Hunting the Wild Matsutake
Though winter is certainly on the way, the weather is mild enough to keep the mushrooms coming. It’s a treat to find local chanterelles and coral mushrooms, but what a fabulous adventure mushroom hunting turns into when the rare and highly prized matsutake can be found. This morning my friend Barb took me into the woods with her, making me swear I would not tell anybody where she does her mushroom gathering. Fortunately for everyone, I was not wearing my glasses so could not betray her secret if I wanted to (which I don’t).
It is fascinating to watch an experienced mushroom hunter at work, carefully studying the land, the soil, and the mix of plants. We wandered through acres of woodland, crunching twigs underfoot, clambering through the brush, crawling under half-fallen trees and scrambling over tumbled logs thick with moss. The floor of the forest is carpeted with all sorts of mosses that are just coming out of summer dormancy, and awakening mosses and lichens drip off every branch and cling to every trunk. If you are ever lost in the woods in the Northwest, don’t try to find your way by looking for moss on the North side of a tree–most are as evenly wrapped in mosses as animals are in fur.
Woods Full Of Wonder
Native rhododendrons were everywhere, mostly rather scraggly, but a few looking lush and full. Huckleberry and salal draped the forest floor, less densely than in undisturbed woods, but closely enough spaced to make wading through them an intricate process. We found patches of a native ground orchid called Goodyeara oblongifolia or rattlesnake plantain, with handsomely patterned foliage in resting rosettes, and twinflower (Linnaea borealis) as well as Maianthemum dilatatum (false lily of the valley) and the tattered remains of various trilliums.
Birds and chipmunks kept up a constant conversation overhead while we called back and forth frequently to keep deer hunters aware that we were not interested in being shot. (I wore a yellow rain slicker and Barb wore a red jacket, just in case someone thought we were worth hunting.) Now and then we’d come to a little mossy clearing with just the right combination of plants and Barb would say, “Hmm, there ought to be some right around here,” and sure enough, within a few minutes, we’d find a beautiful matsutake. Then she’d say, “Mrs. Kitamoto always said, “Where you find one, you’ll find three,” so we’d poke around until, sure enough, we located a few more.
How To Clean Mushrooms
When we found mushrooms, we’d wrap them in newspaper to keep them perfect, adding a few twigs of local vegetation as well. Barb says this reminds you of what grows in a good mushroom patch and keeps the mushrooms company on the way home. Once home, Barb had me open each packet to let the mushrooms dry out a bit before trying to clean them. After a few hours, they firm up enough that you can gently brush off the pine needles, moss, lichen and bits of bark that cling to the stems and cups. Don’t wash mushrooms in running water and never soak them or they’ll bloat and lose both flavor and texture. Simply brush gently, wiping off smuts and dirt with a damp towel if need be. Don’t toss the stems–they make flavorful broth, if nothing else. Matsutake mushrooms have huge stems, thick and stout and crisp, that split into stringy strands (“Like mozzarella cheese,” Barb says) when you open them lengthwise. Cut them crosswise and they make succulent little buttons that cook up in a minute in hot oil–yum.
A Great Way To Enjoy Mushrooms
Here’s a totally tasty recipe that brings out the flavor of any mushrooms, from shaggy manes to little enoki or bunashimeji (bunch-forming Asian mushrooms often used in noodle dishes). All the greens came from the garden, including Victoria celery (super crunchy), spicy-hot Pizzo mustard greens, and spiky Rhodos endive. Any kind of mushroom will do, but if you can’t get matsutake, this is especially good with shiitake.
Marvelous Mushrooms With Shrimp and Endive
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 white or yellow onion, halved and sliced
1 red or orange bell pepper, halved and sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced on the diagonal
2 cups mushrooms, sliced if large
2 cups endive, shredded
1 cup mustard greens, shredded
8-10 ounces shelled & deveined shrimp
1 teaspoon ponzu or soy sauce
1 tablespoon black bean sauce
1/4 cup cilantro, stemmed
In a wide, shallow pan, heat oil and garlic over medium high heat to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Add onion and pepper and cook for 3 minutes. Add celery and mushrooms and cook for 3 minutes. Add endive, mustard greens, and shrimp and cook until shrimp are pink and opaque (2-3 minute). Season to taste with ponzu or soy sauce and black bean sauce and serve over hot Lemon Rice (see below), garnished with cilantro. Serves 4-6.
1 cup short grain brown rice (organic tastes best)
2 cups mushroom broth or water
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 lemon, juiced, rind grated
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
In a rice cooker, combine rice, garlic, lemon rind and sea salt with 2 cups broth or water and cook. When done, spritz with lemon juice and toss lightly with a fork. Serves 4-6.
Don’t Waste Those Stems and Scraps
Here’s a great way to use up stems and scraps of mushrooms and vegetables, turning the rejected into ambrosial broth for soups, rice, pasta, or whatever.
1-2 cups mushroom stems, chopped
1 stalk celery, including base and tips with foliage, chopped
1 onion, skins and roots included, chopped
2 cloves garlic, skins and all (whole)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Combine all ingredients with water to cover, bring to a simmer and simmer gently over low heat for 2-3 hours. Strain, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for up to a week or freeze for up to 3 months.