Skinny Girls Roadshow from Sonoma — Hunting the Pine Mushroom

I like the thrill of the hunt. But not one for killing animals or dealing with blood, I mostly limit my hunting to wild mushrooms in the woods and groovy cowboy shirts at thrift stores. It was the former that had my wife and I up to our ears in Sonoma pine duff, hunting the elusive matsutake.

Orange jelly fungus

Orange jelly fungus

“Matsutake” translates as “pine mushroom,” since they often grow in symbiotic relationship with pines. “Take” is Japanese for mushroom, while “matsu” means pine — I have a friend named Kazue Matsunaga. I’m not sure what the “naga” part is, but she’s got something to do with pine trees. She’s a “Pine naga-er,” I guess. More

The Autumn of Our Content

I woke this morning to the first day of autumn. Not the official first day — technically, it’s been fall for a month now. But the first real first day of autumn, where I could feel it in my bones and soul. It’s one of my favorite feelings.

Silvery Autumn morning through the oaks

We in Southern California are less fortunate than our friends in other parts of the country who enjoy spectacular displays of changing foliage. Our poison oak turns kinda pink, which I guess is nice. And typically, when October arrives and those same friends are raking leaves and building fires, we’re out on the deck in shorts and t-shirts, grilling ribs and drinking beer. They envy us, we envy them.

But not today. Today was different. I awakened to a chill, reluctant to emerge from under my pile of covers. Out the window wisps of gossamer fog weaved through the muscular arms of the scrub oaks, softening them. Our silky rooster crowed plaintively, and I could smell coffee that was not yet even brewing. My favorite season had come. More

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

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


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

Drago’s Crabs

I was in Alaska once on a luxury cruise ship with some clients of mine and some friends. We went hiking up a mountain from the Disney-esque town of Skagway, and discovered wild porcini mushrooms growing along the path. I picked as many as I could and made a bag out of my shirt, unsure what I was going to do with them all as I was staying in a cruise stateroom with no kitchen.

When we got back into town, we went to the local brewpub for a beer and some crab legs. Sitting at the bar was Celestino Drago, a famous Genovese chef and restaurateur here in Los Angeles, who was the guest chef on our cruise. I approached him looking like an expectant mother, introduced myself, and revealed the contents of my shirt. “Porcini!!” he gaped. “Where did you find them!??” He then presented the answer to my dilemma, inviting me to cook with him one afternoon in the galley of one of the ship’s restaurants.


He trimmed up the porcini and asked me to make a risotto with them. For his part, he found a couple fresh Dungeness crabs from nearby waters, broke them into pieces, and together with tomato and saffron and olive oil, produced one of the best pastas I’ve ever eaten.

I have made it here for you. And included the recipe for Drago’s linguini with crab, as I remember it. Drago might differ. I hope it will be one of the best pastas YOU’VE ever eaten, regardless of whether you are able to pull crabs from your own nearby waters. (I recommend Dungeness crab cracked in the shell for this pasta. There’s a lovely ritualistic quality to breaking the shells and sucking the meat from within while you eat the pasta. In the video, I’ve made it with Alaskan kind crab removed from the shell, which is good too and easier to eat.)

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Linguini with Crab
serves 4

1 lb linguini
1 large Dungeness crab, cleaned
4 large tomatoes
1/2 tsp saffron threads
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
5 cloves garlic, crushed
salt & pepper

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook garlic until golden. Puree tomatoes in a blender, and add to olive oil and cook, stirring frequently.Meanwhile, break up crab into many small pieces, cracking legs and claws.

Heat water in a large pot for linguini. Add 2 tbsp salt and, when the water boils, add linguini, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. While pasta is cooking, add crab chunks to tomato sauce and toss. Add saffron and stir. When linguini is cooked to al dente, scoop from pot into sauce pan and turn heat on to high. Cook, tossing and stirring, for a couple minutes until linguini is well coated with sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Using tongs, scoop onto four plates, making sure to distribute crab chunks evenly. Drizzle with a little additional olive oil and serve.

Wine recommendation: a California pinot noir or Italian sangiovese