Spring rains bring them out -- the mushrooms of the field. And mushroom hunters, undaunted by the rain, are ready to go foraging through the damp to spot, to touch, to taste the exotic mushroom young and wild. To the uninitiated, mushrooms are simply edible fungi that fruit and bear spores. But to the avid mushroomer they are nothing less than major wonders of God's creation.
"It is time," said Louise Priest, president of the Mycological Associations of Washington, "to stop thinking of mushrooms as children of darkness. They are children of light, best seen in the early morning before someone else can take them away."
So off we went, to Theodore Roosevelt Island, a paradise for the study and stalking of mushrooms. Armed with a guidebook, dressed in old clothes and a poncho, shod with sturdy shoes, Priest carried a collecting basket filled with basic foray equipment -- a whistle to summon fellow foragers, a sharp knife, a magnifying glass, a trowel to dig out the base of the mushroom for positive identification, a roll of waxed paper (not plastic wrap, which causes many species of mushrooms to decompose) and a canteen filled with coffee.
Our sights were always pointed downward as we hunted under each log, in marsh undergrowth and next to trees.
"I found my first morel of the season!" screamed Priest. It was one foot from her first find of last year. "The mushroom season has really begun!" Filled with the excitement of the hunt, I easily spotted the spongy cap of my first morel.
"Don't eat uncooked morels," warned Priest. "Try this." She let me taste a nearly pluteus, which she had located under a log. Brushing off some of the dirt, I bit into a radishy-tasting fungus.
"Don't believe the old wives' tale that if you put in a silver spoon near a cooked mushroom and it turns black, you have found a poisonous toadstool," warned Priest. "Don't get that far with any mushroom of which you are uncertain. Discard it or reserve it for positive identification only. There are no sure-fire ways of identifying poisonous mushrooms. Above all, go hunting with experts." (The Mycological Association can be reached at 385-9514.)
We ambled deeper into the woods. "The best place for mushroom is Rock Creek Park, where I've found more than 200 ambrosial chanterelles in one day," Priest said. Considering their price -- $7 a can (small) imported from France -- that is indeed a find. Other places for successful mushroom-hunting include Holmes Run, Prince William Forest, Sligo Creek, Cabin John Park and Elk Neck. The season lasts from April until late autumn.
Thirty morels, one pluteus and a few discarded toadstools later, we were ready for serious eating in Priest's kitchen.
As she cooked, we nibbled on last year's sweet-and-sour pickled Polyporus squamosus. Our morels were sauteed in butter and shallots with cream added to make a fresh delicious soup. Diced and sauteed, the solitary pluteus was a delight over wild rice.
What better reward than a freshly made mushroom dish after a productive, rainy morning's foray? CREAM OF MOREL SOUP Serves 3 to 4 Morels* Butter 2 tablespoons chopped shallot 1 1/2 cups light cream or half-and-half Salt and pepper to taste Dash paprika Dash nutmeg
Slice open morels and rinse briefly in water. Saute in butter for 6 to 8 minutes. Whirl in blender or food processor. At this stage either freeze the mushrooms for later use or combine 1 cup of cooked morels with 1 1/2 cups cream or half-and-half. Add seasoning, heat to just below boiling point and serve.
It's difficult to provide exact measurements for wild mushrooms. Mushroom quantities depend on the amount found.