"There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old, bold mushroom hunters," warns the old maxim. Fortunately, Washington-area mycophiles can do their foraging at gourmet specialty stores.
Exotic mushrooms are sold dried, canned and, increasingly, fresh. At last check, Sutton Place Gourmet stocked several types of dried mushrooms in the cheese section and nine varieties of domestic and imported fresh mushrooms in the produce department. And the gourmet Giants sometimes sell a few unusual fresh mushrooms, too.
In "Joe's Book of Mushroom Cookery," Jack Czarnecki writes that although canned wild mushrooms keep their shape better, they are less tasty than dried because heat processing kills the flavor. Since mushrooms are mostly water, dried mushrooms are flavor concentrates. Although it is unorthodox, he believes that the best reconstituting technique is boiling the mushrooms for 30 minutes. It is the remaining liquid that is used in many of his recipes; the mushrooms themselves are added only for appearance and a little texture.
In the store, many of the fresh "wild" mushrooms are actually cultivated woodland varieties. They should be bright looking, not dried out, and pleasant smelling. Check the underside of the stem for small holes that are a sign of bug infestation. Do not wash them until immediately before using. Refrigerated in a plastic or paper bag, they will keep three to five days. Fresh mushrooms that are blanched in unsalted boiling water to cover for about two minutes will keep about a week in the refrigerator, longer if frozen.
Here is a list, in order of availability, of the most commonly marketed woodland mushrooms and suggestions for how to use them:
Button Mushrooms (Agaricus brunnescens): Also known as champignons de Paris because French horticulturists were the first to cultivate them, these are the common supermarket variety, available in a white and cream color. They are a good all-purpose mushroom, can be cooked any way and are especially suited for stuffing because they keep their shape.
Enoki (enokitake) (Flammulina velutipes): With their long stems and perfumey flavor, these are best used raw in salads or quickly saute'ed.
Shiitake (Lentinus elodes): the Japanese have been cultivating these for 2,000 years but only recently have they been grown commercially in the United States, where they have been dubbed "golden oaks." Saute'ed, braised or in soups, they stand up to strong spicing because of their smoky flavor.
Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus): These silky and meaty mushrooms can be served raw, saute'ed in butter to bring out their flavor or deep-fried.
Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius): Called girolles in French, these are prized in cooking, says Czarnecki, because their apricot-like flavor "bursts forth onto the palate." Their orange color and distinctive flavor make them perfect accompaniments to fowl and game.
Trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides): Also called false truffles, because of their dark color, and trumpet-of-death, because they are shaped like the instruments once used at funerals, these are best used in sauces, soups, veal casseroles and with fish.
Morels (Morchella esculenta): Czarnecki calls these the "best known wild mushrooms in America" with a "distinct, nutty flavor." They are tastiest saute'ed or braised with veal or fowl.
Ce pes (Boletus edulis): Called porcini in Italy and steinpilz in Germany, these meaty mushrooms are versatile and delicious. Large ones can be grilled, smaller specimens paired with beef, veal, pork, lamb, game, rice and pasta, according to Czarnecki, who claims they are "the most universally loved and utilized mushrooms in Europe."
Truffles (Tuber melanosporum, the black truffle of Perigord; Tuber magnatum, the white truffle of Piedmont): Because they are the world's most expensive mushrooms, truffles often are used only for decoration. Czarnecki labels their flavor "elusive," best enjoyed shaved onto fresh pasta or baked en croute.