The Wild Mushrooms of Fall | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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The Wild Mushrooms of Fall

I know I am probably in the minority, but I despise mushrooms—at least the little white button ones you get at the supermarket. They rank up there with cilantro on my short list of ingredients I wouldn't want to meet in a dark restaurant, or a well-lit one, for that matter.Raw mushrooms are relativ...

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I know I am probably in the minority, but I despise mushrooms—at least the little white button ones you get at the supermarket. They rank up there with cilantro on my short list of ingredients I wouldn't want to meet in a dark restaurant, or a well-lit one, for that matter.

Raw mushrooms are relatively inoffensive, despite having the texture of Styrofoam packing peanuts and the musty odor of a wet bathing suit that's been forgotten in a plastic bag. When cooked, though, button mushrooms morph into foul little garden slugs, and the musty funk intensifies and permeates everything else in the dish. It doesn't help that they invariably give me a stomachache.

Given my feelings about cultivated mushrooms, it was a pleasant surprise—to say the least—when, during a trip to France in my 20s, I tasted my first cèpes. Cèpes, also known as porcini or by their scientific name, Boletus edulis, are wild mushrooms that grow mostly in Europe and North America during fall. The ones I had were served as strips in a tomato soup, and I was blown away by their deliciousness. They were like little umami bombs, with a chewy, almost meaty texture—not slimy at all and virtually funk-free.

Since then I've eaten other, equally tasty wild mushrooms. I have not yet been brave enough to forage myself—best to leave that to the people who know their harmless puffballs from their deadly destroying angels. (Don't wild mushrooms have the best names?) You can find them in some restaurants, farmers' markets and supermarkets, though, and fall is a good season for them.

Here are some of the more popular varieties found in fall and what to do with them if you find them (from a reputable seller, or with help from an experienced forager and a good guide book). If you can't find them fresh, sometimes they are available dried.

One of my favorites is hen of the woods, aka maitake or Grifola frondosa, which are abundant in the eastern United States and often grow around oak trees. Their common name comes from their appearance: in clusters they look like the feathered tail of a hen. They would be delicious in a risotto, with meat or fish, or Thai style. Or just sauté them in butter.

Hen of the woods should not be confused with chicken of the woods, the more appetizing pseudonym of the sulfur shelf mushroom. According to the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook—which has an amusingly named recipe for a dish called Hens and Chicks that uses both fowl-sounding mushrooms—chicken of the woods tastes meaty while hen of the woods tastes "woodsy." Sulfur shelf can also be tossed in pasta or even used to replace the poultry in a Chinese "chicken" salad.

Continuing the meaty theme, how could a mushroom named after lobster be anything but delicious? Lobster mushrooms (which I haven't had the pleasure to try) are said to resemble the crustacean of the same name (which I have), in both coloring and flavor. If so, a creamy pasta sauce sounds like a no-brainer. Or get creative, using it instead of fish in lobster mushroom sushi.

Oyster mushrooms are common in the supermarket because they can be cultivated, but foragers swear by the wild stuff. Take a cue from the name and try "Oysters" Rockefeller, or stir-fry them with shrimp and veggies.

And let's not forget the wild mushrooms that opened my heart to fungi in the first place, cèpes. Cookbook author Paula Wolfert recommends them à la Bordelaise, or sautéed in oil and butter with garlic, lemon juice and parsley. I wish I could share the recipe for that tomato bisque from all those years ago, but it it lives on only in my fuzzy memory, and possibly that of some anonymous French chef.

Do you have a favorite wild mushroom recipe?
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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