Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Foraging for wild mushrooms

Posted By on Tue, Aug 3, 2010 at 9:00 AM

So I fulfilled a longtime desire this weekend: I finally went mushroom foraging.

My new wild food friend Chris Frederick, whom I wrote about here last month, met me up in Woodland Park for another tour in the woods off Rampart Road.

Once again, I should disclaim that you should not go wild food hunting without a knowledgeable guide or without a very detailed guidebook — there are several things that you can accidentally eat that will make you really sick or kill you.

Chanterelle mushrooms are a favorite of many chefs and fairly easily identified, with a bright yellow/orange ruffled cap and distinctive lines leading down the stem.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Chanterelle mushrooms are a favorite of many chefs and fairly easily identified, with a bright yellow/orange ruffled cap and distinctive lines leading down the stem.

Frederick isn't actually a huge fan of mushrooms, so he doesn't actually know all the mushrooms that grow in this area. He's made a point of identifying only a handful that he has deemed most choice and tasty.

Over the course of several hours we stopped along Rampart Road on little pull-offs that used to be logging roads, hiking sometimes only a hundred feet or so until we ran across small patches where Frederick knew to find some goodies. Kinda like how aspen and banyan trees grow as one connected organism under the ground, making one grove effectively a single big tree, mushrooms will drop spores and grow in little patches. So often, where you see one, you'll find a couple smaller ones upon closer inspection.

We spied Fredericks all-time favorite mushroom, Lactarius deliciosus, still working its way out of the ground here.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • We spied Frederick's all-time favorite mushroom, Lactarius deliciosus, still working its way out of the ground here.

By day's end, we were able to locate seven different safe-to-eat shrooms (a few of which local fine dining chefs are reported to pay handsomely for at friendly back-door transactions). Six Frederick knows by name; the seventh he can't recall, but he remembered it was safe to eat and I did so, to no ill effect.

In the photo that follows, you'll see the following, clockwise, right-to-left, beginning with my most abundant harvest:

Orange Bolete
Coral mushroom
Lactarius deliciosus
Russula (orange)
Chanterelle
Oyster mushroom
— mystery mushroom in middle —

Nothing makes a forager happier than a kitchen table full of gourmet shrooms.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Nothing makes a forager happier than a kitchen table full of gourmet shrooms.

Since my foraging trip on Saturday, I've eaten through everything but half of the Orange Boletes. I tried everything individually that night with a little garlic, onion and butter sauté. Then I made an oyster mushroom omelet with tomatoes and greens from my home garden on Sunday morning. On Sunday evening, my girlfriend made a veggie pesto soup with kelp noodles, to which we added a large handful of the Orange Boletes.

All the mushrooms were tasty, much more so than your basic store-bought button mushroom. The oysters in particular are really good with soy sauce, and the Chanterelles seemed to taste best the less you mess with them. The most noticeable difference in the varieties are the textures and chewiness factor. The oysters have a bit of a rubbery quality, while the Chanterelles, Lactarius deliciosus and Russula all sported more firm textures that were much meatier.

As a last fun experiment, I took some Orange Boletes, Lactarius deliciosus and Russulas (picked Monday morning and dropped off by Frederick to our office late in the day) over to Nosh and asked chef Shane Lyons to prep a few plates to highlight the mushrooms.

Chef Lyons working the Orange Boletes in hot canola oil and butter.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Chef Lyons working the Orange Boletes in hot canola oil and butter.

First, Lyons advised us to never wash mushrooms under running water, as they'll absorb a bit of it and effectively steam instead of sear as desired. Instead, we cleaned them off with damp napkins.

Lyons says he usually treats mushrooms as a steak alternative and likes to cook them in ways that will accentuate them, rather than drown them out.

For the Orange Boletes, he took canola oil up to a very high heat, basically smoking point, then added slices of the mushroom (don't crowd the pan, he advises), followed by a spoon full of butter and a few bits of chopped garlic. He turned them every half minute or so for a couple of minutes, also taking care to spoon the oil over the top of the mushrooms while the underside cooked on the pan. After removing them and placing them onto a napkin to absorb the excess oil and cool, he sprinkled them with salt.

You want your oil very hot before it receives the butter and garlic. While cooking, spoon the excess oil over the mushrooms top.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • You want your oil very hot before it receives the butter and garlic. While cooking, spoon the excess oil over the mushrooms' top.

The simple prep yielded super-yummy mushrooms with a slightly crispy exterior and a squishy (in a good way) interior perhaps best described by Lyons as having the texture of artificial crab. The flavor, past the salt, was slightly meaty and also a little like seafood — the mushrooms' own complex, earthy blend. Um ... suffice to say they tasted better than anything I made at home with the mushrooms.

Next, Lyons went for a bit of a Texas-meets-Japan approach and threw some of the Orange Boletes (pre-seared like before) in with Amarillo chile paste, Amarillo peppers, garlic, kale, sake and Dashi (a mushroom and seaweed broth). Oh — don't forget the pinch of salt. This was sort of like gussying the wild items up in a pretty dress for a night on the town. Though there was obviously a lot more going on, the mushrooms still starred and tasted awesome with the Asian accent. Yum!

Its always nice to see a little purple on a plate — thank you kale.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • It's always nice to see a little purple on a plate, thank you kale.

For a final mushroom treat, Lyons prepared the Lactarius deliciosus and Russulas in the oil and butter as before, but scored the top of the mushrooms' cap with a knife (making little cuts along the top) to allow more of the interior to cook faster. He placed a simple finish of scallion butter on top with the salt this time, which exploded with flavor on the tongue. So good — if I could have a steak-sized mushroom that tasted like this, I'd pay steak prices for it.

Lastly, this is what it is like to go foraging with Frederick — note the enthusiasm in his voice as he describes this Russula mushroom to me.

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