A morbidly entertaining foodie game is Last Meal, in which you
decide what – besides hemlock – you would choose for
your ultimate menu. That you would want many, many courses is a
given, but a surprising number of people would include mushrooms,
preferably wild, in that final request. Of course, if you happen
to pick the wrong wild mushroom, your ‘last meal’ could
be just that.
Our relationship with mushrooms is a combination of fascination
with their inherent weirdness, fear of their deadly reputation,
and sheer culinary lust: Nothing from earth is simpler or more delicious
than fat slices of mushrooms sizzled in hot butter and olive oil,
reeking of garlic, dusted with black pepper and parsley. Mushrooms
are a feast for all the senses, as satisfying as meat, light as
a cloud, madly fragrant with funky, earth-spiced smells. Raw mushrooms
are flesh-like, cool, but without skin or seeds or bone. Transformed
by heat they are pure alchemy with flavors rich and subtle, unlike
anything else. An otherworldly pleasure.
Look backwards down the chain of human culinary evolution, when
early peoples foraged for their food. Before snails met garlic and
became escargot, they were just another protein source; before mushrooms
became chic, they were just another item in the pot. Our ancestors
being human, though, it wasn’t long before they figured out
that the mushrooms that didn’t kill them outright really improved
the leftover mammoth, and mushrooms themselves became the objects
of the hunt. About a thousand years ago, the Japanese, whose subtle
cuisine relies on the umami whammy from their revered woodland mushrooms,
figured out how to grow mushrooms in jars, a method still used today.
The first so-called ‘domestic’ mushroom is believed
to have been cultivated in the 17th century in a Parisian stable.
Mushroom lovers no longer have to go hunting to get great mushrooms.
A number of desirable exotic species are currently being cultivated
locally, and nationwide. Flavor-wise, any exotic will give the plain
white mushroom a run for its money. Supermarket shoppers can buy
cultivated morels, King Trumpets, enoki, oyster, hon-shimeji, shiitakes
and flavorful brown crimini mushrooms. Grillable giant Portobellos
are readily available, their oversized caps as large and satisfying
as a hamburger. Dried mushrooms from all over the world have become
a pantry staple.
But the elusive, delicious and sometimes deadly wild mushroom
is still the Holy Grail of most serious mycophiles world-wide. Russians,
in particular, are crazy about wild mushrooms (possibly the origin
of Russian roulette.) They seem to have as many names for mushrooms
as Eskimos have for snow. Europeans forage woodlands and meadows
for mushrooms and other fungi, such as the exquisite truffle. Mexico’s
favorite fungus is the truly weird (but delicious) corn fungus known
as huitlacoche, but many other indigenous mushrooms play major roles
in the native cuisines and religions of Mexico. Mushrooms are esteemed
in the Middle East, India and Africa, but have achieved their highest
status in Asia, where they are prized for their health-giving properties.
Only the English hold themselves aloof from this mushroom craziness,
perhaps thinking the fungus world just a little too odd, a bit too
Mushrooms: Truly Wild
Mycophobes and the English aren’t entirely wrong: there’s
something otherworldly about mushrooms. Strange fruit of darkness,
rot and mystery, they erupt from nowhere (sometimes in a matter
of hours) into eerie shapes reminiscent of clouds, wrinkled jelly,
buds, stones, coral, bats, clamshells, brains, cauliflowers, or
alien eyestalks—to name a very few. The bizarre shapes of
wild mushrooms landscape a fey world of twilight and magic, the
food of the archetypal Great Forest, of fairy tales and fantasy.
There’s a reason why Alice ate mushrooms and not boring little
Mushrooms can be slippery or shaggy, spotted or smooth, bulbous
or elongated, sweet-smelling or sumptuously smelly. They may have
pores like skin or gills like fish. Mushrooms come in every color
from shiny black to bright red, peacock green, ivory, cinnamon,
sienna, bright yellow, even luminous, glow-in-the-dark blue. The
elegant Destroyer Angel, the most dangerous mushroom of all, shines
pure white on the forest floor, like a lethal beacon.
Technically, a mushroom is the spore-carrying ‘fruit’
of one of hundreds of thousands of species of fungus. The actual
fungus is made up of hair-fine threads known as mycelium, which
are usually hidden within the decaying matter the fungus is consuming
but are sometimes visible as a mass of cotton-like white threads.
Fungi are one of nature’s most important recyclers, because
they live by breaking down decaying organic matter. Decomposition
releases nutrients and carbon for use by plants - a perfect recycling
system which meshes with photosynthesis and closes the all-important
carbon circle. A single malevolent fungus, like the one which caused
the Irish potato famine, can cause widespread devastation. But without
the many beneficial fungi there would be no bread, no wine, no cheese,
no beer…not a happy thought.
Depending on weather conditions, the commercial wild mushroom
season starts around Mother’s Day with the first morels and
wraps up in the depths of winter, but some mushrooms are foraged
year-round in wooded areas and meadows. San Diego’s mushroom
scene is most active from December through May, following the rains.
Among the most prized edible mushrooms are spicy-scented golden
chanterelles; fat, succulent porcinis; the hen of the woods, with
its layers of feather-like white and grey fringes; crunchy, bright
orange lobster mushrooms; delicate and velvety Black Trumpets, or
trompets de mort; the prized matsutake with its subtle piney fragrance;
and the king of wild mushrooms, the morel with its whorled chambers
and priapic shape. Local hunters can find many of these varieties,
plus blewits, oyster mushrooms, and others.
With prices for true wild mushrooms in the stratosphere, and demand
at an all- time high, foraging has turned into an adventure worthy
of Robin Hood. Competition among commercial foragers has become
so intense that battles have actually broken out in parts of the
country over prime areas.
Caveat: This Means You!
Never, never, never eat any unknown wild mushroom. Many wild mushrooms
are poisonous and some are lethal. As the saying goes, there are
bold mushroom eaters, and old mushroom eaters, but no bold, old
mushroom eaters. San Diego County has more than its share of poisonous
mushrooms. A book is not a safe reference for determining edibility;
only locally experienced mushroom experts can tell you if a mushroom
is safe to eat. Again: Don’t do it.
Even expert foragers proceed with caution before consuming mushrooms
from the wild. Several locally experienced foragers must agree that
the mushroom is edible. It takes an expert mycologist to see the
subtle difference between a safe mushroom and its nearly-identical,
deadly cousin. Also, the appearance of poisonous varieties varies
from region to region and continent to continent. An edible East
Coast mushroom may have a deadly West Coast twin.
Certain mushrooms may be laughingly sought after for their hallucinogenic
properties, but those same trippy toxins – dude! - may slowly
and painfully destroy the kidneys and respiratory system.
Cultivation: From Del Mar to You
San Diego County is a steaming hotbed of mushroom production. There
are mushroom farms where you might not think to find them: Fallbrook,
San Marcos, Escondido. These busy farms produce shiitakes, oysters,
enoki, King erengyii, Portobellos, white and crimini mushrooms for
sale locally and nationally. Each mushroom species has different
requirements for cultivation, thus every farm is a study in a ‘closed’
recycling system that is uniquely San Diegan.
The life cycle of your grilled Portobello salad begins at the
Del Mar Racetrack during racing season. Lightly used straw from
the stalls of pampered thoroughbreds is picked up daily and trucked
up to the Mountain Meadow Mushroom farm in Escondido. By the end
of race season, some six thousand one-ton bales of straw have been
diverted from local landfills and are composting in piles. Contrary
to popular belief, mushrooms are not grown in manure, but in decaying
straw. The very small amount of manure present merely helps fire
up the composting process.
The composted straw is pasteurized to kill bacteria, and the straw
is moved into one of 26 growing rooms and inoculated with spores
of the common “domestic” mushroom (agaricus bisporus.)
Over several weeks, the straw becomes white with mycelium, and then
begins to “fruit.”
The first tiny mushrooms, called buttons, are harvested first,
then as the mushroom grows, medium and large white mushrooms are
taken. At this point the pure-white mushroom has begun to turn thick-skinned
and dark brown; it is now called a ‘crimini’ mushroom.
The criminis are picked in turn to make room for a remaining few,
and a remarkable thing happens. As the mushroom matures into a Portobello,
it opens from a tight, round bud into a curled-edge umbrella and
then a flat, completely open cap as large as 8 inches in diameter.
After the last giant Portobellos are harvested, the spent and
sterilized growing medium is given to local farmers and landscapers
for use as mulch and soil amendment. So what began in a stall at
Del Mar winds up being dug back into the earth of San Diego County
instead of going to landfill – after Mountain Meadows grows
4.5 million pounds of mushrooms. You could call it a sort of fungal
When asked about his favorite mushroom, Mountain Meadow’s
Robert Ramirez laughed. “I thought they were all poisonous!
My wife got me into it. She makes a secret recipe mushroom sauce
that she learned from her father. But I still don’t want to
eat the really wild ones.”
The big news in the mushroom world is the King erengyii, sometimes
sold as King Oyster or Trumpet Royale (though it is neither an oyster
nor a trumpet mushroom.) With white stems thick and long as a good
cigar, topped with small pearl-colored caps, these Kings are crisp
and full of flavor off the grill or sliced and sautéed in
olive oil with a grind of pepper and aromatic slivers of fresh garlic.
The fact that they are grown in a nondescript warehouse in San Marcos
makes a point that mushrooms do, indeed, pop up in the strangest
At the Golden Gourmet Mushroom facility, long concrete corridors
are lined with heavy blue doors that lead to a series of dim, cold,
foggy rooms, replicating a Japanese forest in winter. Each room
is filled with tiers of tens of thousands of small white plastic
bottles, marching into misty oblivion. The bottles sprout wild Beethoven
wigs of white enoki and terraced buttons of elegant gray-capped
Looming in the dream-like, wispy twilight of one cool chamber
was the startling sight of what appeared to be thousands of alien
eyes on stalks sprouting out of the walls. On closer inspection
these proved to be mature King erengyii mushrooms, hanging out of
their growing bottles like fat brown-tipped fingers, branching into
antlers and tentacles, lurching from their fungal roots like a pack
of zombie bananas making a break for the door.
Golden Gourmet General Manager Steve Farrar got his start in the
business as a horticulturist, trained to seek and destroy fungi;
now he nurtures, nurses and harvests tons of fungal fruit annually
from squat plastic bottles in the 60,000 square foot San Marcos
facility. He is most interested in the medicinal aspects of the
Asian mushrooms he raises. “Penicillin came from a fungus,”
he points out. “It’s surprising that there aren’t
more medicines being developed from mushrooms and fungi.”
His personal favorite is the delicate Mai-take mushroom, a summer
fruit, prized like so many other Japanese mushrooms for its nutritive
and medicinal value but also, he says, “a great culinary mushroom.”
The technique of growing mushrooms in bottles originated in Japan
centuries ago. Today the process is mostly mechanized, but otherwise
identically patient. From inoculation to harvest, a pure white bouquet
of enoki-take (their biggest seller) takes 40 to 50 days, with the
bottles moved on racks from room to room to mimic the Japanese winter
climate. Hon-shimeji and King erengyii can take up to 80 days from
inoculation to harvest. Most of these varieties are sold wholesale
to Asian distributors; consumer demand for the King erengyii is
After harvest, the trimmed mushroom bases are sold to pharmaceutical
and ‘nutra-ceutical” companies for use in natural foods
and treatments. The spent substrate is turned over to organic farmers
and gardeners for use as a valuable soil amendment, or used as a
medium for growing worms.
A note about medicinal mushrooms: Not to stoke the fires of our
North American culinary inferiority complex, but the rest of the
world scoffs at our little white mushrooms. In Asia, mushrooms are
considered as much medicine as food. Asian varieties, in particular,
are packed with nutrition in the form of B vitamins, minerals and
amino acids. Japanese researchers believe that some mushrooms possess
beneficial compounds such as anti-oxidants and cholesterol-lowering
compounds, even anti-tumor chemicals and anti-toxins. The most revered
medicinal mushrooms are Asian: Mai-take (Hen of the Wood), Shii-take,
Reishi, Coriolus and Cordyceps.
While American research lags behind that of Europe and Asia, it’s
hard to go wrong with something that tastes good and is (possibly)
good for you. Medicinal mushrooms are always cooked or made into
a sort of tea. They are never eaten raw.
Dried vs. Fresh
Mushrooms have a short shelf life and are often dried to preserve
them and intensify their flavor. While the price for a tiny package
of dried mushrooms may make one’s hair stand on end, the shriveled,
woody fragments pack a flavor wallop that is well worth the investment.
No pantry should be without a few dried mushrooms: good choices
are dried porcini, morels, shiitake and Chinese black mushrooms.
Rinse them well to remove grit, soak in a little hot water for an
hour or so, and add (along with their strained soaking liquid) to
sauces, stocks, soups and stir-fries. Mushrooms are particularly
welcome in vegetarian recipes, where they gift the palate with the
enigmatic fifth flavor known as umami, which roughly translates
Buying, Storing, Cleaning
Exotic mushrooms can be purchased in season at specialty grocery
stores and Asian markets such as 99 Ranch. Specialty Produce of
San Diego will sell wild and cultivated exotic mushrooms to the
public after 2 p.m.
Mushrooms can be quickly swished in cold water if they are filthy;
in most cases, wipe the caps with a damp cloth or use a clean pastry
brush to remove any debris. Foraged mushrooms should be carefully
examined for unwanted inhabitants, and very thoroughly cleaned.
If you are lucky enough to receive some wild morels, they should
be split and carefully examined for slugs.
Though my stepdad will spend hours peeling mushrooms with exquisite
care, in most cases peeling is unnecessary. Remove any fibrous stems;
they are a nice addition to stock, if you happen to be making some.
Mushrooms should be stored in a paper sack and used as soon as
possible. Do not store them in plastic, or they will turn slimy
San Diego Mushrooms:
A Walk on the Wild Side
The San Diego wild mushroom season runs with the rains, usually
from December to May. Despite drought and post-fire conditions,
the San Diego Mycological Society (motto: ‘We put the fun
in fungus!’ Unofficial motto: ‘Just a bunch of fun guys’)
will be showcasing a remarkable variety of local mushrooms at the
annual Fungus Fair at Balboa Park, to be held in the Casa Del Prado
on Sunday, February 22, 2004.
The star of the show will be a sixty-foot long display spread
with leaves, pine needles, sticks and logs, complete with ants and
tiny spiders– a microcosm of San Diego’s back country,
and a revelation to those who think San Diego is either beaches
or asphalt. Carefully displayed on this background, like so many
jewels, will be a mind-boggling array of fungi and mushrooms (both
non-edible and edible) gathered from San Diego’s parks, neighborhoods
and gardens within 48 hours of the show.
Among the many edible mushrooms found locally are choice morels,
thumb-sized and firm; soft grey Shaggy Manes; King Boletus or porcini
(called cèpe by the French;) wine-colored Pine Spikes and
lavender-hued Blewit; the unassuming reishi, prized for its medicinal
qualities; golden chanterelles, tasty campestris (a full-flavored
cousin of the common button mushroom,) the ever-popular Cinnamon
Caps, and Oyster mushrooms.
The fungi you can’t eat are really the most interesting.
While the species gathered vary from year to year, there are bound
to be some fungi on display that will forever alter your definition
of the word ‘mushroom.’ These come in infinite variety,
with bark-like caps as big as dinner plates, or small as a little
fingernail. There might be huge shaggy-maned white mushrooms sprung
from a fairy tale, wrinkled yellow jelly clinging to logs or a fat
brown bolete with a brilliant, neon-green underside. Some mushrooms
smell variously of garlic, or rotting meat, or cinnamon, or bleach.
There might even be a local ‘truffle,’ smelling faintly
(sadly, very faintly) of actual truffle. Each displayed species
will be clearly marked with its Latin name, a common name (like
Cramp Ball, Earth Star, Dead Man’s Foot, Witch’s Jelly)
and an offhand tag line: edible, or poisonous, or not good, or unknown.
Poisonous mushrooms are unmistakably marked with skull and crossbones.
If you’ve ever made eye contact with a cobra, you know the
feeling of gazing at the deadliest mushroom on earth: the very beautiful,
exquisitely white Amanita Ocreata, or Destroying Angel, which kills
slowly and painfully. Hunched nearby, like a gang of murderous thugs,
will be equally lovely (and lethal) specimens of elegant, sienna-hued
Jack o’ Lantern, and the aptly named Poison Pie. It‘s
easy to see why edibility through positive identification is the
number-one priority with the Society.
If you’re contemplating a mushroom-hunting expedition, take
careful note that experience with San Diego species identification
is essential before fungi is cooked and eaten (wild mushrooms, a
bacterial Disneyland, are never eaten raw.) According to member
and “myco-chef” Dave Grubb, San Diego has fewer mushroom
species than the northern area of the state and more than its share
of poisonous ones, which often mimic edible species.
Grubb warns that using a picture from a guidebook is not enough
information to determine whether or not a local species is edible
or poisonous; local expertise is essential. A benign and delicious
mushroom from one part of the country may be almost identical to
the poisonous species of another region. The message here is clear.
If you want to mushroom, join the local group and learn proper identification.
No mushroom should be considered safe to eat until a number of locally
experienced hunters agree on its edibility.
The San Diego Mycological Society has about sixty members with
permits to forage on public lands in San Diego, Riverside, Orange
and Los Angeles counties. When it rains, an email goes out naming
a rendezvous point for several days later. Members forage on their
own and meet back at the parking lot for the all- important rituals
of species identification and bragging rights. Though any pine-oak
woodland will produce mushrooms after a rain, mushroom hunters tend
to be rather secretive about the really good spots.
For more information on the San Diego Mycological Society, contact
Les Braund at (858)566-3958; membership is $15 annually, including
the Sporadic Press. Mushroom societies go underground for part of
the year too- meetings take place only between December and May.
Miso Mushroom Soup
Japanese mushrooms are packed with nutrition and phytonutrients.This
soup is also vegan, quick to make, virtuously low in fat and high
in soy proteins. What more can I say? Serves 4 generously.
1/ 2 ounce dry shiitake mushrooms (about 12)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 stalk celery, minced
½ cup white onion, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ pound white or crimini mushrooms, chopped
5 cups water (divided use)
3 tablespoons yellow miso
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 ounces firm tofu, cut into cubes
2 green onions, finely sliced
Optional: 1 package enoki mushrooms, trimmed to 3 inches in length
Pour two cups of the water over the dried shiitakes, and soak for
one hour. Reserve soaking liquid. Remove the stems from the mushrooms
and discard. Cut the shiitakes into ½ inch dice.
Heat the oil in a 2 quart saucepan, and sauté the celery,
onion, ginger and garlic for one minute. Add the soaked shiitakes
and chopped white mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms
are softened. Add the reserved soaking liquid and the reaming 3
cups of water.
Cook at a slow simmer for 30 minutes. Add the miso paste and soy
sauce. Add the tofu (and optional enoki mushrooms) and heat through.
Serve in heated bowls, garnished with the green onions. (Note: I
like a few chili flakes in mine.)
Sesame-Garlic Steak and Spinach
with Warm Shitake Dressing
Perfect summer dining – easy and light. Any flavorful mushroom,
such as crimini, oyster, wild mushroom or King oyster can be substituted
for the shiitakes.. Serves 4.
For the grilled steak:
2 pounds tri-tip, skirt steak, flap meat or flank steak
1 tablespoon light sesame oil
½ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons Hoisin sauce
1-inch piece fresh ginger, washed and minced
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
For the salad:
1 large bunch fresh spinach, stemmed, washed and dried
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 large fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (more to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper (more to taste)
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 green onions, sliced
2 tablespoons sesame seed, lightly toasted
Combine all marinade ingredients in a large Ziploc bag or non-reactive
dish. Add the steak and marinate for 4-12 hours. 45 minutes before
serving, grill the meat over medium-hot flame until it reaches an
internal temperature of 125 degrees (for medium rare; for medium
cook to 140 degrees, for well set it and forget it.) When done to
your liking, remove from heat and let rest for at least 15 minutes
In a large bowl, toss together the spinach and red peppers. Heat
the olive oil in a 10 inch sauté pan over medium heat and
sauté the sliced shiitakes until soft. Season with the salt
and pepper. While still very hot, pour the oil and mushrooms over
the spinach and toss until the spinach wilts. Add the red wine vinegar,
sesame seeds and green onions, and toss well to combine. Taste and
add more salt or vinegar to your taste.
Slice the meat into thin slices. Divide the spinach salad among
4 plates and top each plate with several slices of steak. Serve
Note: Chicken can be substituted for the beef.
Individual Brie and Mushroom Pizette
Use any combination of flavorful ‘exotic’ mushrooms
(shiitake, crimini, hon-shimejii, King Oyster, porcini, morel etc.)
you like. This recipe is also excellent if you substitute a small
amount of creamy blue cheese (stilton or gorgonzola) for some of
the Brie. Makes 8 pizette.
1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed overnight in the refrigerator
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (divided use)
1 pound flavorful mushrooms: shiitake or crimini, thinly sliced
Optional: 2 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ red onion, very thinly sliced
4 ounces brie cheese, sliced about 3/8 inch thick
1 sprig fresh marjoram or thyme, chopped (about 1 teaspoon)
Roll out the puff pastry to a 1/8th inch thickness (it needs to
be quite thin.) Cut into four-inch circles or squares, and prick
all over with a fork. Place on a rimless baking sheet and chill
for an hour.
Heat a heavy sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Sauté the mushrooms (and optional garlic) until they start
to give off juice, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally,
until they are dry. Season well with salt and pepper.
Slice the Brie thinly, and lay over the chilled pastry, leaving
some space between. Divide the mushrooms and red onions equally
over the cheese. Drizzle with a little olive oil, chill again for
at least 30 minutes (pizettes can be prepared ahead to this point,
wrapped and chilled for 24 hours before proceeding)
Bake at 425 degrees for 8-10 minutes, or until crisp and brown
on the bottom. Serve immediately.
Grilled Portobello Napoleon
with Boursin Cheese
A really spectacular entrée presentation that can be completely
made ahead and reheated just before serving. For hors d’ouevres,
cut the stacks into quarters. Serves 4.
1 bunch fresh basil
½ cup finely chopped garlic
2 cups olive oil
2 green zucchini
2 yellow zucchini
1 medium eggplant
8 very large Portobello mushroom caps
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 very large vine-ripe red tomatoes
4 ounces Boursin cheese
Preheat a grill to medium hot, or preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Stem the basil, stack the leaves cut into strips, then chop. In
a large bowl, combine the basil with the chopped garlic and olive
oil. Set aside while you prepare the vegetables.
Trim the ends from the zucchinis, cut in two. Slice the zucchinis
about ¼ inch thick; you should have square-ish pieces about
three inches in length. Toss with the garlic oil, and lay out in
a single layer on sheet pans. Season well with salt and pepper.
Trim the ends from the eggplant, and cut into circles 1/2 inch
thick. Lay in a single layer on a sheet pan, and brush on both sides
with the garlic oil with a pastry brush. Season well with salt and
Cut the stems out of the Portobellos and reserve for another use.
Use a sharp paring knife or spoon to gently scrape the dark gills
out of the mushrooms. Brush the mushrooms well with the garlic oil.
Season well with salt and pepper.
Starting with the mushrooms, grill the vegetables on both sides
until soft and almost completely done. Brush with garlic oil while
grilling (if baking, brush the vegetables with oil and bake until
soft but not mushy.)
Slice the tomatoes and marinate in the remaining garlic oil. Season
with salt and pepper.
Assemble the Napoleons: Set one mushroom cap, gill side up. Spread
with ½ ounce of the Boursin cheese. Top with two overlapping
slices of the green zucchini, then two yellow zucchini, then one
large slice of eggplant. Top the eggplant with a little more Boursin
cheese and stack two tomato slices, overlapping, on top. Set another
mushroom cap on top, gill side down, and secure the whole thing
with a toothpick or skewer. Repeat with remaining vegetables. (Can
be prepared ahead to this point, no more than four hours before
Reheat the napoleons in a 350 degree oven for about five minutes.
Brush the tops with a little more garlic oil before serving.
Note: Serve with a simple Marinara sauce.