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Wild Mushrooms: Autumn’s Gift

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As our summer gardens lie brown and rattling in the autumn breeze, we are content that our summer harvests are sleeping safely in jars in the pantry and bags in the freezer, just waiting to be dropped into a steaming pot of soup or stew. We feel gratified that we have stashed away a bushel of golden acorn and butternut squash to be pureed into soup or roasted with brown sugar and butter. By now, we have several robust rows of baby brassicas and beets thriving in the cool soil. And depending upon the amount of early autumn rain, hopefully there will be a puffy white veil of wild mushrooms sprouting like elfin stepping stones scattered among the slumbering grapevines and dancing in fairy rings over the fallow fields.

My dad was always bringing home some kind of wild mushrooms. We never knew what they were, and I doubt that he did either. I only know that we trusted him and they were very tasty just chopped and sautéed in a skillet with olive oil and some red pepper and garlic. I must note that he knew they were edible without any formal education, books, manual, or YouTube videos. Where did he get the knowledge that kept us all from acute stomach pain and death? His wisdom was inherited, just as was mine. I have been foraging for wild mushrooms since I was able to walk with him into the hills around Mount Diablo. My dad did not tell me the names of the particular varieties that we foraged, but as I became older and more inquisitive, I turned to Google and YouTube to help identify at least the very few that I remember the most. But even still, I would never pick a mushroom with which I am not familiar, nor would I advocate or encourage the uninitiated to go picking wild mushrooms or to play tennis on the freeway. Mushroom foraging is a wonderful way to enjoy nature and some of the finest jewels she has to offer, especially while we wait patiently for spring harvest.

That said, as soon as the weather cools and the rains come, so will the mushrooms. There are thousands of edible wild mushrooms and they grow in as many locales, but I am familiar only (enough to not get sick and die) with a few. The Agaricus bisporus, or wild white button mushrooms, are 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. 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, but the taste and smell mostly render them inedible.

Another delicious morsel that I am familiar with is the shaggy mane, Coprinus comatus, which is also in the Agaricus family. They can be found not only on lawns and in meadows, but also along roadways. I have a family that sprouts up every year in my lawn. It is also known by the name of inky cap, due to its ability to morph from a delicious edible to a mass of inky slime in a matter of just a few hours after being picked. The shaggy mane is easily recognized by its tall, shaggy cap. It is best used in dishes such as eggs, meat and cheese, which will not overpower its mild flavor. I particularly like them in soups or used as stock or broth.

Morels, Morchella esculenta, are one of the most desired wild mushrooms in the world. They are not farmed like most grocery store mushrooms, cremini, portobello or oyster, but are generally gathered in the wild. Their most identifiable characteristic is what is typically described as a honeycomb-like exterior. Morels, like most mushrooms and most delicacies, are best prepared simply so you can really savor them

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 all these tempting ideas only under the condition that one would be very cautious in the hunting and preparation of foraged mushrooms.

Mushroom Sourdough Bread Bowl
4 cups fresh mushrooms
4 cloves chopped garlic
1 tbsp. fresh thyme
¼ cup butter
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup flour
2 cups chicken bouillon
1 cup cream or milk
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. 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.

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