Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Northwest in November: Mushroom Heaven


We lived in the Northwest and dreamed about hunting mushrooms for 15 years before we finally got started.

Pretty mushrooms, growing by a
walkway near the office ... but these
ones I wouldn't eat, if I were you.

I am now sorry I waited that long!

This year and last, I've discovered the joy of fall mushroom hunting in the woods of the great Pacific Northwest. Every time we go out now, we discover dozens of species waiting to be enjoyed. Most of these are spectacular to look at, but I wouldn't try eating them. But there are others, which are as tasty as they are beautiful.

Supreme among these, in the fall, are the chanterelles. A typical two hours spent in the woods, hunting chanterelles, yields at least 10 pounds' worth (several grocery bags full). Chanterelles, which are typically golden in color (though we have also found several rare white ones, and others more of a brownish tint), go for $12-$20 per pound in the supers, so $200 worth of mushrooms in two hours is definitely nice work. (If one could call tromping around in the forest "work.")

Chanterelles are very easily identified, and grow in abundance. They range in size from as small as your thumbnail, all the way up to a giant pound-plus monster (easily twice the size of my clenched fist) which my nephew Kyle discovered during our last trip.

My nephew Kyle found
this monster chanterelle!
Sweet and peach-like, they are wonderful eating. The hardest part is the time required to brush them clean, which takes almost as much time as finding and picking them. (They have many crevasses in which pine needles and other forest flora and fauna love to hide.) Be sure to cook them well to kill any stray bacteria. (Did you know more people are sickened by the bacteria living on improperly cooked mushrooms, than by poisonous mushrooms?)

There are also two other mushroom varieties which I have enjoyed harvesting during the Fall: oyster mushrooms, and sulfur shelf, also known as "chicken of the woods." Both are varieties of "shelf mushrooms," which typically grow out of dead and down logs. I have found oyster mushrooms several times, usually growing on dead and decaying cottonwood. And I have found one lovely sulfur shelf, growing out of an old chunk of cedar.

It was a monstrous 3-pound specimen (see photo at bottom), but tender as cooked chicken breast. Sulfur shelfs are bright yellow sulfur-colored on the bottom, and golden (like a chanterelle) on the top. Caution is advised, because it's been documented that approximately 5% of those who eat sulfur shelf found on pine or cedar have an allergic reaction, usually intestinally unpleasant. For this reason we started with just a small taste, and increased the dosage after experiencing no negative reactions. We ended up eating three full meals out of that one mushroom, and all were quite wonderful. (We basically substituted the sulfur shelf for the chicken in chicken cacchiatori. It had a cedar-ish aroma but otherwise tasted just like tender white chicken breast.)

I've had oyster mushrooms from the supers, but those I have found in the wild are much more delicate. They have a nutty flavor which I really like. I typically saute them in butter or olive oil, reduced with a little sherry or port near the end.

2010's harvest of chanterelles.
My son Nathan (center) holds the
largest, and friend Ben Griffin (right)
a rare white chanterelle.
Chanterelles, likewise, are also wonderful cooked in olive oil. Add fresh pressed garlic, and kosher salt and ground pepper to taste. Boil off the liquid over low temperature, then sizzle them hot in the oil, adding a splash of port or fine, sweet red wine to finish.

Chanterelles have their own unique fragrance. It's very subtly peach-like, but they make an excellent accompaniment to almost any kind of steak.

If you need any sort of inducement to be my friend, this year I gave away many bags of chanterelles to friends and coworkers. Several bags I traded for wild-caught hake, true cod, and trout. This year we went hunting three times (three times as much as last year), and next year I am planning on going three times as much as this year! While the typical journey to our mushroom heaven (in the foothills of Mt. Rainier) is over an hour's drive, each way, I also know of a secret chanterelle spot just a mile or two from my home, and I have seeded the forests around our house with spores, so hopefully more will grow in the years to come.

This 3-pound "chicken of the woods"
(sulfur shelf) mushroom lasted
us for three full meals.
I've gone spring mushroom hunting twice now. My ultimate goal is the coveted morel, said to be the finest (and rarest) of all wild mushrooms; though I've had little success yet in finding other than false morels (verpa) and oyster mushrooms in the springtime. So, if you have any tips to offer on finding true morels in western (or I would also consider eastern) Washington in the spring (or possibly even Oregon), please post and point me in the right direction! (I might even consider trading mushrooms or homemade dandelion wine for good advice!)

1 comment:

Callie Bertsche said...

Hey Larry - so fun to read your blog! I love the idea of mushrooms as the 'chicken of the woods' :) Those are some huge mushrooms!