I’ve always loved eating mushrooms, ever since I ate my mother’s beef stroganoff as a kid: The texture of those button mushrooms was so interesting to my young self — clearly a sign I’d someday be an adventurous eater, as most kids hate mushrooms. Since then I’ve picked mushrooms aimlessly through most of my life.
That changed about a decade ago when I began to study which mushrooms living out there in the big wide world might be edible. I knew morels, but that was about it. Out in the fields and forests, I soon ran up against a roadblock of fear. I was pretty sure this was a shaggy mane, or that was a chanterelle, and that other thing was a meadow mushroom… but not entirely sure. And I don’t want my liver dissolving any time soon.
Mycologists have a saying: There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters. There are no old, bold mushroom hunters. Well, I am getting older, and after several years of haphazard study, I have finally screwed up my courage to eat some of the fungal delights I’ve brought home.
I started small, with a store-bought Shiitake Mushroom Kit. I messed it up, so I just buried the block of spore-infested sawdust in my garden. I now get occasional shiitakes. Ditto for a stone mushroom kit; the stone mushrooms you see at the top are the first from my garden. Pretty, eh?
As for wild mushrooms, other than my front-yard morels, I’ve struck out on my previous mushroom hunts. Part of the reason is because California is so damn dry most of the year, limiting the season. But really it’s because I am also a hunter — and hunting season coincides with mushroom season. I must choose, and most often I choose ducks and deer over wild mushrooms. But I love eating them so much I bought a bunch of dried wild mushrooms from an outfit in Michigan called Earthy Delights.
My first real experiment with their mushrooms was with the roast grouse and hen of the woods, or maitake, mushrooms I wrote about a few weeks ago. They added an excellent, firm texture and, well, earthy flavor, to the wild rice pilaf. The play there was using hen of the woods mushrooms with grouse, which is literally the hen of the woods.
Or rather chicken. But there’s another chicken of the woods, and it too is a mushroom, also known as sulfur shelf. I had some dried ones from Earthy Delights, so I decided to pair them in a dish I call Hens and Chicks:
The hen of the woods mushrooms are in the frittata, along with some crispy homemade batons of lardo, shallots, rosemary and such. The strips of chicken of the woods are to the left: They are sauteed in pheasant fat (natch!), braised in their rehydrating liquid and sweet wine, then glazed with maple syrup — which would be “sugar of the woods.” Bitter broccoli raab ties the dishes together.
(Click for the Hens and Chicks recipe.)
How was it? A good idea, and I really like the maitake mushroom frittata, which is set in a ramekin and cooked in a hot water bath in the oven. Sadly, I think chicken of the woods was all-too close to its meaty cousin: Even rehydrated and simmered, it tasted like overcooked chicken breast. I want to find a fresh sulfur shelf and try this again — I am betting it will be much better!
I did get out mushroom hunting last weekend, however.
My friend Anthony and I went up to Georgetown in the Sierra Nevada looking for porcini. After a hair-raising encounter with an unplowed mountain road covered in sheet ice, we descended a few hundred feet below the snow line and searched over a burned area. And this is what I found:
Angel’s wings, a pale relative of the oyster mushroom. Unmistakeable. They look exactly like oysters, which you can buy in stores, only they shone a glowing white in the forest; it’s no wonder they’re called angel’s wings. These were growing in a dead conifer, which is another indicator, as regular oyster mushrooms prefer hardwoods and willow. And yes, that’s a layer of ice on them…
I cut most of the wings, leaving some for another time, and put them in my box. Success, at last! I’ve only gone out specifically in search of mushrooms fewer than 10 times since I moved to California, but this was the first time I’d found a choice edible that wasn’t a morel.
We didn’t find any real porcini spots, and after a few hours were only coming up with LBMs — Little Brown Mushrooms — and Russulas, which are better kicked than picked according to David Arora, who wrote Mushrooms Demystified, the bible of mushroom hunting.
I was all full of hope coming home. I’d combine these angel’s wings with my stone mushrooms, which I knew were edible because they’d grown where I’d buried the kit — although, disconcertingly, I’d temporarily forgotten exactly which variety they were. Eating an unknown mushroom is never a good thing, and I only did it because of the outside circumstances.
Wondering how they might best be cooked, I looked up “angel wing mushrooms” on the Internet… and immediately found stories about several elderly Japanese who died after eating them in 2004. Uh, this ain’t good, I thought. I read further. It is apparently the lone case of poisoning by this mushroom, and all of the victims had a history of kidney failure. Weird.
Every mushroom book I own has angel’s wings as a choice edible, and there has never been a case of poisoning by them here in North America. Lots of other bloggers have written about eating them. What to do? I sought advice from people who know more than I do about mushrooms: Langdon Cook over at Fat of the Land, and Ron Zimmerman of the Herbfarm restaurant in Washington. Both men eat them; Lang likes his batter-fried.
Good enough for me. I’d keyed this mushroom out using Arora’s book (“keying out” is a fairly rigorous method of determining whether your mushroom is what you think it is, or a potentially poisonous lookalike), done my research and asked experts. Into the frying pan it went.
I sauteed the stone mushrooms and the angel’s wings in a dry pan until they began to release their water, then added olive oil, shallots, garlic and a chopped head of Treviso radicchio from the garden for a touch of color and bitterness. I completed the sauce with Bombay Sapphire gin, wild boar demi-glace and heavy cream, and topped the pasta — little coins in this case — with Meyer lemon zest and black pepper.
(Click for the full wild mushroom pasta recipe.)
Turned out to be an excellent dish, although the coin pasta was a little hard to eat; I’ll sub in bowties or even linguine next time. The mushrooms were savory but not overly pronounced in flavor — they tasted like regular mushrooms — and the creamy-gin sauce hit all the right notes. I used gin because I wanted to highlight the slight piney aroma of the angel’s wings.
The takeaway? Go forth and forage for mushrooms, but do it carefully and deliberately. I highly recommend that you buy Mushrooms Demystified, read it, and consult it again whenever you bring home a mushroom. Most mushrooms in the United States are not fatal, although in California we have two of the deadliest, amanitas called the Death Angel and the Destroying Angel — what’s with all these angelic references? I know it demands a degree of faith to eat wild mushrooms, but still… Many other mushrooms will make you throw up, however, so it’s best to be double-dog sure of what you have before giving it the ole’ hot butter and salt treatment.
I’ll be out again this season, you can bank on it. I still haven’t found any porcini. And I’ll be sure to bring home lots of other mushrooms, as I am fascinated by their variety. But I live by this code: When in Doubt, Throw it Out.