August 06, 2006

The Magic of Mushrooms

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When I was a kid I hated mushrooms, they were slimy and I wouldn’t eat them. There were two exceptions: morels and puffballs. Both of these are hunting mushrooms. They didn’t come from the grocery store, they came from my backyard and surrounding areas. Every year, when it was time, my parents and I would go out in search of morels. Morels always come up in the same places, so if you know where those places are, you’ll be set for years to come. But just because you know where the morels should be, doesn’t mean they’re easy to find. You need a morel finding stick, it will pull you in the direction of the good morels. There’s no set size or shape for a morel finding stick, you’ll know when you find a good one, it’ll just feel right. In my morel hunting experience, the only place the morel stick couldn’t help was in the sand dunes under the tamarack trees. Here you needed to get on your hands and knees and crawl under the soft tamarack branches. This is all part of the hunt, it’s ok to get dirty, you’re hunting! There’s also a certain amount of pride in being the one to find the first morel. When I found the first one, I wouldn’t just pluck it from the ground, I would call Dad over to gloat and to let him find it too, (you’d be surprised how long you can stare at one spot without seeing the morels that are there), after he saw it he would take out his little silver pocket knife and hand it to me so that I could gently cut off the morel at its base. Then I would cup it in my hand, bring it up to my nose and inhale deeply. Fresh morels have a wonderful earthy smell. It’s a throwback to my childhood every time I smell one. Some days a morel hunt would only yield half a dozen mushrooms, other days we would come home with a plastic bag full of them. When this happened we’d lay them on racks on the deck for the sun to dry them so that they could be stored in a big glass jar for use all year round until next season arrived.

We used to find puffballs in the meadows behind my house. Puffball hunts are very different from morel hunts. An enormous morel is probably no more than 4 inches tall and this would be a rare find, worthy of the record books. Morels are hard to see, they’re brown, blend into their surroundings and I swear they hide while you’re anywhere near them and then pop up when you turn your back. The only way puffballs would be hard to see is if you mistook one for a soccer ball. Puffballs are BIG and white and generally stand out from a flat surrounding. I remember one occasion when we came home with 4 huge puffballs, some bigger than basketballs. We delighted friends by bringing them fresh puffball, of course we then had to instruct most of them on how to eat it, but they were thrilled nonetheless. The best way to eat puffball is to throw some butter in a frying pan and while it’s heating up, slice the puffball into steaks. When the butter’s hot, throw on a slice of puffball, let it brown up on one side, flip it over, brown the other side, put it on a plate and enjoy. Mmmmm puffball, the steak of mushrooms.

Overtime my palate has evolved and I now enjoy all sorts of mushrooms although I still have a penchant towards the exotic as opposed to the button mushrooms you find in the supermarket. The thing about mushrooms is, they’re not like tomatoes which are easy to grow and anyone can do it. Mushrooms are tricky. Mycologists have figured out how to cultivate most types of mushrooms, but some, like the morel are still only found in the wild. In fact, there are people who devote their lives to mushroom hunting, traveling the along the West coast from Canada down into the States chasing morel season in an attempt to keep a constant supply available to people with lots of money, (such a delicacy doesn’t come cheap) and fancy restaurants. A friend of the family is a mycologist and although he hasn’t figured out the secret of the morel, he does cultivate a number of other exotic type mushrooms. A recent visit to his place resulted in a basket full of shiitakis, beeches, and white, yellow and pink (!) oyster mushrooms. The last time I had a variety of mushrooms like this I made mushroom pirogies and they were so tasty that I had to make them again. The last time I made them I had more patience and actually made the pirogi dough myself. This time I was more concerned with just getting them made so that I could eat them, so I cheated and used wonton wrappers. This was way faster and although I couldn’t claim to have made everything myself, they were still pretty good. The filling was simple, I wanted the mushrooms flavour to be the focus so I just blended them lightly with some chopped garlic and onion and then sautéed them in butter. Once they were browned I added in some cream and white wine and simmered that down. I let the mixture cool and then used it to fill the wonton wrappers. I had a few spoonfuls leftover which I mixed into eggs the next morning. It works on so many levels.

Don’t let plain mushrooms distract from all the goodness that different varieties of mushrooms offer. Grocery stores have started stocking more than just the button mushrooms and the other kinds, although probably slightly more expensive, are worth trying out.

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