Fungus

I just got my first negative feedback and I am so excited. Yuppiedouche@Gmail.com suggests that, “You’re an idiot”. I want my fans and detractors alike to know that I am open to criticism and suggestions. But speaking of ground-hugging detritivores, I finally found some Verpa bohemica!

Apparently, the metabolism of this fungus is still not well understood but, according to mushroomexpert.com it is suspected that it is both saprophytic and mycorrhizal at different stages of its life. Saprophytic means detritivore. The meaning of mycorrhizal is fully discussed elswhere on this website. It belongs to the family Morchellaceae  (morel family) and subdivision Ascomycotina  (spores born in sacs called asci, for our purposes however these are all the “weird” looking mushrooms) . So despite the claims to the contrary, the Verpa is closely related to the morel.

For the longest time I, along with everyone I know, labored along under the illusion that this was a poisonous mushroom. All “false morels” are supposed to be poisonous. According to David Arora’s “Mushrooms Demystified” the Verpa bohemica should be consumed rarely, in small quantities, with caution, if at all. And I would certainly recommend that you treat it as if it were of “unknown edibility” the first time you try it, as prudence would dictate. Not all people are able to consume all mushrooms. I would, however, never have thought to gather this one for the table if it weren’t for the fact that last year, a bad year for morels here in the Willamette Valley, it started popping up in farmer’s markets and restaurants started buying it. At first, I was shocked. Then one day I asked one of the more well-known commercial mushroom harvesting outfits at the farmer’s market about it as I didn’t see any at his table; morels were becoming more ubiquitous at this point. His response, “more people get sick from Morels than from Verpa”, and he seemed none to happy that I had questioned the integrity of commercial mushroom harvesters. So this year, cooks started putting up pictures on my facebook club “Pacific Northwest Mycological Club” of their Verpa harvests and saying, “the flavor is like a morel” and I thought, “I’m gonna go get me some of them”. And so I did.

We (Leona and I) found them growing under some cottonwood trees near the Columbia River, amongst a tangle of Himalayan Blackberry. As so often happens with these things, all the easy- to- get- to ones trailside had already been gone over by a very thorough individual with a sharp knife. Of course it was pouring and I was in flip- flops, my boots having previously gotten thoroughly soaked.

Prudence advises us to try new mushrooms with caution, whether or not they have a reputation. David Arora advises us to always cook all members of Morchellaceae. So I did. I split it down the middle lengthwise and cooked it in a cast iron skillet over a high flame. A little oil to prevent sticking and a little salt to move things along. This is true of most cookery and most mushroom cookery, salt at the beginning of the process, this draws out the water which is necessary for the vegetable to really begin cooking. The mushroom first turns flaccid, this is not a sign to stop cooking, one must be brave and forge ahead. When the mushroom has released moist of it’s excess water, which takes a while as it is between 80 and 90% water, then it will begin to brown. Many people tell me about how they don’t like this or that mushroom because it “tastes like slugs” or is “too slimy”, as if they alone do not enjoy the consistency of raw gastropod. The rest of us just relish it. The problem is in the cookery. It is not a young snap pea, nor a stalk of asparagus. The fungi are more closely related to meat, both in flavor and tissue makeup, than they are to tender spring vegetables. Sure, a Porcini may be consumed raw, as may a meadow mushroom, Agaricus campestris but Cantherellus, Hydnum (hedgehog), Pleurotus (oyster), Verpa are best hammered as they say in the professional kitchen.

The next evening I roasted them with garlic (garlic added at the end of the process) and served them forth with our usual salad: curly endives tossed in garlic/anchovy/red wine vinaigrette and dusted with a generous blizzard of parmigiano. This was good. The next evening however, grilled next to a simply seasoned fryer, was not so good. Robin was over too and no one finished their mushrooms, they tasted… spoiled. Like decay. So, my recommendation is to eat your Verpas fresh.

This concludes my tirade on mushroom cookery. If you would like to know more I suugest reading Angelo Pellegrini’s epilogue to the 1970’s edition of The Savory Wild Mushroom. Especially the part where he rages that “the mushroom hunter rises at dawn and wears his shirt inside out. To ask why is to ask why fire burns.” That part always cracks me up.

And if you have some constructive criticism, I’d love to hear it. If you want to talk shit on the internet under an assumed name, tell me where we can meet, it’ll be like an online date. And you can talk shit to my face.

Where critics fear to tread

I hate going out to dinner in this town. Rarely am I surprised or even incredibly impressed. More often than not, I get let down. I had a rule for a while wherein there were only about six “fancy” restaurants that we were allowed to eat at. I won’t mention what they were.

But then one of them let me down terribly. I had taken a bunch of cooks there for dinner and everything was sub-par, but I gave it another chance. This time I wasn’t with restaurant people and that was, in some ways, worse. Worse because they weren’t tasting the mistakes and foibles of execution and recognizing exactly what went wrong where, they were simply underwhelmed. Especially because the chef in question has gotten so much press. I think Food and Wine called him, “The Prince of Modern Gastronomy” and the New York Times raved, “The Prometheus of Portland”. I think they overstated the case.

To be perfectly fair I had only eaten at Le Pigeon once before and the food was good. The atmosphere was good too. So it really had no place in my little canon. But I really believed in the place for its seeming lack of pretension and its willingness to experiment. We had a linguine with pickled pig’s ears and I appreciated the playfulness. This time the menu seemed a little more straightforward, but there were some things that grabbed my attention.

So we started with a grilled romaine salad with salt cod, pine nuts and sherry vinegar marinated red onions. This would have been great, the lettuce was nicely grilled, the pine nuts well toasted, the onions sweet and tart (although I didn’t really get the sherry, maybe too much sugar?), and the salt cod nonexistent. I literally don’t think there was any salt cod. But there were other things on the table and I got too caught up in the moment to think to send it back. Who needs salt cod when you have sweetbreads and lamb trio?

The sweetbreads were great. Fried crisp and served up with quartered, slightly sauteéd grapes, some pancetta, a little friseé and red onion salad and some nice big slices of Oregon black truffle. I only wished it were bigger. But good critics don’t complain about portion sizes, so I won’t here either. I just miss the way it was in Donostia in Spain, where sweetbreads came sliced thin, fried crisp, and piled high on a grease-paper lined basket with lemon and aioli. That’s living.

The lamb was where things really started to go downhill for me. The dish was advertised as ribs, belly and tongue. The ribs were dry and over-salted, not to mention bland. The belly came in the form of rillete, which was also over-seasoned yet bland, not to mention fatty even by the standards of belly rillete. And the tongue, which drew my eye to the dish in the first place, failed to satisfy not only on the above scores (bland, salty,) but also by virtue of it’s long experience as a disembodied organ. Offal can be cured or pickled and be great, this was neither. Maybe somebody forgot the pink salt.

For dinner I got braised pork (shoulder, jowl?) served atop a mound of excellent polenta, coated with sauce naturelle and covered with a nice flurry of Parmegiano. The pork was burnt. Not over-carmelized. It wasn’t just the fond. The meat itself was bitter as a coffee bean with that aroma that comes if you’ve ever tried to toast a tortilla on an electric burner. I couldn’t finish it, and I was hungry. So I moved over to Leona’s plate, rabbit with English peas, pancetta and Raclette.

This one was pretty good. The peas were delicious. Who doesn’t like Raclette? Pancetta is a food group in my house (or it would be if anybody in this town would proffer a decent log, besides Todd, who doesn’t make enough). The rabbit itself was a little, je ne sais quoi; plain, dry? But after my encounter with the pork, Leona was lucky I left the bones. Sauce would have helped this one, the Raclette was unfortunately just a semi-melted chunk in the bottom of the earthenware dish. But the aesthetic was true, a rustic ensemble of simple, hearty lapin garni.

We had some great wines including a Refosco from Vigne de Zamo, 2006 I think. The price, $40.00, not too bad. This one was a little dense and chewy but still with those nice refined Italian tannins that make it go so well with food or, for that matter, drunken revelry.

I don’t want to say that I don’t recommend this restaurant. The atmosphere is nice, the prices right, and the food playful and sometimes spot on. I just hate having my expectations shattered. It was probably just an off night. But I figure, if you got your picture on the cover of Food and Wine, the food should blow little-old-me away on a balls-to-the-wall shit night with no dishwasher and a new pantry cook.

Mycorrhizae and the Vegetable Garden

In the late 19th century, the german forester A.B. Frank described the relationship between fungi, specifically truffles, and the trees that they associate with. The work was undertaken in the hopes that truffles could be cultivated and the Germans could live happily ever after, knee- deep in truffles. Although things did not work out this way as so often happens, the story has come full circle, back to food.
Most seed –bearing plants in the wild, and quite a few of the sporulating type, satisfy at least some of their nutrient needs through mycorrhizal relationships. The “fungus root” is, for many genera, absolutely essential to normal growth and development. All of which comes as no surprise to OMS members. Our hobby depends largely on the fact that trees depend on fungus, and that fungus produces large, beautiful and delicious mushrooms for us to admire, collect and eat. Tuberales, Boletus, Cantherellus, Tricholoma, Russulas and Lactarius are all woodland mushrooms that exist primarily for their association with the “higher” plant life (i.e. trees). As it turns out, our vegetable plants also rely on fungal relationships to thrive.
These fungi live their entire lives underground and do not produce large fruit bodies themselves. They cannot even live without a plant host, yet they are not parasitic. They are the Arbuscular Mycorrhizae and they can go a long way towards maximizing your organic garden’s production of strong roots and lush foliage.
Arbucular mycorrhizae are endomycorrhizae meaning that they interface inside of the plants root inside its cells in contrast with the ectomycorrhizae, also known as sheathing mycorrhiza, which commonly associate with trees and do their business through the cell walls. Arbuscular approximately means “little tree”, so named because of the form the fungus takes inside the root cell approximates a silver maple.
The relationship is, as the kids say, complicated. At it’s most basic however the plant gives up a portion of photosynthesized carbohydrates in return for nitrogen, phosphorous, certain trace minerals, protection from certain toxic substances such as some heavy metals, and more water than it would be able to absorb otherwise, which renders the plant more drought resistant. The fungus is able to provide these benefits by increasing the surface area and reach of the plant’s root system and, by virtue of its unique fungal metabolism, make phosphorous, normally a “pathchy”, insoluble and inaccessible nutrient, available to the plant. Mycorrhizal fungus has also been found to be the source of glomalin, an as yet little understood exudate that holds soil together and therefore contributes to its tilth, an inexact description of a soil’s texture.
Mycorrhizal inoculation is possibly best utilized by the home gardener in an “organic” system. Studies have shown that “slow release” of nitrogen and modest application of rock phosphorous is preferable for cultivation of relationships between plants and fungi, presumably because the plant is “encouraged” to form the relationship in order to get what it needs. In field-  trials of habitat restoration performed by Tim Meikle and Michael Amaranthus this type of fertilization regime boosted colonization rates from a 0- 20% range to a 16-  20% range. Outplanting success, measured by seedling survival rates was increased from a maximum of 60% for seedlings under “traditional fertigation” to a minimum of 65% in the heavily inoculated seedlings under the “alternative fertilization” regime. Compost and seed meal are examples of amendments which release nitrogen slowly as they degrade. Conventional fertilizers generally provide nutrients in a highly soluble form that plants can readily utilize without a mycorrhizal intermediary.
Commercial mycorrhizal innoculant comes in various forms and preparations.  Straight spore preparations are the most common and most highly recommended as they are highly shelf-stable and most versatile. A powder form can be dusted on seeds when starting, mixed with water for a drench, used as a side dressing, mixed into potting soil or starting mix, used as a root dip, or mixed into soil when transplanting or outplanting. Soils or composts containing mycelia or spores are not recommended, not only for their high cost but also their lack of versatility and possible problems concerning the viability of the inoculant.
Perrenial plants, once inoculated, will continue to be colonized by the fungus season after season. An annual garden bed that is only lightly or not at all tilled will possibly continue to harbor spores and mycelium year after year although heavier colonization rates could probably be achieved by freshly inoculating each seasons annual vegetables. A long established, organically maintained and untilled or lightly tilled garden bed will likely already have a diverse and healthy population of mycorrhizal fungus and benefits from additional inputs may be less dramatic. However inoculation is not a binary relationship, there is a matter of degree of root colonization, which I suspect is especially true when short- season annual crops are concerned.
Although the research on arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus is less than absolutely definitive and the science is still relatively young, most of the available evidence points toward a clear- cut plant benefit from these relationships. Soil degradation through physical disturbance, contamination, erosion, over- fertilization and imprudent application of agricultural chemicals is a reality not only in agricultural settings but in our home gardens as well. Many sites could probably benefit from a deliberate bolstering of the below- ground fungal populations.


These are my peat and fiber pots where I have inoculated the seeds with Fungi Perfecti’s “Mycogrow for vegetables” the white strands are mycelia, the body of the fungus.

Salt and Wild Greens

Nettles are trendy. A bag weighing less than a pound costs about $4 at the farmers’ market. And they’re a dirty roadside weed. It takes maybe 5 minutes to pick a pound, less probably for a “professional” nettle forager, they’re common as grass, and you don’t even have to leave the city limits to find a patch. Yet people gladly line up at the farmers’ market and pay good money for them. But why pick on the farmers’ market? Those people sell a necessity. Nettles are also marketed in pill form, and people buy dried powdered weeds in softgel caplets.

Weeds are trendy. New Seasons and other high-end groceries market dandelion greens. I can think of little more useless than the twist tie that holds together a bunch of dandelion greens. Not to mention the agricultural space expended to grow dandelions. Here in my house, we eat dandelions. Prepared in the manner of my German forbears, tossed with hot bacon fat, apple cider vinegar, sugar, onions and salt. Despite the bacon, they still need a little salt.

We don’t buy them, we pull them out of the garden so as to make room for cultivated plants that, truth be told, are considerably more delicious. As you can well imagine, we don’t buy our nettles either. Those, we make into soup. Leona wants us to put them to other, more imaginative, uses but I only like them as soup. A gratin might work, and my brother makes nettle pesto which, as he has informed me, is called pesto d’ortica and is an Italian classic and is delicious. But, as an American, soup is what you’re supposed to make with them. Apparently, a soup of nettles is a traditional spring restorative, the winter having been relatively free of fresh vegetables and nettles being one of the very first plants to brave the lasts frosts of spring. They are also incredibly nutritious. The sting of nettles is supposed to have evolved because the plant is so nutrient dense, without it, foraging animals would have foraged it away long ago.

The way to make nettle soup is to bring a quantity of heavily salted water to the boil and blanch the greens in it. Heavily means like seawater or brine. Almost too salty to like. After blanching they lose their sting. Sauteé some onions (a lot, always a lot of onions) and some garlic with a few bay leaves in a heavy pot until they’re done then add the blanched nettles and sauteé them too. Sauteé it until it looks good enough to eat all by itself, then add chicken stock. The stock should of course be homemade and good, if it’s not, you’re on your own. Add a dash of  cayenne, not enough to make it spicy, this isn’t Indian food, just enough to add the fruit. Simmer this mess briefly, maybe twenty minutes, then pureé with an immersion blender if at all possible. Lacking an immersion blender, immediately postpone dinner while you run to sur la table to purchase one. Season the soup with salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve forth with finely sliced chives and, if you like, a dollop of creme fraîche. If, after all the trouble you’ve gone through making stock and picking nettles, you purchase creme fraîche, you will be very disappointed in yourself, and I will share in your disapointment.

the soup, prior to immersion blending.

the soup, prior to immersion blending.

Claytonia siberica is another good weed. Maybe it’s the best weed. Occasionally it can be found at fancy restaurants in our area as a garnish or a little side salad. It’s also known as miner’s lettuce and is sweet and succulent. It’ll probably be at New Seasons pretty soon. I dress it lightly with vinaigrette of white wine vinegar and/or lemon, much more destroys its subtle tenderness. And I salt them. Of course they get salted.

Salt and wild vegetables are as inseparable to cuisine sauvage as balsamic vinegar is to the mesclun at the table of the yuppie neophyte. Salt tames the weediness. It extracts the muddiness. According to my brother, even Pacific Northwestern fiddleheads are edible if they’re blanched in properly salted water. To me, they taste of the swampy mud they rise from.

To the professional, this comes as no surprise. Restaurant kitchens go through enormous quantities of salt. Green vegetables need salt and lots of it. Pasta needs salt. Potatoes need salt. Meat, Fish, Poultry, Butter, Mushrooms need salt. Many food writers, the type that write for the food day weekly section in the newspaper, like to point to the importance of salt in whatever little class of food they’ve been assigned to that week, “Most people are afraid of cooking fish, but fish just needs a little salt and a lot of love”, or equivalent drivel. But this is different. Wild greens are almost completely unpalatable without sufficient salt. Not not just salt at any time, salt at the right time. If your nettle blanching water is under-seasoned, you will never rid your soup of the flavors of dirt and weeds. Likewise, dandelions need previously salted meat, then a little more to be delicious.

Don’t buy weeds, frugality is trendy. Save your money for salt, whose virtues are timeless.

Claytonia siberica

Claytonia siberica