I’m excited to announce that one of my essays is in the latest (Fall 2013) issue of Gastronomica. The words just flowed after one particularly unsuccessful foray. I’ve known plenty of eccentric people, including my own relatives, but known of them top the kooky characters I’ve met on mushroom hunts. You can read my essay “The Thrill of the Hunt” in the magazine or download the PDF on my website. My photos are in it too!
Entries Tagged as 'Mushrooms'
It always starts with the lead ‘shroomer talking a big game. He makes grand promises of the mountains of chanterelles or bolletes that await. Next thing you know, you’re fighting over a small piece of pluteus or chicken of the woods– the edible dregs of the mushroom world. The head ‘shroomer will scoff at any fungus you find, but when HE finds the same species, you’d better plop down in the grass and listen to him expound upon it’s wonders.
In this chanterelle and morel-less state, you might find yourself getting excited over a polypore (you know, that boring shelf stuff growing on trees). One woman might quietly add, “Wood ear is supposed to be good for cholesterol.” And the mushroom man will proclaim, “Yes, wood ears ARE technically edible but no one in their right mind would want to eat them!” If she’s brave, she might offer a fascinating retort, “The Chinese use them in sweet and sour soup.” But the mushroom man will disregard such input– he’s the expert.
Or you could find yourself sitting around a camp fire with a kooky Russian drinking home-distilled spirits. She’ll tell you innuendo-laden stories about tripping on magic mushrooms (ugh, I don’t want to think about that). Now all the ‘shroomers are really letting their spores loose– one man is playing the flute to get the mushrooms to come out (“come out, little mushrooms!” he sings), or trying to flirt with you by taking a picture of your eyeball. Later that night, while sharing a saggy old grandma bed with your friend, you’ll wonder– why the hell am I here? And why do I feel slighted because they didn’t recognize me as the only one who found an amanita? Why do I even care? You didn’t even know what an amanita was until 4 hours ago.
There were two things I loved as a kid: wondering through the woods and Easter egg hunts. I loved veering off the path, climbing rocks, carving my way through brambles, looking inside dead trees. The stars haven’t quite aligned for me yet, so I take the ‘shroomers cast-offs. Mycologists are too cool to eat stuff like pluteus, honey mushrooms, and even puff balls.
You might not like how the head ‘shroomer conducts hunts, but you must endure it because the stakes are high. You’re at his mercy during a mushroom hunt— your life is in his hands. I can’t blow him off like I might do in other areas of my life. So I keep returning whenever the he says the weather is ripe for hunting. Someday I’ll find my golden egg.
I didn’t bring this recipe back with me from living in Spain– it’s actually inspired by a dish from a bar in New Orleans. In my mind, Mimi’s in the Marigny is more famous for boozing hardcore at 4am instead of food. The website says “the vibe at Mimi’s in the Marigny is more house party than hotspot.” That sort of kills me, but I reluctantly admit that’s its an apt description. These delicately creamy mushrooms cradled in melted manchego cheese on crisp toasts are just as satisfying when sober. The mushrooms are best cooked in sherry, but I’ve begrudgingly cooked them in white wine a time or two. The results were still outstanding.
Mushroom Manchego Toasts
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 small shallots, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 1/4 cup sherry
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 tablespoon cream cheese
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 baguette, thinly sliced
- 1/2 pound of manchego cheese, thinly sliced into triangles
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent and just lightly browned.
2. Add the garlic to the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, for about three minutes.
3. Now add the sliced mushrooms to the skillet and season generously with salt and pepper. Turn up the heat to medium high, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Deglaze the pan with the sherry, scraping the browned bits from the bottom.
5. After most of the sherry has reduced, turn the heat back to medium and stir in the milk. Cook until it has reduced by more than half.
6. Turn off the heat and stir in the cream cheese. Now add the paprika and parsley, and stir until evenly distributed.
7. Place the baguette slices on a baking sheet. Arrange the cheese to cover the slices and place in the oven for 8 – 10 minutes or until cheese is melted. Remove from the oven. Spoon the mushrooms over the toasts and serve.
Once upon a time in New York I was gifted a shiitake mushroom log. I dutifully soaked it and placed it in a plastic container in my closet. Dustin feared mushrooms would start popping up in our tiny apartment, but that never happened. Actually, nothing ever happened. For months I held out hope that mushrooms would sprout, but mostly I was just too lazy to haul the gross log down five flights of stairs to the trash.
But Back to the Roots has made my dream come true. This kit is a brilliantly designed cardboard box containing a substrate inoculated with oyster mushroom spores. It also includes a spray bottle for spritzing twice a day for ten days until mushrooms appear. But they didn’t appear by that time. Taking cues from my log experience, I gave up spritzing. Then one day I walked into the guest room and saw glistening oyster mushrooms exploding from the bag! I don’t know if I’ll be able to grow $20 worth of mushrooms, but it’s been a fun activity overall. I’m always on the lookout for new hobbies/ ways to waste my time.
There’s a steel barn located on an old country road in Gonzales, just 90 minutes outside of Austin. But you won’t find cows seeking shelter from the winds that blow harder and colder these days. Instead, the unmistakably earthy odor of fungus smacks you in the face as soon as you step inside. You’re now at Kitchen Pride Mushroom Farms, and it smells like the inside of a plastic produce bag full of creminis. Greg McLain, son of Kitchen Pride founder Darrell McLain, was kind enough to show me around last month.
The first mushroom farm clue was the massive pile outside the barn. Growing mushrooms starts with making compost from straw. Greg showed me the intricate compost system in different stages of decomposition– it takes about four weeks to complete. The steaming piles towered over my height of 5 foot 4 inches, and the smell was distinct. It was reminiscent of the caves of my cheesemonger days, with a nostril burning ammonia aroma mixed with chicken coop elements. The compost is later pasteurized in a steam room to refine it.
The result is the perfect substrate for growing mushrooms. Each room in the barn contains raised beds, stacked six high, full of the stuff. The compost is inoculated with mushroom spawn, and then a web of mycelium (I think of them as mushroom roots) appears on the surface a week later. After 13 days, the mycelium is covered in a layer of peat moss, and eventually mushrooms start popping up through the peat moss. When the mushrooms appear, they grow quickly– after 21 days they’re ready for picking!
Greg told me to grab hold of one of the mushrooms and twist it out of the compost. I popped off the cap and tasted it. Like a good sausage, the mushroom flesh snapped as a I bit into it, but it was fresh and a little bit sweet. I’m always amazed that mushrooms pull out of the soil so easily– they have no root structure!
Some of the creminis are thinned to grow larger and become portobellos. Did you know that portobellos are actually just large creminis? Of course the yield is less, so they’re usually more expensive in stores.
Kitchen Pride also grows oysters mushrooms on a straw based substrate that isn’t composted, mimicking the trees that they grow on in the wild. They also grow shittakes on an entirely different substrate made from wood– a much slower process.
Greg explained that “food safety is a critical issue” for a family-owned operation like Kitchen Pride. They prevent health threats with proper sanitation, procedures, and washing equipment. They rarely, if ever, use pesticides, and they steam all of the compost at 160 degrees to purify it.
So why buy Kitchen Pride mushrooms? They’re the freshest you can buy in Texas because the customer usually gets them a day or two after picking. Greg explained “if you ship them two or three days away, you’ve already lots 2/7th of your shelf life” of one week. I’m embarrassed to admit that I thoroughly tested this theory after returning home with a few flats of mushrooms. I won’t say how long they were in the fridge, but they were still in great condition for cooking.
But the true significance of this innovative family business became clear as I drove home through decrepit old Texas towns. Agriculture has changed immensely during the past fifty years and most jobs are now in the cities. The endless parade of decaying buildings contrasted sharply with the bustle inside the Kitchen Pride facility. It takes an army of local people to grow, pack, and distribute this high quality product for our enjoyment throughout Texas.