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!”


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…

Good Things in the Great Land

When I sail to Alaska, as I have done five or six times now, I always look forward to waking up early the first morning we have arrived in the Great Land. I’ll spring out onto the balcony at dawn — which, in Alaska, is 4:30 or 5 in the morning. You know immediately by the towering snow-capped peaks, forested isles and placid waters of the Inside Passage that you have arrived — the bald eagles carving the sky and spouting humpback whales confirming the fact.

Willa and Immy in the woods near Dewey Lake, Skagway, Alaska

Willa and Immy in the woods near Dewey Lake, Skagway, Alaska

As evidenced by its sheer mass, Alaska is a land of big things. The mountains are big, the glaciers are big, the animals are big and the sky is big. Also big is the abundance of food — if you’ve not seen a salmon run on an Alaskan stream, you have no idea why there is so much of the fish in the supermarket at this time of year. The bears become so sated and picky that they will eat only the skin and discard the rest of the fish. The long hours of sunlight enable Alaskan farmers to grow those giant cabbages and pumpkins you’ve seen in pictures. More

The Best Salmon, the Best Way

As we prepare for our upcoming family trip to Alaska, I find myself thinking a lot about salmon. The beautiful filets of sockeye and king from the Copper and other pristine rivers I’m finding at the fishmarkets these days have my mind already north. I once saw a river in Sitka so choked with spawning salmon swimming upstream that it seemed as if you could’ve walked across their backs and never touched water. Another river near Juneau was littered with the skinless carcasses of salmon — in bumper years, the bears peel off and eat the skin, and discard the rest.

Spawning sockeye in Juneau.

Spawning sockeye in Juneau.

I’ve oft commented on this blog about how people tend to overcook salmon. And while it is still a delicious fish when cooked all the way through, it is so much better when left medium-rare to rare. Or, as I personally prefer, raw. More

The Siren Song of Summer

There’s a lot going on this week — summer nearing, the last few days of school. The calendar is full, my cooking commitments many.

Savoring my last bite of lunch before the floodgates open

Savoring my last bite of lunch before the floodgates open

As I sit here this warm afternoon eating one of my favorite summer lunches — crusty multi-grain bruschetta with ripe heirloom tomatoes, basil, olive oil, mozzarella and parmesan reggiano — I think of the next several days. It began this morning, as pal Ernie and I tried to go to the amazing, miraculous Santa Monica Seafood to redeem Groupons we’d purchased to make a seafood dinner this evening. More

Mama Annie

Some things change a lot over the years. Other things don’t change that much.

I remember coming out of my bedroom in the morning as a kid, and there was my mom — wild haired, rumpled bathrobe, cup of coffee — already cooking. Now, when we go to visit her in Sonoma, my children wake up early and find her, grandma now whom they call “Mama Annie” — wild haired, rumpled bathrobe, cup of coffee — already cooking.

Me and Mama Annie, back in the day

Me and Mama Annie, back in the day

My parents were adventurous eaters, especially for the time. As I child, I ate escargot in French restaurants and learned to say Pouilly-Fuisse, sampled sashimi and sushi at the Joy of Tempura — the only Japanese restaurant in town — and was complemented on my chopsticks skills by old Chinese women at the Twin Dragon. More

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