Category Archives: Fungi

Halibut with Porcini and Nettle-Mint Sauce

king4The king bolete (aka porcino) is one of the few wild mushrooms that can be served raw, in limited quantities. Fresh porcini, both spring and fall, have a strong floral aroma. Make use of this arresting feature by thinly slicing or even shaving the mushroom over foods. Firm #1 buttons are best.

king6This recipe was inspired by a dish I had earlier this spring at the Willows Inn, where chef Blaine Wetzel  is earning plaudits for good reason. At the Willows I had a course of spring porcini stewed with asparagus and woodruff. My server shaved mounds of fresh porcini over the plate to the point of obscuring everything else underneath. The cooked mushrooms were contrasted by the snappy texture and floral sharpness of the fresh.

For my take, I oven-roasted halibut fillets and plated them with sautéed spring porcini mushrooms and a nettle-mint sauce. The sauce was quick and easy because I already had cubes of nettle pesto in the freezer. To make the sauce I sweated diced shallot in butter, added three cubes of defrosted nettle pesto, and stirred together with a generous splash of chicken stock and a tablespoon of chopped mint from the garden. The sauce was finished with heavy cream.

Once plated, I shaved a nice spring porcini button over the top.

Given the sort of spring mushroom season we’re having in the Pacific Northwest (worst in memory), this might be my last dance with the king until fall.

Wild Tempura Udon

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Alas, Puget Sound’s recreational spot shrimp season came and went without me wetting a pot. I dredged the freezer instead and found a frosty package from last May. And you know what? They were still shrimpalicious.

Spot shrimp (Pandalus platyceros) rank among the great delicacies my region is known for. Year-old crustaceans are not optimum, true, yet these spotties retained the sweetness that is characteristic of the species. Tempura battered and fried, they made an excellent addition to udon.

After learning in April just how easy it is to make a killer udon at home, I’ve been enjoying this traditional Japanese noodle soup a couple times a week with a variety of foraged greens and mushrooms. This version is my favorite so far. It has three wild ingredients: spot shrimp, oyster mushrooms, and devil’s club shoots. (Click here for the basic udon soup recipe.)

I’ve played with a number of tempura recipes over the years. In general, I prefer to leave tempura to the professionals (and their fry-o-later equipment), but every now and then I get a yen to make it myself. The key is to make sure the batter is wet and runny, which makes for a light and crispy finish. Too thick and the batter will fry up pillowy. This is a basic recipe that can be adapted. For instance, you could add a dash of rice wine or various spices. Experiment with the oil temperature, too. It needs to be hot enough to fry the ingredients rapidly, but not so hot that they aren’t cooked through before the exterior browns. Slice ingredients such as sweet potatoes thinly so they cook quickly.

1 cup flour, sifted
1 egg, beaten
1 cup water, ice cold
oil for deep-frying
shrimp and vegetables (e.g., zucchini, sweet potato, onion, mushroom, etc.)

1. Heat oil in a wok or deep saucepan. It’s ready when a drop of water sizzles. Adjust heat as you go.

2. Combine flour, beaten egg, and ice water in a large bowl and use chopsticks to mix together. Don’t overmix. It’s okay to have lumps. And make sure the batter is thin, wet, and runny.

3. Batter and fry in batches, careful not to crowd.

4. Remove to rack or paper towels.

Morel Tomfoolery

morel3A couple weekends ago I took my kids on our first morel hunt of the season. We rode bikes a ways up a trail before stashing our transportation and striking out on foot. At first it seemed like we might be too early—or worse, that another morel hunter had scooped us. There was some grumbling within the ranks.

And then we stepped over an old rotting log and there they were.

The first morels of the season are sun worshipers. They stray far from dark woods, popping up in warm, exposed spots where many morel hunters would never think to look.

But we were not alone. On our way back we spied a couple covering the same ground we had just been through. When they caught a glimpse of us in the distance, they scuttled into the woods. My kids found this behavior curious. It’s not like we didn’t know what they were up to—they had a huge woven basket for crying out loud.

Being the rascally imps they are, the kids decided they would try to flush out these furtive mushroom hunters. Pretending to be birdwatchers, they lingered at the spot on the trail where the couple had vanished into the woods. The mushrooms, after all, were on the edges—not in deep, dark thickets. These coy morel hunters would have to come out of hiding at some point if they wanted to find any.

“Look, a yellow warbler!”

We stood there for 15 minutes calling out birds. All the while we could see one of the couple crouched behind a tree. She hid there obstinately and wouldn’t move. I continued on the trail, but the kids weren’t done with their torments. As I walked off, I saw them skulking behind some bushes, laying in wait. A moment later they came running up excitedly with news that the couple had emerged as soon as I’d left.

Busted!

Another lesson learned on the mushroom trail…

Oyster Mushroom Udon

udon1Oyster mushrooms are popping left and right in my habitat. I found little ones just emerging in the Cascade foothills a few weeks ago and a mature cluster soon after that closer to sea level in Seattle. Since then it’s been an oyster fest.

In the Pacific Northwest, look for oyster mushrooms in riparian areas on dead hardwoods, notably alder and cottonwood (the host tree may be different elsewhere). Downed trees are a good bet, but oysters will also grow on standing trees, sometimes high enough off the ground to require a fireman’s ladder. What? You don’t have one of those? Best look on fallen logs then.

I find most of my oysters while taking low-elevation hikes in spring. Keep your eyes peeled year-round, though, because the fruiting window for oysters is wider than most other species. I’ll find perfect specimens in the heat of summer and late in the fall. And remember those spots; they can reappear same time next year for several years running.

Udon is an ideal vehicle for wild mushrooms, especially oysters. The dashi broth, with its main ingredients of kombu (dried kelp) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes), might be the most famous example of umami in action. Now add some sautéed oyster mushrooms to the broth and you’re unlocking doors to very deep taste pleasures.

I’ve said it before, but let’s say it together: fish and fungi go together. 

4 cups dashi *
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
12 oz udon noodles
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1 handful oyster mushrooms, sautéed
cooking oil
fish cake (optional)
Shichimi tōgarashi (optional)

1. In a pot combine dashi broth*, soy, mirin, sugar, and salt. Bring to boil and lower heat.

2. Cook udon noodles separately according to instructions, drain, and rinse with cold water. I use frozen udon that comes in individual serving sizes, with several servings to a package.

3. Saute oyster mushrooms in a little oil (I used a mix of canola and sesame).

4. Ladle udon and broth into bowls. Garnish with sautéed oyster mushrooms, green onion, and optional toppings, such as fish cake. Season with a sprinkling of Shichimi tōgarashi if you like.

Serves 2

* Dashi Broth

Find dashi ingredients at your local Asian grocer. You can use dashi packets for convenience, but avoid the powders. Or make your own broth with instructions below:

4 1/2 cups water
20 grams kombu (dried kelp)
2 loose cups (about 25 grams) katsuobushi (bonito flakes)

1. Soak kombu in cold water for minimum 15 minutes.

2. After soaking, heat water until nearly boiling. Turn off heat and remove kombu. Stir in katsuobushi and steep for 10 minutes.

3. Pour broth through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towel. Save kombu and katsuobushi to make a second dashi broth, known as niban-dashi, which is especially useful for miso soup.

Mushroom Fever

millmanSome of you in warmer climes are already out there, scouring the woods for the favorite fungi of spring. Morel fever is back, exacting its toll once again. No doubt legions of mushroom hunters are walking around right now at this very moment with stiff necks and eyeballs ready to pop out of their heads. But for the rest of us, we can only wait in anticipation for such symptoms.

Or settle back into the armchair for a vicarious thrill.

I’ve been traipsing through Larry Millman’s new collection of fungal vignettes, Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer, to keep the fever at bay. It’s the sort of off-season reading we all need on occasion: a reminder that somewhere, someone is enjoying our favorite pursuit, and soon—soon!—we will be that someone.

Millman brings a visceral appreciation and a traveler’s erudition to the mushroom hunt. He forages among the headhunters of Borneo; takes a trip to northern Siberia in search of Santa’s favorite shroom; and journeys to the opposite pole in his imagination, where the mushrooms of the mind take on epic proportions. One of his well known articles, “Notes on the Ingestion of Amanita muscaria,” is included here, with the memorable line: “Larry is drinking a beer, and he says he can relate to the bottle, that the bottle can relate to him, and that the two of them are actually enjoying each other’s company.”

In “The Thrill of the Hunt,” Millman diagnoses the fever as much larger than a quest for mere edibles, illustrating that it may not even require a walk in the woods. His beat-up Chevy Nova’s back seat carries a variety of mold and rust passengers. A friend’s brassiere is filled with inky caps. Should you find an owl pellet, he advises, “look at it closely: there might be an Onygena species growing on it.” The essay concludes with a visit to a touristy spot in Death Valley, California, where, against the odds, he stumbles upon “a group of stalked puffballs lifting their heads proudly to the bright desert sky.”

In other words, we are surrounded by the kingdom of fungi. Open your eyes—and your mind—and you might cure that fungal fever in the most unlikely of places. Millman’s new book is an entertaining and informative panacea for all that ails us mushroom hunters.

For those of you in the Seattle area, Larry Millman will be speaking at the Puget Sound Mycological Society on May 13, 7:30 p.m.

Better Life Thru Fungi

bilet1Last night I had dinner at a very cool space in Seattle called Art for Food, the creation of Maxime Bilet. Bilet is the indefatigable chef, artist, and co-author of Modernist Cuisine (with Nathan Myhrvold), the massive, multi-volume paean to innovative kitchen alchemy. Art for Food is his new 5,600-square-foot storefront on Western Avenue combining test kitchen, art gallery, performance space, retail shop, and a generally groovy hangout spot. Clearly Bilet has a lot of ideas about food and art and education, and his demeanor is laid back and approachable.

Back to the meal. On this night, Bilet was teaming up with New York (by way of India) chef Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti and Mehtaphor restaurants. Their theme: The Magic of Mycology. So you see why I was intrigued.

Bilet and Mehta both talked about their commitment to food policy issues and child nutrition education. When Mehta introduced himself, he said that one of his goals as a restaurateur was to not waste anything, whether making stocks from peelings or finding creative uses for leftovers, explaining that in India this is standard practice. I find it sad that here in the U.S. we’re still trying to grasp this concept. The idea for the mushroom dinner was to showcase how fungi can be both artfully incorporated into a meal and also used as a meat substitute, or at least partial substitute.

One of the courses was a little hamburger slider that was 30 percent fungi. Like all the food, it was delicious. There was a phở appetizer that relied on a savory mushroom broth rather than the typical beef broth. Another dish paired what some might consider a miserly portion of sea scallop singleton with king oyster mushroom medallions; the cultivated fungi bulked up the dish and perfectly accented the wild seafood. A butter-smooth poached Chinook salmon was bathed in enoki butter, peavines, and green garbanzo beans, with tiny pickled mushrooms adding a burst of earthy flavor.

I happened to be seated next to my friend John Sundstrom of Lark restaurant, one of Seattle’s early fungal adopters and an all-around fan of wild foods, and we both agreed the use of a variety of wild and cultivated mushrooms added depth and complexity to the meal while also demonstrating the possibilities for fungi to take the pressure off less sustainable foods.

Bilet and Mehta strike me as intensely curious by temperament. Let’s hope their curiosity continues to lead them in creative new directions to bring fungi to the people.

New York Area Slideshows

sisters2For all my East Coast readers, I’m bringing The Mushroom Hunters back to the New York area in the first week of March. I’ll be giving slide presentations at three mycological societies in the Tri-state area: the New Jersey Mycological Association in Basking Ridge, New Jersey; the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association in Purchase, New York; and the New York Mycological Society in Manhattan.

If you’re a member of any of these organizations, I hope to see you there. If not, maybe this a good opportunity to think about joining one and delving more deeply into the kingdom of fungi. Becoming a member of a mycological society is the single best way to learn about edible mushrooms.

I’ll be showing slides and telling stories about the hidden economy of wild mushroom harvesting, from patch to plate—the pickers, buyers, chefs, and others who make up this little known wild food chain, with its echoes of the Gold Rush and free-wheeling frontier-style capitalism.

Here’s more information on my upcoming slide talks:

March 2, 1:30 p.m. New Jersey Mycological Association. Somerset County Environmental Education Center on Lord Stirling Road in Basking Ridge, NJ.

March 4, 7:30 p.m. Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association. Friends Purchase Meeting House, Purchase, NY.

March 5, 6:30 p.m. New York Mycological Society. New York Horticultural Society, 148 West 37th, 13th floor, Manhattan.

Scallop and Wild Mushroom Marsala

marsala1You might have heard that California has declared a drought disaster. To be sure, it’s been a tough mushroom season for my friends on the North Coast and up into southwestern Oregon. That’s where most of the circuit pickers gather every winter to harvest the big three: black trumpets, hedgehogs, and yellowfeet. It’s just about the only place in North America at this time of year with commercial quantities of mushrooms.

But not this year. Dry conditions have both commercial and recreational pickers going stir-crazy, contributing to an uptick in the recent phenomenon of “foraging wars” stories in the press as forest users compete for a pittance of fungi. The situation is exasperated in the Golden State, where land managers have seen fit to close large swaths of public land to foraging of any kind, recreational included.

Hopefully the recent rainstorms will mean a late winter flush, easing the fungal pain of Californians, if it’s not too late already. Luckily I have some packages of yellowfeet and black trumpets in the freezer.

The black trumpet has always been one of my favorites of the edible fungi; it’s only in recent years that I’ve come around to appreciating the yellowfoot for its own merits and not just as a poor cousin to the trumpet. Yellowfeet, in particular, work well with this dish. They complement the sweetness of the Marsala wine as well as the scallops, and they add body to the sauce. The cheese adds some oomph, and helps thicken the sauce, though you can get away without it. If you have the time, make your own pasta, or buy the fresh stuff.

9 oz fettuccine
1/2 lb scallops (or more, to taste)*
1/2 lb wild mushroom, chopped
1/4 cup diced shallot
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup Marsala wine
1 cup beef stock
1 cup heavy cream (or less)
1/2 cup grated parmesan (optional)
chopped parsley for garnish
salt and pepper

* I used a half-pound of small bay scallops plus a few large sea scallops.

1. Boil water for pasta.

2. Pat scallops dry and season with salt and pepper. Pan-sear in 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Remove to bowl.

3. Saute shallots in remaining 2 tablespoons butter until soft. Add mushrooms and cook together a few minutes, cooking off liquid.

4. De-glaze with 1/2 cup Marsala. Cook until Marsala is nearly evaporated. Add beef stock and reduce by half. Lower heat to medium and slowly stir in heavy cream to taste.

5. While sauce is reducing, cook pasta according to instructions.

6. Stir in optional parmesan cheese and return scallops to sauce. Adjust seasonings.

7. Spoon sauce over pasta and garnish with fresh parsley.

Serves 2

Oregon Truffle Festival #9

truffle7

I’ve already blocked out the dates on my 2015 calendar. The last weekend in January is truffle time, which means the first few weeks of the new year are a time of belt-tightening.

I’m talking about the annual Oregon Truffle Festival, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. I hear there are big plans afoot for 2015, so in order to be ready, I might need to join my parents on January 1 when they “put on the hair shirt.” Putting on the hair shirt entails cutting out all alcoholic beverages and rich foods for three weeks. They don’t last the full month because, according to them, their social schedule begins to heat up again in the last week of January. As does mine.

I look forward to the Oregon Truffle Festival every year. I’ve made friends who I know I’ll see that weekend, and only that weekend. They come from all over the country and abroad. Those of you who have read The Mushroom Hunters know that an entire chapter takes place at the festival. My editor would have been happy to see a whole book from there; he needs to get on a plane to Oregon.

This year’s lineup was pretty amazing. Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, authors of the James Beard award-winning books The Flavor Bible and What To Drink with What You Eat, were guest dignitaries (not to mention charming tablemates), and they helmed a tasting—along with Lee Medoff of Bull Run Distilling, beer guru Christian DeBenedetti, and wine writer Cole Danehower—that pushed the usual boundaries: three flights—wine, beer, and spirits—paired with truffled bites. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well an Oregon Vesper Cocktail (Medoyeff vodkaAria gin) paired with a White Truffle and Duck Liver Mousseline. Whodathunkit?

The first course of Saturday night’s Grand Truffle Dinner (pictured above), by Aaron Barnett of St. Jack in Portland, also involved the apparently now hip spirit pairing. Oregon White Truffle Cured Beef Tenderloin with Celery, Oregon Black Truffle, and Oyster Emulsion was nicely matched with a Celery Gimlet devised by St. Jack’s John Salas. I’m not a big cocktail drinker, but these pairings proved fresh and tasty.

The Grand Truffle Dinner was over the top as always, with everyone donning their finest attire (ahem, Mr. Winkler at right, with his turkey-tail tie). Pictured at the top of this post is the first course, created by Justin Wills of Restaurant Beck in Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast, receiving its finishing touches: Oregon Black Truffle Chirashi with Dungeness Crab, Kampachi, Cured Scallop, Yuzu, Takawan, and Oregon Black Truffle Tamago (it helps to have a smart phone at table just to look up such ingredients!). Another unusual hit was the Chawanmushi of Foie Gras with Oregon White Truffles, served up by Hero Sone and Lisa Doumani of Terra in Napa Valley.

Thankfully I was going into this six-course feast with an appetite. Earlier that day I saw the beginnings of a new Périgord truffle orchard at Domaine Meriwether. (Just add water and wait 10 years!) Planted by New World Truffieres, the small plot is something of an experimental orchard, with several varieties of host tree that will be grown organically (no weed killers!) and subjected to new ideas in this otherwise very old business. Later at lunch, the winery served Beef Tartare with Black Truffle Mayonnaise, Micro Greens & Crostini (pictured above left), another of my favorites of the weekend, and paired with their excellent 2001 Brut Rosé. After that we worked off lunch with a walk in the woods. For those who wanted to take home some truffles, this was a good year. Everyone got a chance to forage their own with the help of Umami Truffle Dogs.

Now it’s time to put the hair shirt on.

Seattle Book Events

well_readTwo pieces of good news: The Mushroom Hunters was just short-listed for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards (thank you local indies!), and my first TV interview will be broadcast on the PBS show Well Read. Admittedly, I didn’t sleep much before the interview (and I had a frog in my throat, the first cold of the season), but the 30-minute conversation flew by in a blink, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with host Terry Tazioli, who is smart, curious, and an all-around good guy.

I’ll be staying close to home through the remainder of 2013, with plenty of readings and slide talks planned for the Seattle area. If you’re curious about edible fungi or the hidden subculture of mushroom pickers and buyers, stop by one of these events: