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Maven of Mushrooms

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Last week I went foraging for mushrooms and hit the jackpot. Honey-colored shiitakes, white- and gray-topped beeches, royal trumpets and floppy dark-brown gems known as wood ears or tree ears were among the ones I found.

The hunt took place not in the forest, but at the Sunday farmers market in downtown Baltimore. Sheltered under the Jones Falls Expressway near the courthouse buildings, the market was humming at 8 a.m., with omelet and sausage stands doing a brisk business near arts and crafts vendors.

It's also where Ferial Welsh, 52, a self-taught mushroom expert and purveyor, offers an impressive array of Pennsylvania-grown specimens along with some of her culinary creations. With the exception of wild mushrooms, the ones Welsh sells are raised indoors, where optimum conditions for each variety are maintained. Some grow in long "bunk beds" of rich soil or out of plastic jugs, while others are affixed to man-made structures that simulate tree trunks and logs.

People are passionate about all sorts of things; my passion happens to be mushrooms. Pickled, sauteed, roasted, grilled, stuffed: You name it, and I want it. I don't know whether that's because of my Eastern European roots or my preference for earthy flavors. Watching Welsh in action, I can tell she's a fellow fungus lover.

She started out as a teacher in Israel, and that experience serves her well. When customers ask about mushrooms, she's ready to instruct. Their questions run along similar lines, yet Welsh answers each with enthusiasm. Most are about storage; Welsh tells folks again and again to refrigerate the mushrooms in brown paper bags.

"Here, take a few bags," offers her 17-year-old daughter, Isis Tabrizi, who is helping out this morning. As for washing mushrooms, Welsh is adamant: Don't do it. Just wipe them off with a damp paper towel.

Behind her, one of her helpers is doing exactly that to the portobellos he's preparing for the smoker. "Washing mushrooms makes them slimy," Welsh says.

Her unlikely career path began more than 12 years ago. Done with teaching, Welsh was working as a caterer when her disappointment with supermarket mushrooms led her on a journey. She started asking around, going directly to farms and looking for the ones that grew mushrooms. Eventually she met and befriended mushroom producers and offered to take their stock to farmers markets herself. Along the way, she taught herself about mushrooms, learned how to cook them and discovered she was doing something she loved.

Now she or her representatives sell at local markets on Thursdays in Penn Quarter; on Saturdays in Arlington, Falls Church and Del Ray; on Sundays in Baltimore, Dupont Circle and Annapolis. (The markets in Arlington, Falls Church and Dupont Circle are open year-round; check the listings at http://www.washingtonpost.com/food for closing dates of the others.)

The mushrooms Welsh sells include common varieties and exotics. Seen all together, they're a feast for the eyes. The day I visited her Baltimore stand, she had chicken of the woods mushrooms, which look a lot like the hand fans ladies used to carry, plus golden-orange wild chanterelles (now in season) and oyster mushrooms.

Many of the kinds Welsh sells are available in large supermarkets and specialty stores, but buying them from her carries the added benefit of picking up a few cooking tips: Lobster mushrooms are great in risotto. A couple of wood ear mushrooms can flavor a soup.

She is a big fan of beech mushrooms, which look like something out of a children's storybook, their thin ivory-white stalks clustered together and topped with small caps. Eaten raw, the mushroom has little flavor, but a handful thrown into a soup, stir-fry or stew will yield a lot of taste in only a few minutes. "Its flavor is such a surprise," Welsh says.

When she started at the Baltimore farmers market in 1996, Welsh made and sold Middle Eastern-style food. Now she offers a mushroom buffet at the Mushroom Stand, with food made to order. Portobellos are smoked on a portable cooker, then topped with feta cheese. The quinoa that goes into her sandwiches and salads is spiked with Moroccan spices. She serves a meatless mushroom chili, sandwiches and fritters that are crisp and addictive.

Of course, I left with a bagful of 'shrooms, including buttons, creminis and Welsh's mixed containers. With cooler nights here at last, I'm ready to add them to all sorts of dishes.

Although mushrooms are available year-round, many of my go-to mushroom dishes such as stroganoffs, sauces and soups are better suited to fall and winter. I like to serve stuffed mushrooms and mushroom-filled pastries at holiday time.

And I love how mushrooms add flavor without fuss. Sometimes I simply slice them and add to a salad, letting them soak up the vinaigrette. I dice them, saute them quickly in a little butter or olive oil and then scramble them with eggs, for one of my favorite lunches. I braise pork, veal or chicken with mushrooms, adding some at the beginning and the rest at the end for a deeper, earthy flavor. For a fast mushroom-topped dinner, I roast pork tenderloins with mushrooms, then deglaze the pan with Marsala and chicken broth to form a quick sauce.

My Baltimore purchases will find their way into pilafs, pastas and side dishes. I'm fond of combining mushrooms with barley and kasha, but my new find is Israeli couscous, a tiny toasted pasta that mixes happily with mushrooms, onions and herbs.

I'll be keeping some mushrooms, properly stored in the refrigerator in a paper bag, for whenever inspiration hits. I will follow Welsh's advice about wiping instead of washing them, but it will be hard. Sometimes the mushrooms are so dirty, I just have to rinse!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached at food@washpost.com. Her In Season column appears monthly.

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