Even in the best of seasons, wild mushroom hunting in Southern California is an iffy proposition. And with this four-year drought continuing to drag on, this is anything but the best of seasons. Fortunately, there are very tasty alternatives as close as your supermarket.
While truly wild mushrooms such as chanterelles, morels, matsutakes and porcinis are scarce and expensive, there are other richly flavored mushrooms that can step in as understudies, even if they may not quite make you forget the stars.
Look for steak-sized portobello mushrooms, nested hen-of-the-woods (sold in Asian markets as maitake) and birch mushrooms (buna shimeji if they're white, hon shimeji if they're brown). These are all cultivated mushrooms, but they have flavor beyond the familiar buttons.
Indeed, the so-called portobellos are really cultivated buttons that somebody messed up. They were first marketed by a guy who had been growing brown buttons, or creminis. When some of the mushrooms weren't harvested in time and "blew out," as mushroom growers say, he tried them and found that far from being spoiled, they actually had a very good flavor.
The simplest — and maybe the best way — to cook almost any mushroom is to put it in a hot skillet and sprinkle it with salt. Cook, tossing frequently, until it gives up some moisture. That's when you add some minced shallots or garlic and any other flavorings. Continue cooking until the moisture has evaporated. Sprinkle with chopped herbs — chives, tarragon or parsley — and you're ready to go.
Mushroom recipes: Click through the photo gallery above to sample 12 tasty mushroom recipes. The links to the recipes are within each photo's caption.
How to choose: Always look for the firmest mushrooms; there should be no soft or wet spots. Moisture gives us mushrooms, but it also spoils them very quickly. And give them a good sniff. Good wild mushrooms will have a wonderful earthy perfume.
How to store: Use mushrooms as quickly as you can to keep them from either spoiling or drying out. If you must store them, put them in a tightly sealed plastic bag with a sheet of paper towel to absorb any extra moisture.