine with a past. Red Burgundy. Something from the commune of Vosne. Something with enough pedigree that people care whether or not it’s been foolin’ around.
Truffles may not qualify for this post, in the sense you’re not going to find one while strolling through your local park. Professional truffle hunters in Piemonte use trained dogs and/or pigs to locate the fungus underneath the ground. Dogs won’t eat the truffles, but pigs certainly will. And I’m guessing it’s no walk in the park to move a 250 lb. pig off a 3 oz. truffle once she’s uncovered it. Truffles are all about smell. A small bit goes a long way. So find a 250 ml bottle of truffled oil to use on pasta. Just the plain pasta. I’d say freshly made fettuccine, with a little butter, no more than half a teaspoon of truffle oil, and some good Parmesan or aged Asiago cheese. Italians would go with a Barbera for the wine (Barbera d’Alba or d’Asti), but my personal choice would be Tempranillo from Rioja in Spain with a little age on it. Something like the Marquis de Riscal Riserva from about 2005.
You may have noticed we have yet to stray very far into that bastion of American mushroom usage ~ the grilled, steakhouse, New York strip or filet mignon (a Porterhouse if served together still on the bone for you big eaters). That’s because steakhouses routinely employ the tasteless, easy to cultivate, meadow mushroom commonly found in Safeway or on your front lawn (technically Agaricus compestris). Browned in a skillet, along with soy sauce and garlic, those can be fairly tasty on top of a grilled piece of quality beef loin. So would a piece of Wonderbread. What you really want with a great steak is the magnificent, priapic, Spring mushroom, the Morel. All the species in the genus Morchella are delicious and are safe to eat. They tend to be found in cold climates as the snow melts. Michigan and Minnesota are prime areas. Instead of an umbrella shape, Morels have more of a Xmas tree shaped cap, with convoluted ridges. The stem is hollow, and the bottom edge of the cap attaches to the stem. This is important. The cap of False Morels doesn’t attach to the stem, and several False Morels can make you sick. You also want to slice Morels in half to make sure there are no bugs taking refuge in the hollow stem. Brown your Morels in a sauté pan, then put them on your steak. Cabernet if you must, cowboy, but the best wine choice will be a Meritage blend heavy on Merlot. Morels have a deep, singed flesh, slightly gamey flavor. The smell is not as obvious as that from truffles or from cepes. Six or seven years of age on the Meritage blend will be valuable because you want to emphasize bottle bouquet, not fruity aroma.
Wild mushrooms are a quintessential ‘savory’ experience. As such they are naturals with fermented foods like cheese, soy sauce, and wine. Take your umami tastebuds for a walk on the wild side this holiday season.