One in a collection of essays celebrating things we love.
Have you heard the one about the mushroom who walks into a bar? I will spare you the whole shebang, but the punchline is, “I’m a fungi!”
I tell that joke far too often, partly because I have a third-grade, knock-knock sense of humor (don’t get me started on interrupting cows) and partly because I will take any excuse to talk about mushrooms. Neither meat nor vegetable nor fruit nor grain, they are a world unto themselves. And I can’t go very long without consuming them.
In a grocery store or farmers market, the mushroom bin is sometimes bare, but in the woods, where there is one there are usually so very many: if not visible, then hidden, perhaps microscopic, just waiting to pop up and out.
It can take practice to train your eye to spot them, but sometimes beginner’s luck wins out. On a recent visit to my sister’s in Maine, we set out for a stroll just as she mentioned that the one mushroom she has always longed to find in the nearby woods was the black trumpet. Mere moments later, we rounded a bend, and, “What are those?” My boyfriend, Carl, a true mushroom neophyte, pointed at the ground. We picked enough for two meals: a black trumpet and goat cheese tart one night, and pasta with black trumpets and cream the next.
I know what you’re thinking: Mushrooms in the wild will kill me, won’t they? There are some toxic ones, yes, so beware — and don’t eat foraged mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing. I’m no expert on the subject, which can occupy a lifetime of study. But I’ve picked up a few tips from my sister and other foraging devotees, and I concentrate any and all efforts on a few varieties I’m confident about: mostly morels, chanterelles and oysters.
Once, on a hike closer to home, I stopped dead in my tracks when my group passed a fallen tree with what had to be 10 pounds of telltale bright orange ruffles cascading from the wood. I let out a gasp; it was my absolute favorite, chicken of the woods (not to be confused with the very different hen of the woods, a.k.a. maitake). It has the meatiest texture of any mushroom I’ve tasted (which is how it gets its name), a boon for a vegetarian. Then I remembered: Some that grow on eucalyptus and cedar trees should be avoided because they can be toxic. Rather than pull out my iPhone and start googling tree photos, I left them alone and kept hiking.
Foraging can bring the thrill of discovery — and the crush of disappointment if you come up empty-handed, or if the specimens are too small, waterlogged, dried out or otherwise not worth picking. That’s still better than the all-too-common grocery store experience of finding only mushrooms that have been suffocated to slime in their plastic packaging.
Speaking of grocery stores, one of the obvious draws of foraging is the price: nonexistent. I’ve been happy to see “wild” varieties (they’re actually cultivated) at Whole Foods Market and at farmers markets, but there’s a good reason the prices are usually listed by the mere quarter-pound. Because I want to eat mushrooms much more often than I have time to forage them, I drop at least $20 every time I visit the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market. North Cove Mushrooms sells beautiful blue and yellow oysters, lion’s head (or lion’s mane), shiitakes, maitakes and pioppino — all of them super fresh, grown indoors; each one a little different in texture and flavor.
After, er, cultivating a taste for the more interesting varieties, it can be hard to settle for boring old buttons and criminis. But I cope by considering them different animals. The pedestrian ones I chop up into sauces or soups. The others I prefer to showcase, to taste them for what they are, not mixed with too many other ingredients. The other day, when someone asked me what I planned to make with a pound of mixed specimens from North Cove, I replied, all joking aside: “My favorite dish. I call it roasted mushrooms.”
More Things We Love from Food: