Late fall is the start of wild mushroom season on the West Coast. Two of the best are matsukes and chanterelles. The matsutake is still not very well known in the West, but it is one of the most treasured ingredients in Japanese cooking. It has a powerful, hard-to-describe perfume (it makes me think of cinnamon and pine resin with a little ripe cheese thrown in; one mushroom expert compares it to "red hots and sweat socks").
Fresh chanterelles seem to be getting more plentiful and easier to find. Even fancy grocery stores often have them in stock. But they're a tricky mushroom to handle -- they dry out and lose their fragrance quite quickly. Still, you want them to be firm, not soft.
The ideal texture, says mushroom expert David West, is like a wine cork. Certainly, they shouldn't be wet -- that's normally a sign of spoilage -- but they should be slightly moist. They should be fragrant too. Give them a sniff; there should be a scent slightly reminiscent of apricots. You'll find chanterelles no bigger around than a dime and others that are a couple of inches across.
They are equally good in flavor, though chefs seem to prefer the smaller ones because they look better on the plate (a chopped large chanterelle looks a lot like any other chopped mushroom).
How to choose: Mushrooms--whether wild or domestic--should be moist but not wet. They shouldn't be dry enough to crack; they should be moist enough to flex when you bend them.
How to store: Refrigerate mushrooms in a tightly sealed plastic bag, but slip in a paper towel to absorb any excess moisture.
How to prepare: Probably the easiest way to prepare matsutake to get the best of their distinctive flavor is to brush them lightly with sake, wrap them in foil and grill them. Chanterelles can be a little difficult to clean because of their trumpet-like shape. The best way is to submerge the mushrooms in a bowl of water and brush clean; then dry them in a salad spinner. To cook them, just sauté over moderately high heat with butter and a little minced shallot.