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Mouths to Feed: Into the Woods

October 9, 2012

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.

Maitake, or hen-of-the-woods, found in local woods. Photo by C. Barbour

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.

I brought my hen-of-the-woods home and set her on the counter to admire her beauty. But as with all real foods, you can’t keep them on a pedestal too long or they rot. So I cooked her up.

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.

Sautéed mushrooms

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

  1. Tear the mushrooms into medium-size pieces, brushing or wiping off the dirt as you go. Set aside. Place a large sauté pan over high heat and allow it to get hot for about 30 seconds. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and wait until it shimmers. Toss in a dab of the butter then about one-half of the mushrooms — no more than will fit in a single layer in the pan. Toss them once or twice with the oil and butter, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, then let sit without stirring until they begin to release their juices. (It’s important to resist the urge to stir them frequently, especially if you like them crisp in spots.)
  2. After a couple of minutes (or when they are golden on one side), turn the mushrooms over, lower the heat to medium, and allow them to sit, stirring very occasionally, another 4-5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, wipe out the pan, and repeat with an additional tablespoon of oil, dab of butter, and remaining mushrooms.
  3. Wipe out the pan, return it to medium-low heat, add the last tablespoon oil and remaining butter, the shallots, garlic, and thyme. Allow to soften about 2 minutes. Pour in the wine or sherry, if using, and scrape any brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Return the mushrooms to the pan and toss with the other ingredients; heat together a few more minutes. Just before serving, toss with the chopped parsley.

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