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Don’t Ask Alice!

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First, let me say that I abhor winter. It’s cold, depressing, and foggy. Hardly anything is growing except winter weeds, which are immune to climate change and large doses of Round Up. Winters in Central California are worse than anywhere else in the world due to the oppressive, malingering fog, which blankets the entire valley like a shroud from The Tale of Two Cities. I bet that if someone were to do the research, they would find that most divorces occur during the foggy season in the San Joaquin Valley than at any other time of the year. (Don’t ask upon what I base this assumption.)

But I digress and complain overmuch, as there really are a few things that keep me focused and optimistic, besides our annual Christmas vacation to Tahiti. I spend the dreary months poring over seed catalogues and garden magazines when I’m not shopping for boots on Zappos and bags on eBay. I probably wouldn’t even go outside except that my chickens would starve to death. But on the bright side, I have stored a few golden acorn and butternut squash, and despite the fog, have several robust rows of brassicas and burgeoning beets thriving in the frozen soil. My summer harvest is sleeping safely in Ziplocs in the freezer, just waiting to be dropped into a steaming pot of boiling chicken soup or simmering beef stew. And depending upon the amount of rain, there will be a puffy white veil of Agaricus sprouting like elfin stepping stones scattered among the slumbering grapevines and dancing in fairy rings over the fallow fields.

Now this is where I must add in a disclaimer, lest I get sued should someone get ill or die. Do not attempt without proper knowledge or supervision!! I only mention it here because this is what I do, and have been doing since I was able to walk with my dad into the hills around Mount Diablo with baskets to hunt for wild mushrooms. It is definitely not for the unenlightened and inexperienced. There are plenty of YouTube videos to educate those who would be so brave. But again, I do not advocate or encourage anyone to go picking wild mushrooms or to play tennis on the freeway in the dead of night.

That said, if the rains are plentiful, so will be the mushrooms. The Agaricus bisporus, or wild white button mushrooms, are actually the forbears to the cultivated variety and can be used just the same. Oftentimes, the brown creminis―same species―can be found growing in the same ring. If they’ve matured and fanned, then you have some beautiful, prized portobellos. They are generally found on unworked or fallow ground, and as a rule, I avoid anything that grows on lawns. I have come upon gorgeous specimens sprouting from lawns only to find they were A. xanthodermus, otherwise known as “stainers.” The stems of these impostors turn yellow when severed and if cooked, will smell up your kitchen with a burnt rubber or carbolic acid stench. Stainers are mildly poisonous to some if eaten, but the taste and smell render them inedible.

Properly picked and prepared, wild mushrooms―as well as purchased―are a most wonderful little surprise in winter soups, skillet entrees, and marinated with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, garlic and lemon. A savory, sautéed pile over a juicy steak can break the monotony of winter fare or a saucy mushroom sourdough bread bowl should warm your appetite. And, of course, I have included this tempting recipe only under the condition that the mushrooms be purchased at the supermarket, unless you decide to take up your own mushroom culture in your garage.

 Mushroom Sourdough Bread Bowl

4 c fresh mushrooms

4 cloves chopped garlic

1 T fresh thyme

¼ c butter

¼ c olive oil

¼ c flour

2 c chicken bouillon

1 c cream or milk

¼ t red pepper flakes

1 t Worcestershire

Sauté mushrooms, garlic, and red pepper flakes in large pot over medium heat just until tender. Push to the side of the pot and add oil and flour. Combine with the mushrooms and mix well. May be removed from heat to keep from scorching. Add stock and bring to gentle boil, continuing to stir. Lower the heat and slowly mix in the milk. Do not allow to boil once the milk has been added. Add fresh thyme, as well as a little black pepper to taste. Mix in Worcestershire and serve in hollowed bread bowls or pour over chunks of sour dough in bowl.