What else can I write about this week but mushrooms? Being smack in the middle of our monumental wild mushroom extravaganza, I can’t think about anything else. Besides, if I don’t talk about them now, I certainly won’t for a while given that I will be pretty shroomed out after this, I reckon.
With close to twenty kinds of wild mushrooms on the menu, I have been cleaning and freezing and drying, pulverizing and cooking all kinds of mushrooms, all kinds of ways, day in, day out, for weeks now for this event, with another week to go.
This event has become a big draw, be it for mushroom lovers and gastronomes, people who know many wild varieties but don’t have access to them all, or for people who know less but are curious, and want to learn. There is something generally intoxicating about mushrooms I think, due to their sweet, deep, earthy aromas, but also because some are literally so, and we all know they can be deadly. Many people see different mushrooms growing in their backyard and wonder whether they can eat them, but don’t dare to; we give them that chance. To visualize the mushrooms we are using, you can go to his website (www.jardinssauvages.com) and click on the mushroom words on the French menu, and a picture of the mushroom pops up.
I always loved mushrooms; it was probably my first vegetable love affair, besides maybe pickles, if that counts. The first dish I ever cooked on my own was a mushroom dish, around the age of 7 or so, I needed to stand on a chair. I sautéed up some mushrooms with margarine (?!) and finished with soy sauce. This is still one of my favorite dishes only fancied up, using wild mushrooms, tamari and real butter, a splash of fine sherry vinegar, black pepper. It’s funny, because although I was always a passionate eater, I did not develop any culinary aspirations until my twenties. However, at an early age, I was particular about what I ate, refusing to eat much of what my Mom cooked, I was one to take charge, and I liked mushrooms.
I have been seduced with mushrooms more than once. I think a part of me lit up the first time I tasted porcini. I remember the day. Same with black trumpets, they still make me swoon, I think they are the sexiest mushroom. Yes, even more than truffles.
Mushrooms played an important role in my courtship with François as well. I was at l’Eau à la Bouche and mushroom fever was just taking hold of me. I was being introduced to new varieties, foragers would come to the back door, and we cooks would go out and pick some ourselves and then dare eachother to eat them. I took a beginners’ course that year. Then François des bois came along with wilder varieties, and his eye on me. We started dating several mushrooms later, and soon after, he managed to get into my house to cook me up a couple of Amanites des Cesars, a rare type considered one of the most noble by the French. In those early days, he would leave baskets of assorted wild mushrooms on my doorstep when he was in Ste-Adèle and I was at work. Some people woo with flowers; with me, mushrooms worked just as well.
A month or two later, when we were officially dating, a paper bag of boletus showed up on my doorstep one morning... That day, I ate breakfast. An omelet with special mushrooms makes for an exquisite start to a day for sure. The thing is, the next time I spoke with François, I graciously thanked him for the nice treat, only to have him respond in shock, even hostility. You see, it had not been him. Apparently, I had another forager/suitor. I had no idea who it could be, François was suspicious and jealous. “Who the hell else was coming to my door with mushrooms?” he demanded. I eventually found out that it was a young cook in the kitchen who either had a crush on me or was trying to suck up, get a little less flack or a better schedule... So, mushrooms started our relationship, and shortly after caused a rift, making for a rocky start.. But it didn’t take long before more mushroom experiences secured it...
Now, they’re bound to keep us together, especially since our annual mushroom event has taken on a life of its own and has become this huge thing. What would we do without them? Everywhere we go, we pick mushrooms: in the Charlevoix, in the Outaouais, in the Laurentians...It isn’t new that mushrooms dictate my schedule really; for the last few years at l’Eau, my vacation time was set according to the end of the mushroom season and our event at la Table des Jardins Sauvages.
Mushrooms are indeed big in my life, but then again, a lot of vegetables are. But because of these mushroom dinners I guess, I have become a mini mushroom diva. I was asked to write an article on boletus for Effervescence magazine, I did a mushroom event at the Pearson School of Culinary Arts, was in a mushroom article in the Gazette; all of a sudden, I’m a reference. I know how to cook, but I am no mushroom expert. I don’t need to be, I have François, my own personal forager and expert. I do like to pick a little when I don’t have to be at the stove though...
If I’m not with François, I am limited to a few of the most familiar. I started with boletus and the obvious morels, chanterelles and lobsters... Now, I can differentiate the most common of the boletus, I do mousserons, bluefoots, lactaires delicieux, puffballs, and lepiotes too. Actually, the best puffball of the season I found by tripping over it on my way to the shed for a spade, that’s hardly foraging is it? François is good at getting the oysters by climbing trees or gently knocking them down with a pole; my job is to catch them before they hit the ground.
When it comes to foraging for wild mushrooms, you need to consult not one book, but several. None seem to be complete, and there are toxic mushrooms that resemble good ones. Going with someone knowledgable is a big help. Then, it just takes time and experience, always referring to the books, and your tastebuds when you’re further along. I think it is wiser to get to know a certain forest or area, discover what grows there, and stick with a variety or two that you have until you know them well. Then, you can move on to new types and new spots. Unless you’re crazy adventurous, don’t dabble with the sketchy kinds, be leary of the prettiest ones. I don’t bother with the ugly gyromite either (like a big, deformed looking morel), which some people prize, who needs a stomach ache?
Again, I’m biased when it comes to boletus because I love them, but for beginners, they are a good way to start. That’s because they are easy to identify and never dangerous. Well, there is one toxic variety but it doesn’t grow here. Of the hundred or so varieties, there are some that are of no culinary interest, others are bitter, but there are 20 odd delicious ones. They usually have a yellow-brownish cap, they have that stereotypical mushroom shape, and under the cap there is a sponge that when you look closely, is really a bunch of little upright tubes, as opposed to the horizontal gills of most other species. They are great fresh in soups and sauces, and even better dried, because all kinds of new aromas develop, reminicent of vanilla, cherries, coconut, chocolate, almonds... depending on the type. People are skeptical, but once you take a sniff in our jars, it is easy to see that it is not a stretch.
Anyone who knows wild mushrooms knows how delicious they can be, but also how elusive they are. Not only is properly identifying them daunting, but finding them is another story. They are hardly predictable. When you have a good spot, it will likely provide year after year, but only under the right conditions, and who knows when. Mushroom hunters are notoriously passionate and persistent, as if they are biten by a bug, revisiting their locations, seeking out new ones, only satisfied by a substancial find. Good spots are coveted, and often kept secret.
I’ve been let in on some of François’ spots, but he’s not worried, I had morels on my front lawn and didn’t even see them. Over the years, I have developed my eagle eye somewhat, but I’m still no hawk. I’m better, but I am only effective one variety at a time. When I’m in mousseron mode, I see them all and pick them at lightening speed. Then I move into bluefoot mode, and collect a whole bunch. Ok, I won’t miss a bright red lobster mushroom underfoot, and I always see the boletus (my favorite), but I easily miss the oysters (I don’t notice much above my field of vision) or others I’m not focused on finding. It doesn’t help that I’m not good at identifying the different kinds of trees, which is an important part of mushroom gathering.
As you can see, it is a complicated business. So, as long as I have a constant supply, my priority will be cooking them. For the firmer varieties like porcini or matsutake or chanterelles, my favorite way is freshly sautéed. Some of the softer varieties, like most of the boletus, are much better dried. That’s why you don’t see them fresh in stores, they are too perishable. You will find them in specialty stores, even some supermarkets. I use them to beef up stocks or sauces (they can do wonders for vegetarian dishes), to aromatize soups, or to infuse in milk for scalloped potatoes or ice cream or flan preparations. We make them into powder and use this “mushroom flour” in crusts for scallops or poultry, or in desserts, you just add them in with the dry ingredients. You don’t need much. A tablespoon (5g) will flavor a small batch of cookie dough or crust. In savory preparations, calculate ¼ the fresh weight of mushrooms you would use. 10-15g of dried mushrooms will nicely flavor a broth, soup or sauce. You just rehydrate by pouring boiling water over top, allow them to soften, drain, and add to your recipe, decanting the soaking liquid, which you can also use.
François is putting a fragrant boletus oil (and mustard) on the market this year, the first of its kind in Québec. You use it like truffle oil, although it is less potent, and so more versatile. There are porcini oils on the market from Italy, but so far I have not tasted one that is made with real mushrooms that is this good. This oil will be a great addition to any cook’s repertoire, even if all you cook is eggs.
There is so much to do with mushrooms. They go great with just about anything, the milder varieties with seafood, poultry, artichokes and cheese, the stronger varieties with tomatoes, eggplant, root vegetables, game and meat. They can be used in compound butters, spreads, salads, casseroles, pasta or rice dishes, as accompaniments, or in sauces for meats. Yet, I hardly feel like going into too much more detail about how to cook mushrooms. Just use a hot pan and enough oil, finish with butter. Don’t wash them (just wipe clean) unless they are very dirty. Make sure to cook any wild mushrooms through. When using dried, keep the soaking liquid and leave the dirt behind. There are more tips in the Gazoo article, and I have included some recipes here too for those interested (see the Recipes section).
I encourage you all to get out there and explore the world of mushrooms, sample the varieties available to you at the market. There are some tasty cultivated ‘wild’ mushrooms being produced in Québec, like the oyster, King oyster, shitake and fairy ring. They are more delicate and more one dimensional than real wild mushrooms, but still delicious, just different. Incorporate dried mushrooms into your cooking; treat them like a vanilla pod or a bay leaf that you can leave in or take out, to infuse in your soups, sauces or stews. They provide meatiness and complexity. Fresh wild mushrooms are more difficult to find and you have to pay the price. But when you can get your hands on some, they are well worth it, a world away and above cultivated mushrooms, not that there is anything wrong with regular mushrooms either. All mushrooms are good.
Mushroom Boom (article in the Gazette on Wednesday Nov.8, 2006)http://www.canada.com/montrealgazette/news/arts/story.html?id=3be34077-2932-4909-88a1-c4320c5eb5e2&k=5279