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Article Last Updated: Wednesday, November 12, 2003 - 7:24:30 AM PST
Feel free to go wild with California mushrooms By Jolene Thym, STAFF WRITER
THEY look like specimens plucked from the ocean floor. Dead-ringers for exotic algae, seaweed, anemones and hunks of spiny coral.
But these exotic handfuls of nature are not from the sea at all. They are treasures from the forest, wild mushrooms carefully harvested by Mendocino mushroom forager Connie Green.
"Most people, even chefs, have no idea that these exist," Green says, picking up a giant porcini that looks more like a muffin than a mushroom. "These mushrooms grow in the forests all up and down the coast, but until a few years ago, they weren't harvested at all."
Green, who owns Wine Forest mushroom foraging company in Mendocino, is one of the local mush- room experts who have been scouring the forests, gathering dozens of varieties of mushrooms to show, share and serve at the fourth annual Wine and Mushroom Festival in Mendocino that kicks off today and continues through Nov. 23. The event, which celebrates the arrival of mushroom season, includes dinners, exhibits, walks, cooking discussions and talks by mushroom farmers and foragers.
To be sure that people understand just how varied and plentiful wild mushrooms are in California, Green carted a cache of her precious mushrooms into Green's Restaurant in San Francisco last week, where chef Annie Somerville grilled, roasted, sauted and braised them to make hen-of-the-woods mushrooms on bruschetta, mushroom-farro soup featuring oyster and shiitake mushrooms, grilled por-
cini salad with watercress, and a chanterelle tart.
Although Somerville welcomes the mushrooms into her vegetarian kitchen and doesn't puzzle over what to do with them, Green says wild mushrooms are hardly commonplace in American restaurants, even in those that are considered to serve upscale, exotic food.
"Until recently, chefs had only one mushroom to work with," Green says. "Besides the white and brown buttons, they had porcinis. That was it."
Green jumped into the mushroom foraging market 20 years ago, convinced that American chefs were ready to cook with the mushrooms that have been staples in cuisines across the globe.
"In 1979, I marched into what was then San Francisco's most famous French restaurant, toting my basket of impeccably cleaned chanterelles. The chef looked down his nose and stated flatly, 'Those can't be chanterelles. They do not grow in America.'"
Green, unable to convince the chef he was wrong, didn't give up. She continued foraging and presenting her fungal treasures, eventually convincing chefs to try her exotic harvest.
Now chefs welcome Green and look forward to the adventure of cooking with intriguing new fungi. The problem, she says, is that with so few foragers here in California, the supply is extremely limited.
"The small supply drives the prices up. Most of the mushrooms are shipped to Japan," she says of the matsutake harvest. "Most American restaurants can't afford them because they're selling at $34 per pound."
Green, a mushroom lover herself, enjoys sharing her passion. She picks up a giant off-white cauliflower mushroom and invites people to smell and to taste. It looks like coral, but it's crisp and fragrant.
Bright yellow chanterelles are more delicate in aroma, as is the ruffly hen-of-the-woods mushroom and the funnel-shaped lobster mushroom, named after its aroma.
"For a lot of these, it's all about the aroma," she says.
Although many wild varieties such as shiitake and blue oyster are now successfully farmed, thereby increasing the supply and lowering the price, some mushroom prices remain very high, Green says.
"The price of the matsutake actually came down for a while because the Korean government sent the North Korean Army out into the forest to harvest them in order to generate cash," she says. "That increased the supply dramatically."
Green doesn't suggest that novices hunt their own mushrooms, but she says the educated forager is not likely to mistake an edible mushroom for one that is poisonous.
"To mushroom people, the distinctions are utterly clear. It's like the difference between a bell pepper and (any other vegetable). Picking mushrooms that are safe to eat merely requires experience."
Green, who networks with foragers all over the West, Canada, Alaska, Mexico and Europe, says she looks forward to continued growth in farming the many wild and domestic varieties of mushrooms.
"The thing about mushrooms is that it's an entirely sustainable, organic crop. Mushrooms are a natural resource."
One wrinkle in harvesting the resource, she says, is convincing forestry officials that picking mushrooms doesn't disrupt nature. Recent research, she says, suggests that picking actually encourages fruiting.
"People don't understand that when you pick them, you don't harm the environment. Picking doesn't cause fewer mushrooms to grow. I, myself, have gathered chanterelles from the exact same trees for 26 years."
CHANTERELLE TART WITH
ROASTED GARLIC CUSTARD
From "Everyday Greens" by Annie Somerville (Scribner, $40). The woodsy chanterelles and tender leeks blend perfectly into the rich roasted garlic custard.
Yeasted Tart Dough (recipe follows)
Roasted Garlic Puree (recipe follows)
1/2 pound chanterelle mushrooms
3 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
cup creme fraiche
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium leeks, white parts only, cut in half lengthwise, thinly sliced and washed, about 2 cups
1/4 cup white wine
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
2 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated, about cup
Make the Yeasted Tart Dough and follow the instructions for lining the tart pan. Preheat the oven to 375. Make the Roasted Garlic Puree.
Using a brush or damp cloth, carefully clean the chanterelles. Remove the dirt and bits of organic matter, but don't wash them or they'll soak up the water and lose their delicate flavor. Trim off the base of the stems if they're particularly dirty and discard. Cut the mushrooms into large pieces, or thickly slice them, being sure to include the stem. You should have about 21/2 cups.
Beat the eggs in a bowl and whisk in the roasted garlic puree followed by the milk, cream, creme fraiche, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper.
Heat the butter and oil in a large saute pan and add the leeks, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a few pinches of pepper. Saute over medium heat until the leeks begin to wilt, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and cook for one minute more. Add the chanterelles and a few pinches of salt and pepper and gently saute until just tender and cooked through. (The cooking time will depend on the moisture in the mushrooms.) Stir in the thyme and set aside to cool.
Sprinkle the cheese on the bottom of the rolled dough and spread the mushroom mixture over it. Pour the custard over and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the custard is set and the top is golden. Serves 6 to 8; makes one 9-inch tart.
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water and set in a warm place for 10 to 15 minutes until foamy. Combine the flour and salt in a bowl and make a well. Whisk the egg and pour it into the middle of the well along with the softened butter and yeast mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon to form a soft, smooth dough. Dust it lightly with flour and gather into a ball; place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm place until it doubles in size, 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you're not ready to shape the dough, knead it and let it rise again.
Use a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Roll the dough into a 10-inch circle on a lightly floured board. Place the dough in the pan and press evenly against the sides. It should be about 1/2 inch higher than the pan. Fold the edges over and press again, so the dough is just a little above the rim of the pan. Allow the dough to rest for a few minutes, then fill it. Or refrigerate it until needed. Makes one 9-inch tart shell.
Fresh garlic takes on a whole new range of flavors once it's roasted -- its sharp, assertive taste becomes delicate, soft and smooth.
A few heads of garlic
Fresh herbs (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a head or two of garlic, pointy end up, in a small baking dish and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil. Throw in a few fresh sage leaves or a sprig or two of fresh thyme if you like. Roast until tender all the way through, about 40 minutes, checking for doneness by inserting a paring knife or skewer. When cool enough to handle, cut off the root end and squeeze the cloves into a small bowl. (You can also do this later, but you'll get more garlic if you squeeze it warm.) Puree in a small food processor or mash with a fork, until smooth. Two large heads of garlic make about cup puree.