The temperate rainforest climate of the hills to the east and west make Oregon’s Willamette Valley wild mushroom heaven. Springtime brings morels, and autumn – oh, autumn brings everything, from Boletus edulis (cepes) to matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) to my very favorites, the orange-fleshed, trumpet-shaped chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius ) and their creamy, white-fleshed cousins, Cantharellus subalbidus .
When I first moved to Oregon, nearly 30 years ago, I was lucky enough to fall in with some experienced mushroom hunters and fellow gourmands, Karen and Frank Evans, who occasionally took me mushrooming – around Mother’s Day, over the Cascades to central Oregon in search of morels, and in the fall, to the slopes of Marys Peak to find chanterelles. Along the way they often discovered and fed me other fungal treats, including the splendid Oregon white truffle (Tuber gibbosum), but morels and chanterelles are the ones I learned to recognize with enough confidence to pick and eat them myself.
I no longer go to the woods to forage for mushrooms; a cranky sciatic nerve makes it hard for me to spend a day trekking uphill and down in what can often be an elusive quest, and the competition from other pickers means it’s harder to find what’s there.
Fortunately, some of those pickers bring their harvest to market, where I’m more than happy to pay the price for these delectable fruits of the woods, when I can afford it.
This fall, sufficient rain has made for a bountiful mushroom harvest, and on a rare foray to the Corvallis farmers’ market last weekend I was thrilled to discover vendors selling chanterelles for just $7 a pound. Score!!! I brought home a couple of pounds, cleaned them up* and sliced half of them for immediate use; the rest went into my cheap little food dehydrator, where a few hours of constant air and gentle heat dried them to thin, leathery slices that will flavor winter soups and sauces.
* Wild mushrooms need careful cleaning, and when the weather’s been wet, damp varieties such as chanterelles can benefit from a bit of air-drying, too. I use a pastry brush to dust off bits of duff, dirt and the occasional hitch-hiking insect, a sharp knife to trim away any signs of decay or insect damage, and then spread the mushrooms out on a couple of layers of newspaper on the table in my breakfast nook (which has the advantage of being fairly chilly at this time of year) . Over a few hours, with occasional turning of the ‘shrooms, the paper absorbs excess moisture from the mushrooms, rendering them easier to cook and, in my opinion, concentrating the flavor. Refrigerate in an open bag with a paper towel tucked inside to help absorb extra moisture, and use within a few days. Or dry them.
Wild mushrooms can improve any dish that would normally be made with the supermarket sort, from pizzas to soups, but I think they’re best in recipes that show off their flavors and textures. Two of my favorite things to do with wild mushrooms came to me, as is so often the case, from Internet cooking communities where people share their own recipes and preparation tips. Both are fabulous ways to enjoy these woodsy treasures.
Pan Roasted Mushrooms
(Recipe originated with Van Donegal, originally posted in the LiveJournal food_porn community, with some minor tinkering by me)
- Olive oil (while I use extra-virgin olive oil for most recipes, a lighter variety works better for this recipe, because it has a higher smoking point.)
- Any quantity of good quality mushroom, wild or otherwise (if you can’t find chanterelles, this is a tasty way to prepare brown Crimini mushrooms)
- One clove of garlic per pan of mushrooms, peeled and smashed or coarsely chopped
- 1/2 stick of unsalted butter (1/4 cup) per pan of mushrooms
- coarse Kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- fresh Italian parsley (optional, but I have so much in my garden that I never skip it) chopped, 1/2 cup per pan
- Equipment: One large, heavy bottomed skillet. Or two, if you have them – you can keep two pans going at once this way
Clean and thickly slice the mushrooms
Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the frying pan; heat over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers but does not smoke
Add only enough mushrooms to cover the pan without touching each other. Add a liberal pinch of kosher salt and several cranks of pepper
After 60 seconds, reduce heat to medium low. Do not move the mushrooms about. Cook them for about 4 minutes then turn individually. They should be caramelized and brown when turned, and beginning to dry out a bit.
Two minutes after turning, add the garlic. One minute later, add the butter. Once it has melted, use a wooden spoon to move the mushrooms about in the pan so the butter and garlic cover them.
Add parsley, stir and remove from heat.
I often make several pans of these at a shot; simply wipe out the skillet with a paper towel, turn up the heat, and repeat the process.
You can eat these just as they are, as a hearty and delicious accompaniment to a meal, or scatter them on top of a home-made pizza crust, on pasta, or on toasted bread as an appetizer. Sometimes I just gobble them by the forkfull of buttery, garlicky mushroom goodness.
I got this recipe from my on-line foodie friend, Whit, and it’s terrific: A vegetarian (and potentially vegan) pie that’s hearty and satisfying enough for meat-lovers, flavorful and filling enough that I’ve served it as the main course in an unconventional Christmas dinner, and nobody complained that the table lacked a roasted bird.
It also lends itself to improvisation. Try different dried combinations of mushroom, different dried fruits (or none at all, although they add a wonderful and unexpected flavor to the dish).
- Crust for a two-crust pie. Use whatever crust you prefer; Whit makes a whole-wheat crust from scratch, but I’ve been known to cheat and use frozen, store-bought piecrust.
- 3-4 small potatoes sliced very thin
- 1 medium white onion, diced
- 3-4 cloves garlic chopped (at least – I’m a garlic lover, and have used as much as an entire head)
- Two cups of coarsely chopped mushrooms, whatever varieties you have on hand. If you’re only using ‘shrooms from the store, try a combination of portabello, crimini, oyster and shiitake. I like to use both fresh and dried (reconstituted in a little stock) mushrooms. Set aside a nice-looking mushroom or two to garnish the pie.
- 1/2 bell pepper, sliced thin (whatever color you prefer. The original recipe called for green, but I prefer red
- 1 cup good vegetable stock. I keep vegetable trimmings and peels (from no-spray vegetables), along with onion ends and skins, in the freezer; when I have enough, I make up a batch of stock and freeze it. If you can’t be bothered, Safeway’s “O” organics line is a decent commercial version. Just for heaven’s sake don’t use bouillon cubes – they’re way too salty and contain MSG.
- Vegetable oil, or (as I prefer) half oil and half butter
- Salt (I often omit it) and pepper
- fresh oregano (I use at least a teaspoon)
- fresh chives (ditto)
- A handfull each of dried currants, golden raisins, dried sour cherries (or other dried fruit of your choice – I’ve used chopped, dried apricots, dried cranberries and even chopped figs), and almonds
Preheat oven to 375F. Line a deep-dished pie pan with half the crust. Reserve the other half to cover.
In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or saucepan, heat oil to medium hot. Sautee onions, garlic and potatoes until onions are translucent but not browning. Remove to a bowl and set aside.
Add more oil and sautee the mushrooms and fresh herbs until they’re soft. Add the pepper, and as soon as they’re warmed through, return the onion, garlic and potatoes to the pan and let it cook down a bit.
Pour in the broth, and let the mixture simmer for a bit. Taste, add salt and pepper if you like, and then strain everything out of the stock (reserve the stock!)
Mix in the dried fruit and almonds, and fill the pie crust to overbrimming. Pour a bit of the stock – just enough to moisten, over the filling (save the rest to make soup!)
Cover the pie with the other crust, crimp edges and cut holes – decorative or not – to vent.
Place the pie on a baking sheet (it may bubble over during cooking) and bake at 375 for 30 minutes, or until filling begins to bubble up through the vents. If the crust starts to brown too much at the edges, wrap some foil loosely around it. Add garnish mushroom to the top and continue backing for 5-10 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.
Let it sit for 10 minutes or so before slicing and serving. A green salad and a glass of hearty red wine go wonderfully with this. And the leftovers (refrigerated, of course) can be reheated or eaten cold the next day.
Serves anywhere from 2-8 people, depending on how hungry they are, what else is on the menu and how much you want for leftovers.
One final but important note about wild mushrooms: Don’t be stupid. If you’ve never hunted mushrooms before, don’t go out looking for them without an expert by your side – and I don’t mean a book. Some of the tastiest wild mushrooms are barely distinguishable from some of the most poisonous ones unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and photographs can be deceiving. People die from making those kinds of mistakes. Buy wild mushrooms from trusted harvesters, stick to varieties you know, and the first time you eat them, try just a little – even perfectly edible mushrooms can cause minor tummy upsets in people who aren’t used to them.