There’s Food Out There — You Just Have to Look

I emerged from the bushes the other day onto the street where our neighbors, Brooke and Doug, were strolling by, looking somewhat taken aback by the man climbing out of the trees.

“Hello,” I said, holding two large white mushrooms.

“Wow, those are beautiful!” said Brooke. “What are they?”

.

“There are amanita ocreata — destroying angels. One of the deadliest mushrooms in the world.”

Her joyful face melted away, and she took a couple steps back. Now there is a great irony in the fact that a few hours later, she would be eating wild mushrooms that I picked.

“I did hear that you are an expert on wild mushrooms,” she said. I shrugged and said, “Sorta,” and somehow she still trusted me when I left a bag of chanterelles on the mailbox for them later that afternoon.

I had been running in the state park earlier that morning (back when that was still a thing), when something conspicuously orange caught me eye in the oak leaf duff deep in the middle of a huge patch of poison oak. I climbed down carefully through that ornery weed to have my suspicions confirmed — chanterelles! And a lot of them. (Hence my subsequent sharing with miscellaneous friends and neighbors.)

Southern California produces the world’s largest chanterelles (those years that are rainy enough for us to actually find them). A single mushroom can weigh two pounds, and feed a family of five (I only wish my children would learn to enjoy them…) Besides chanterelles and the carpet of live oak acorns on our property that could theoretically feed us for six months, there are many other things growing in our nearby fields and woods that are edible.

Miner’s lettuce

I once took a guided walk with a naturalist up in our state park, and he showed us many different edible foods (besides deer and rabbits) — there was the wild sage plant, whose flowers turned to chia seeds; another small plant was a wild buckwheat, whose seeds could presumably be collected, pounded and baked into some sort of breadlike something.

One of my favorite wild foods in our area is miner’s lettuce, a beautiful, delicate green that presents a lovely addition to a salad. Sometimes, when I am nerding out or doing an expensive dinner for a client, I will pick the little circular cups, and fill them with something exquisite and delicious — a mini salad, perhaps; or caviar.

Some people in other places have better wild foods than we do — the wild mushrooms at my mother’s house could make us a wealthy family if we ever set our minds to it. And I always covet the bounty of the Northwest — not just mushrooms, but fiddlehead ferns, wild ramps, berries of all kinds, oysters and salmon. But you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.

With prolific late winter rains in Southern California, the chanterelles have been abundant. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances posting photos of their catch on social media. The smart (i.e. cautious) have come to me for a positive ID. While there isn’t much you can mistake for a chanterelle if you know what you’re looking for, I do worry that people will become emboldened and go on to sample other mushrooms they find growing. Hopefully not the destroying angel. The morning I found the chanterelles in the park, I also discovered a large patch of what I was pretty sure was amanita velosa — the springtime amanita, supposedly one of the most delicious mushrooms. But with amanitas — the family of mushrooms containing the two most deadly specimens on earth — “pretty sure” isn’t good enough… even after 30 years hunting mushrooms, I’m wary of just about all amanitas.

I went out on the lower part of our property this morning to see if there might be any other mushrooms growing. I discovered several more beautiful snow white destroying angels, some russulas described by one of the mushroom books as “edible but insipid,” and some large agaricus — relatives of the common grocery store mushroom. These I was carrying home to attempt an identification when, emerging from the same cluster of bushes, I encountered another neighbor couple, Megan and Gregory, out on the street.

“Oooh! Those are beautiful!” said Megan. “Good for you for getting your own food!”

Agaricus

They were certainly beautiful. I was skeptical of their edibility, though — the telltale almond scent of the edible agaricus that grow near us was missing. But no worry — there was a pot of borscht on the stove back at the house, I’d done well on chanterelles already this year, and we weren’t yet at the stage where the pantry and fridge were running bare (there was even plenty of Ben & Jerry’s still in the freezer!). For now, foraging remained nothing more than just a lovely way to pass some pandemic time…

The Wonders of the Woods

Clockwise from top: Blewits, matsutakes, white chanterelles, porcini

Every year, somewhere around the holidays, we load up the car with kids and kid paraphernalia and head north. Our destination? Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house — my mom’s place — in the forest of western Sonoma County. We get settled, my kids go for the cookies, and then Dad disappears. Into the wet woods, eyes scanning the shadowy duff for signs of life. Fungal life.

I first got interested in foraging for mushrooms two decades ago, while up at my aunt and uncle’s place in Mendocino. It took five years of identification before I became comfortable eating a mushroom, another five before anyone in my family would trust me enough to eat one. Now, 20 years out, I’m something of an expert. In that time, I’ve only gotten sick once. And that from an edible variety. I’ve never eaten a poisonous mushroom. I find mushrooms people pay top dollar for at fancy food boutiques and farmers markets — matsutake, oyster, porcini, black trumpets… And soon, after the torrential rains we’ve been having in L.A., I’ll see chanterelles the size of baseball gloves popping up in the usually dry woods around my own house.

My kids seem to like my hobby. It combines getting dirty and exploring, two of the best kid things:

Do I advise you take up this pastime? No. And if you must, come out with me and I’ll share my knowledge. I’ve had two people send me emails in the past week with photos of the “chanterelles” they’d found, eagerly waiting confirmation to eat their bounty. My reply in both cases was the same. “Those are NOT chanterelles.”

Once initiated, you may find yourself obsessed. For some, like my wife, it is the thrill of the hunt. She compares it to going to garage sales looking for that one great find. For others, it is the awesome diversity of edible wild mushrooms — some that have the texture and taste of fried chicken, others that smell of maple syrup; some that can substitute for lobster in a bisque, and still others that resemble the mane of a lion. I like the hunt, and I like the cooking. And when it’s dry at home and I can’t get north, I suck it up and buy them from my friends at the farmers market who do the work for me. (Sources for wild mushrooms below)

If you like regular mushrooms,  you’ll love wild mushrooms. Even cultivated varieties such as shitake, oyster or shimeji offer an adventure from the ordinary button. But look for some of the varieties I’ve mentioned above, as well as morels, yellow foot, blewits, cauliflower mushrooms and other varieties, at your farmers markets and fancy food boutiques. And when you find them, use them wherever you would regular mushrooms. In a pasta, on a pizza, folded into omelets… If it’s a cold night and you’re wet from the hunt, here’s a nice soup to warm your soul:

Wild Mushroom Bisque

1 lb wild mushrooms (or regular button mushrooms, if you must), sliced thin
2 quarts chicken stock (canned is fine — in fact, water a bouillon cube is fine)
1 onion, chopped
2 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
salt & pepper

Melt the butter over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the onions and sweat, cooking until they begin to brown slightly. Add mushrooms and turn heat to high. Cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms release most of their moisture and begin to brown. Add chicken stock, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for 30 minutes uncovered.

Transfer soup to a blender. (If there’s too much liquid for your blender, transfer all the solids and half the broth.) Puree on high for a minute, until soup is thoroughly pureed. Return to saucepan, heat over medium until soup begins to simmer. Turn off heat and stir in cream, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with a loaf of crusty bread and some sweet butter, maybe a sweetish white wine like viogner, a fruity zinfandel or a bottle of hoppy beer such as Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam.

Wild mushroom sources:

Far West Fungi
The Ferry Building
San Francisco
www.farwestfungi.com

David West/Clearwater Farms
Downtown Santa Monica Farmer’s Market
Wednesdays & Saturdays

Online:
http://oregonmushrooms.com

Or if you wanna get in touch with me in mid-January, I should have more chanterelles than I know what to do with.  : )   –S