Firsts Among Fungi

My husband and I have spent enough time morel-hunting over the years to border on embarrassing considering we have never found a single one. That is until now, or rather, our last week at our new home. Best or most ironic of all: it was in our own backyard. We had purchased a bagful at the Eugene farmer’s market the morning before.

We actually found two, both in burn pits. I had the highest hopes for finding morels among the charred debris and across the snarled land that was logged last year, both inviting conditions for the delicious mushrooms. I’m hoping that there will be many more in two weeks as people have been reporting their finds all over the Willamette Valley and at higher elevations.

My husband fried them up– along with our market specimens– in a bit of butter, and the flavor was unparalleled.

My daughter also picked her first mushrooms on that trip: dozens of puffballs scattered across a sunny field. She’s been with me as I’ve collected meadow and brown field mushrooms plenty of times, but these little white delights were all hers. Like a true fungophile in the making, she drank in their mellow mushroomy scent.

On a short hike up the road we also came across gatherings of gregarious Agrocybe praecox, which are pretty and interesting, but whose edibility is, according to David Arora, “mediocre at best; disgusting at worst.” We took enough for identification but let the rest be.

All those hours in the woods and meadows of the Pacific Northwest are never wasted, even when the disappointment over an empty bag is at its worst. I’m notorious for traversing the most majestic of landscapes with my back hunched and my eyes trained intently on the ground. The forest floors have so much to offer– orchids, trillium, violets; beautiful but toxic salamanders; and on a good day, the most intriguing of wild mushrooms.

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Wild Greens with Polenta and Chutney Vinaigrette (and A Note On Foraging)

Sporadic rain has nurtured the fields into a thriving salad bar. By waning sunlight with my daughter in the carrier on my back yesterday evening, we gathered an impromptu dinner of curly dock, young mustard, mallow, and brown field and meadow mushrooms.

All three of the greens are widely known as prolific and problematic weeds. Dock and mallow inject enormous, strong taproots into the earth, securing them against the most zealous tugging should one want to remove them, as most people do. Most of the livestock ignore both plants. Luckily for us, they are delicious when young.

Dock, when young and “stretchy” (the leaf actually stretches if you look closely and pull), is sour at first bite, then savory. It can be eaten as a salad green, but I prefer it wilted as spinach. The sourness gives a lovely flavor of lemon. We cooked it very briefly with garlic and olive oil, steamed by the water still clinging to the leaves after rinsing, then mounded the greens over fried polenta and topped them with the mushrooms, which were sliced and sauteed in butter.

Mallow may be cooked likewise when older and tough. Hank Shaw has some good info on mallow as it’s used around the world, referencing the great Mediterranean chef Paula Wolfert. But when very young, up to the size of a quarter or even half-dollar, the leaves are smooth and very tender. The flavor is savory and fresh, without the excessive “greenness” or bitterness of many wild greens.

For salad we tossed the mallow with young mustard leaves, which are mild and delicious young greens, and dressed it lightly with chutney vinaigrette. I make variations of chutney dressing often; at its simplest, it is 1 part chutney to 1 part red wine vinegar to 2 parts neutral oil. My apple chutney contains the components I would normally add to a plain vinaigrette: mustard, onion, salt, pepper and other spices and seasonings. Any chutney is wonderful in this manner, so if yours omits these ingredients, adjust as desired. The result should be tangy and sweet, which is a perfect accent for the gentle sour and bitter flavors of the rest of the dish. The salad was our toddler’s favorite part.

A note on the safety of foraging: This is not a guide for identification of wild greens or mushrooms. No matter what you forage, never consume something unless you 100 percent certain of its identification, which includes familiarizing yourself with hazardous lookalikes. I prefer using at least two field guides and cross-referencing when identifying, as well as reading regularly to maintain a comfort level with the sorts of plants and fungi I live among or pursue.

I also believe that nature need not be feared, just as we need not fear all things with which we are unfamiliar. David Arora, author of the fantastic mushroom reference guides Mushrooms Demystified and All That The Rain Promises and More, writes an insightful chapter in the latter about unnecessary perpetuated fears of fungi, or mycophobia. He also notes in the former publication , and I will emphasize, that “poisonings” are often the result of overindulgence. Even domesticated plants contain compounds that can cause problems when consumed in excess.

Curly dock, as an example, contains calcium oxalate, which can lead to kidney stones if ingested in tremendous quantities on a regular basis. The chemical is in spinach, too, and I don’t know anyone who thinks of spinach as dangerous.

Don’t fear the plant. Just don’t eat a pound of it in one sitting. As I find myself saying often in myriad contexts, Anything in moderation. 

Happy hunting!

Meadow and Brown Field Mushrooms

The geese or crows have been quick to dine on the bounty of fungi emerging across our property, so I rushed to gather our share.

Last night we had burgers with sautéed mushrooms, a pile of wild greens, bleu cheese and fresh aioli. My husband fried potato chips for the side.

Tonight we’re having chicken-fried rabbit with mushroom salad, a recipe from the cookbook of Le Pigeon in Portland. The recipe calls for a medley of oysters, shiitakes, and others, but we’ll be using what we’ve picked.

Agaricus campestris and Agaricus cupreobrunneus are closely related to grocery store white buttons, criminis and portabellos, which are all the same mushroom: the ubiquitous Agaricus bisporus.

Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

I was lucky enough to come across a heavy load of gorgeous shaggy mane mushrooms in a kind woman’s yard. When they emerged last year around this time, I asked to pick them but when I returned to do so, they’d all been stomped by children. I wasted no time this fall the moment they nodded through the turf.

Shaggy manes (coprinus comatus) are tasty members of the inky cap family, all of which dissolve into black goop with rapidly elapsing age. They’re common, widespread, and among the more easily identified of wild fungi, which make them a good choice for novice mushroom hunters.

The only disclaimer, besides to always make a full and complete identification (my favorite book for doing so is Mushrooms Demystified by the brilliant David Arora) is to use caution– or avoid altogether– consuming any inky caps with alcohol, as adverse reactions may occur. I have intimate experience with such reactions, and I’ll tell that story later this week. It speaks to the mystique and intrigue that seduces mycophiles, as well as the ever-present risks that are so often misinterpreted by the toadstool-wary.

I’ll be sauteing these whole or halved in plenty of butter with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and wild onions.

Mushroom Hunts

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We’ve found a surprising number of mushrooms during in our time in California, considering the drought and lack of local wilderness.  Whenever and wherever some source of moisture reaches the earth, though, voyeuristic fungi spring up here and there. Our front pasture last year was crowded with meadow mushrooms; blewits occasionally line a nearby bike path.

But finding them here lacks the immense pleasure and satisfaction of a trek into the lush wilds of the Pacific Northwest, seeking the perfect humus, just the right fungi-friendly flowers and trees. The surroundings and adventure and methodical progress make mushroom-hunting an addictive delight and a pastime I yearn for on our return.

Perhaps best of all, our new property is flanked by a hundred acres of forest, freshly logged and being replanted this fall: among the most desirable and sought-after conditions for an optimum hunt.

We’ve dedicated dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fruitless hours to morel-hunting. Maybe– and how perfect it would be– we’ll finally find our first at home.