Bruce was having trouble posting a comment on my “Goodbye, Year of the Taco” post.
“What did you want to say?” I asked, being that I was now standing beside him in person and could simply accept the comment first-hand.
“I was going to ask why the Year of the Taco has to end.”
“Well,” I replied, “It doesn’t really end. That was more for the narrative and thematic purposes of my blog.”
He looked puzzled, but the answer seemed to comfort him.
As it happened, we were at Bruce and my mother’s house deep in the forest of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley for our annual holiday visit, and there would be tacos on the menu. Our second evening there, we had a crab feast. The next day, the leftover crab made for a perfect lunch of one of my favorite tacos.
However, it was the taco invention I would stumble upon that evening that would prove to be the culinary epiphany of the visit.
The set up is important: A favorite ritual of mine and the kids’ when we visit my mother is to go mushroom hunting in the woods on her property. Around Christmas time, we usually find abundant quantities of one of my favorite mushrooms, the matsutake. This year, because of a deluge in the days preceding our arrival, the matsutakes were mostly washed out and soggy. But as we nosed our way through the woods in disappointment, we discovered an equally delicious treasure: A fallen tree boasting a large shaggy growth of bear’s head mushroom. Jackpot!
* * *
My sister, who is vegan, noticed the mushrooms and asked if I might cook her some — it’s one of the few toothsome, satisfying meat-like foods she can eat. I heated some olive oil in a pan, fried a little garlic and scallion, and added the mushroom, torn into pieces.
Because it was water-logged, it at first took on a stew-like appearance. But as the liquid cooked off, the mushroom began to crisp up. I was looking for even more crispness, so I sprinkled some rice flour (sis is also gluten-free) over the top, and flipped the mushroom in the pan. As it became more golden, more crisp, it began to take on an unlikely resemblance — it looked just like pork carnitas!!!
This was an opportunity I could not let pass. I grabbed some tiny street-taco-size corn tortillas, the leftover salsa from the crab tacos and some onion and cilantro, and in an instant we were eating wild mushroom carnitas tacos.
The Year of the Sandwich was not off to a very convincing start.
* * *
Wild mushroom “carnitas” tacos
1 lb. bear’s head or lion’s mane mushroom (available in autumn/winter at some specialty stores or Asian markets)
1 large scallion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup rice flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 small brown onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
12 taco-size tortillas
hot salsa such as salsa naranja
Clean the mushroom of any dirt and debris, without washing it if at all possible. Tear or cut into medium-size pieces.
Heat the olive oil over medium high, and add the garlic and scallion. Cook about 1 minute, stirring, and add the mushrooms. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the mushrooms begin releasing their water. Stir, and continue cooking until all water has cooked off and the mushrooms are beginning to crisp up. Sprinkle with rice flour, and gently turn mushrooms over with a spatula. Continue cooking until they begin to brown and crisp on the floured side. Turn once more, cook about 2 minutes more, and remove from heat.
With the spatula, lift the mushrooms onto a piece of foil, and keep warm in the 180-degree oven.
Toss together the chopped onion and cilantro.
In the same pan you cooked the mushrooms in, toast the tortillas a few at a time over medium-high heat, about 1-2 minutes per side, until they begin to crisp slightly and turn golden (add a bit more oil for each round).
Compose the tacos: place a few pieces of mushroom carnitas in each tortilla. Top with onion/cilantro mixture, and drizzle with a little salsa.