Like far too many cooks, I’ve gotten used to thinking of true wild mushrooms as the bookends of winter. Between fall porcini and spring morels I simply settle for cultivated shiitakes and portabellos -- half the flavor is better than none -- or dried mushrooms, which taste right but take just short of forever to resuscitate.
While waiting for this spring’s first morels, though, I started realizing that now is actually a smart time to get better acquainted with the whole category. More wild mushrooms than usual are turning up in the United States lately, with increasing supplies from Europe and South Africa supplementing local varieties, and they are so much more appealing, and definitely less intimidating, than the dried kind. Any of them can go from raw to bliss in about 10 minutes.
West Coast foragers right now are gathering hedgehogs, black trumpets and yellowfoots. But good markets are also carrying chanterelles from farther afield, as well as maitake, or hen-of-the-woods (which can also be cultivated) and bluefoots (also cultivated). All of these, with their deep, dark, truthful flavor, are so intense that they could almost persuade you to give up meat, and not just for Lent. That haunting quality is umami, the so-called fifth flavor, which gives wild mushrooms the capacity to accentuate other tastes. In other words, they do naturally what monosodium glutamate does chemically.
Wild mushrooms are classic as accompaniments, particularly for steak, pasta and seafood, or in sauces, particularly those heavy on the cream. But what appeals to me most about the winter varieties is how easily they can slip into meatier roles. At a restaurant, I recently had rillettes made with chanterelles and shiitakes that were almost more satisfying than the usual creamy spread done with duck or pork. I’ve substituted black trumpets for beef -- in a winter salad or even in the French translation of enchiladas (crepes) -- and there’s really no comparison: The mushrooms are not just smokier but juicier and literally toothsome -- the texture is alluring and not just chewy. And just about all wild mushrooms can fill in for veal or lamb in a French ragout that differs from the original only in the cooking time: less than a third.
Anything but steaming
All wild mushrooms need to be cooked, but that’s a good thing because it makes them agreeable with any kitchen verb. You can saute them, grill them, braise them or roast them -- anything but steam them. While each variety has nuances, there is no trick to cooking any of them; the same methods essentially apply to all. Connie Green, whose Napa company Wine Forest Mushrooms supplies top restaurants including the French Laundry, says most chefs actually roast mushrooms, then finish them to order in a saute pan. This technique works the same magic on just about any variety.
Along with seafood, mushrooms are virtually the only foods we eat that are completely controlled by nature. Harold McGee writes that more than 1,000 varieties are known, but only a few dozen have been successfully cultivated (and many of those, particularly morels, have nothing like their wild flavor). Yet big stores such as Whole Foods Market can now count on a relatively steady supply -- as demand has grown, foragers and their buyers have developed networks in the same way fishermen and dealers now work together to make wild salmon nearly as ubiquitous as the farmed kind.
Varieties sold wild in winter include chanterelles, yellowfoots, black trumpets and hedgehogs. Maitake, or hen-of-the-woods (which really does look like a chicken), can be wild or cultivated. Bluefoots, which are increasingly available, are a cultivated form of wild blewits; they look something like shiitakes but smoother, with a colored stem; they have a wonderfully wild flavor. The farmed category encompasses the supermarket staples: shiitakes, creminis, portabellos (which are creminis that have been allowed to grow and grow), oyster mushrooms and enoki.
“Winter mushrooms are a very big thing in California and southern Oregon,” Green says. “People think of wild mushrooms as an autumn experience, but our winter in California is much like autumn elsewhere.” Porcini, however, are likely to be imported this time of year.
Whole Foods Market, where wild mushrooms sell particularly well and particularly to vegetarians, is probably typical of retailers. While sales of cultivated mushrooms are “slow but steady” there, Kate Lowery, a spokeswoman for the Austin, Texas-based chain, says sales of foraged mushrooms are “extremely strong” and even spike when supplies are at their peak.
How does a customer know they’re safe to eat? “We never stray from long-established sources, and require that virtually every supplier we buy from carry a minimum $1 million in product liability insurance -- we find this discourages the ‘weekend experts’ that want to sell to us,” Lowery said.
Of the wild mushrooms most available now, black trumpets are by far the most intense. They look just like their name (and their pseudonyms: black chanterelle and trompette de la morte), but also like dark lilies, and they have the most lingering flavor. Chanterelles are more common, with their faintly orange color and quite subtle, almost buttery taste. Hedgehogs resemble those but have a slightly bitter flavor by comparison. Yellowfoots are in the chanterelle family, with the characteristically understated flavor, but are lighter. Maitake/hen-of-the-woods has a fascinating scent when raw, very dusky and earthy, and an almost aggressive, borderline beefy flavor when cooked.
A whole different animal
Wild mushrooms need to be cooked, Green explains, because, as fungi, they are “a completely different life-form” from foods in the plant and animal categories. Even the most seductive varieties, she said, “will send you to the hospital” if you eat them raw. My own rule, picked up from a morel dealer a dozen years ago in Oregon, is 10 minutes’ minimum cooking. (Sliced porcini are often served raw in salads, but the quantity is too small to pose a threat, Green says.)
At their most basic, most of these winter mushrooms are almost interchangeable for a non-connoisseur, although black trumpets stand up best to other strong flavors. I usually just choose whatever variety looks best in the store, the same way I pick out fish. If they’re too dry, they are not going to cook up as tender, let alone as flavorful; if they’re wet and slimy, I don’t bother with any of them. As for size, it’s pretty simple: You don’t want anything too huge for its category; too tiny, and it becomes labor-intensive. Black trumpets, for instance, tend to be tough if they get too big and floppy. You can trim the rubbery ends off, though, and you can chop mushrooms such as chanterelles if they are too outsized. Maitake always have to be cut into slices or strips. As with vegetables, similar-sized mushrooms or mushroom pieces will cook more evenly. (If you’re roasting, it’s best to leave the mushrooms whole, though, and slice or dice them afterward.)
All wild mushrooms need to be stored carefully, ideally in a rack or basket in the refrigerator with air circulating around them, never in a plastic bag. And they need to be cleaned even more carefully than button mushrooms, because they grow where the wild things are and come to market complete with soil, pine needles and even insects on board.
Cookbooks often advise against washing mushrooms, but Green says water will not hurt them. “They’ve gone through many, many rainstorms,” she points out. “One more washing is not a problem.” She uses a brush and running water, in fact, or, with black trumpets, three changes of water for dunking to remove any “goopy stuff” caught in their hollow centers. She then runs them through a salad spinner and dries them on cloths.
Almost as important as the rinse cycle, though, is the drying. If you don’t remove residual water, the mushrooms will steam or steep in their own juices.
“What I prefer is to set them out on trays and put a fan on them to drop the moisture on them before cooking so you don’t wind up with a bunch of poached stuff,” Green says. A hair dryer on the cool setting works even faster, I’ve found.
Sauteing is the most reflexive way to cook wild mushrooms, especially because they take so well to butter and cream. But roasting, as Green suggested, is lighter and more effective. Toss them with coarse sea salt and just enough olive oil to coat them well, then spread them on a baking sheet to roast in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes. The flavor will be concentrated, the texture wonderfully chewy. Some bits will even emerge from the oven as reasonable facsimiles of duck skin, crisp and meaty. You don’t even need to finish them in a saute pan as a restaurant would.
A batch of roasted or sauteed wild mushrooms can be served as a side dish or amped up with other ingredients. If you first sweat onions, garlic or shallots in butter, then add the roasted mushrooms and some creme fraiche, you get a great sauce for pasta. I like them in a quesadilla or, even better, folded into crepes, especially crepes flavored with Scotch or brandy (to pick up the smoky undertones of the fungi) and chives for color and a faint onion accent.
Roasted mushrooms also make excellent rillettes: Just chop them coarsely in a food processor or blender, then blend in enough mascarpone or cream cheese to make them spreadable on toasted baguette slices or crackers. A little tamari or regular soy sauce will intensify the mushroom flavor.
Any of those approaches should tide you over until the first mushrooms of spring. Morels are another story altogether.