Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wild Mushrooms

What is it about mushrooms – especially wild mushrooms – that intrigues folks so much? Sure, some can have interesting and distinctive flavors, but those are usually of the earth/peat/woodsy variety. Wild mushrooms can also very easily kill you. They’re hard to find, they’re fragile, and they live in the dirt. Nonetheless, they are esteemed in many food cultures. Because, truly, there are few tastes as earthy, subtle, and varied as wild mushrooms. They come in varying sizes, colors, tastes, and seasons.

This article is NOT about mushroom identification. You should rely on knowledgeable teachers and quality guidebooks for mushroom identification – even then, some excellent edibles have look-alikes which are not edible or are poisonous.

We know just enough about gathering and eating wild mushrooms to be appropriately cautious – very cautious. And to make our lawyers happy, let us state upfront that if you have ANY doubt about any mushroom, do not try even a single bite. It’s suggested by most authorities that you don’t eat wild mushrooms raw, and that even with a positively identified known edible, it’s best to sample a small portion the first time around.

All that out of the way, we love wild mushrooms. Some of the mushrooms we find most flavorful – and also ones that we think we can identify “no-fail” – include:

King Bolete – Woodsy, earthy flavor. This is the Porcini of Italy and the Cepe of France. Their flavor intensifies after drying. Wonderful in quiches, casseroles, and with eggs. Along with Morels and Chanterelles, they are some of the most sought-after wild mushrooms.

Chanterelle – Delicate, almost fruit-like flavors. These work well in cream sauces and with chicken, fish, eggs, pasta, and vegetables. Wonderful in Alfredo sauces over pasta. These may get tough with drying – instead either sauté and freeze, or only partially dry and then freeze.

Puffballs – A mild, earthy taste by themselves, but we love them sliced and sautéed for Puffball Lasagna. They range from small pear-shaped puffballs to giant puffballs more than a foot across. The insides deteriorate quickly – make sure they’re pure white inside.

Shaggy Mane – Very fragile, and they go bad within hours of gathering. But quickly sauté them in a little butter and they are great in delicate cream sauces or with fish or eggs.

White Matsutake – Very strong, peppery flavors. We like them sautéed almost crunchy, and use them on top of crepes, quiches, and casseroles. A little goes a long way.

Meadow mushroom – This is the wild version of the grocery-store mushroom. It is the Champignon of France, and can be used like any commercial mushroom. It is a white version of the Crimini or the larger Portobello (same mushroom, just different in size).

Prince – The Prince is rather like a large, more-flavorful meadow mushroom. Or like a robust Portobello (which itself is really just a type of Champignon). We use the Prince similarly to a Portobello.

Morel – To some folks this is one of the jewels in the crown. As with the Boletes, this is best dried and then used re-hydrated, intensifying its flavors. Rich and earthy. Great in soups, sauces, and pasta.

Tree Ears – These rubbery mushrooms are probably inedible in themselves, but dried they add some interesting and subtle flavors to soups. Common in Oriental cooking.

There are many other excellent edible mushrooms, but they are ones we encounter less frequently (hen-of-the-woods, blewits, hedgehog). Also, to us, some of the “choice” edibles simply don’t have all that much flavor (Oysters and Honey mushrooms, for example).

Preserving: 1) Some mushrooms – especially firm-fleshed ones like boletes, meadows, and morels – dry well. We typically dry mushrooms in a fruit dehydrator. 2) Some mushrooms (prince, matsutake) keep well in the refrigerator for as long as do grocery-store mushrooms. Put them in a paper bag, but try to eat as soon as possible. 3) Freezing. We generally sauté fragile mushrooms very lightly in butter or oil and freeze them in small containers or in freezer bags. We have had success freezing boletes and chanterelles raw, but they usually come out of the freezer a little soggy – OK if you’ll be cooking them in a sauce later.

Cooking With: 1) Dried mushrooms should be rehydrated in warm water, broth, cream, milk, or wine, depending on the recipe. Many mushrooms (boletes, morels) actually intensify in flavor after being dried – you may not need as many as you think. 2) Frozen mushrooms – either sautéed or raw – should be drained of as much water as possible, and then lightly re-sautéed before adding to your dish. 3) Fresh mushrooms are the best. Cook them generally however you’d cook commercial mushrooms. 4) Try not to add too many spices to any mushroom dish. You want the flavor of the mushrooms to shine through, not overwhelming spices.

If you’re unsure about finding, identifying, cleaning, picking, and cooking wild mushrooms, the best way to start using wild mushrooms in your cooking is with a trip to the grocery store. You can usually find packets of dried wild mushrooms – often a “forest mix” – at reasonable prices. Rehydrate the mushrooms in warm water, wine, or cream, depending on your recipe. These rehydrated mushrooms can sometimes be a little tough, so you might want to simmer in a liquid or the sauce rather than eating right after rehydrating.

Some of our favorite recipes using mushrooms include: Bolete-brie quiche; potato-bolete soup; chanterelles in Alfredo sauce over pasta; puffball lasagna; prince or meadows mushrooms in omelets or quiches; and lightly sautéed shaggy manes over halibut. Once you know your mushrooms, experiment with ingredients. As noted above, our biggest suggestion is to spice very lightly if at all – mushrooms have delicate, intricate flavors, and you don’t want to overwhelm them with heavy doses of herbs and spices.