By Celia Barbour
I wanted to learn to forage for mushrooms, so I attached myself to someone acquainted with the art, and now I know a thing or two about it but not much more. It’s enough. You can opt, as I have, to seek out only the half dozen or so edible mushrooms that don’t have toxic lookalikes.
Yet though my knowledge is slim, acquiring it has irreparably altered the tenor of my walks. I used to head into the woods to stretch my legs, breathe, clear my head, and think new thoughts. But now, summer and fall, I always have this other agenda: I am keeping half an eye out for edible mushrooms.
This year, I haven’t had much success. My work schedule means that I can no longer sally forth on those good, clear mornings a day or two after a rain. I go when my schedule permits, which is not often. A couple weeks ago, my daughter Dosi, 8, and I visited a spot where I’d found a glorious patch of black trumpets last year, but we were too late: They were dried out and slouchy. Dosi did not mind; she doesn’t like mushrooms, but she does like sitting on great, big rocks in the middle of the woods and eating whatever snack I’ve tucked into my backpack, so to her, the outing was a fine success.
But I was disappointed. In fact, I was ready to label this whole year a flop and hope for better luck in 2013. Then, last Friday I went for a walk just because I’d been sitting at my desk all morning. It was a damp, foggy day, and the woods felt like the Pacific Northwest, mysterious and lush. The moss was the kind of throbbing, mad-green that’s now a popular shade for kids’ athletic shoes.
Mushrooms had popped up everywhere. They are such sturdy, charming creatures, diligently assisting the forest with its nourishing process of decay. But I couldn’t identify any of them, so I let them be. Then I spied something about the size and shade of a dusty mophead at the base of an oak tree. Maitake, or hen-of-the-woods, can be hard to spot because they look like leaves, but this one was so big that I couldn’t miss it. I plucked it from its base.
I have been told, variously, that you must cut a mushroom above the base or pull it out by the root to ensure regrowth the following year — and for awhile, whichever I did left me worrying. So I looked it up, and discovered it doesn’t matter. A study conducted in Switzerland over the course of 27 years confirmed that wild mushroom re-growth is unaffected by how you harvest, or even whether or not you harvest at all — as long as the spores have a chance to scatter first.
Here’s the best trick I know for cooking mushrooms: Don’t cut them. Tear them into pieces instead. You don’t rupture as many of their cell walls this way, so the mushrooms turn crisp and firm rather than soggy as they cook. As my mushroom was browning, I toasted up some baguette slices and spread them with homemade mayonnaise leftover from lunchtime. I may have been hallucinating — I don’t know all that much about mushrooms, remember — but my hen sure looked happy sitting on her new, little nests.
If you use a mixture of mushrooms, cook the delicate ones separate from the sturdier ones. You can serve this sautéed over an herb-filled salad, with an over-easy egg, pasta or risotto with parmesan, or as a side dish with chicken or steak.
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 ½ pounds wild mushrooms, or a mixture of wild and button mushrooms
salt and pepper
½ cup minced shallot (about one good-size shallot)
2 tablespoons minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup white wine, dry sherry, or Madeira, optional
¼- ½ cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley