(Not) the Coolest

 

Am I not that fun? Am I just a debbie :-( because the idea of a cooler with an integrated stereo, charging station, and blender doesn’t sound that cool? Because my idea of a fun cooler is one that keeps food cold, with ice, for a really long time? You know what I think would be super fun? Quality hinges! A stainless compression latch! A lid gasket! Durable construction! Not running to the store 36 hours into the camping trip because the ice all melted! Not hearing a goddamn sorority party at the campground! The sounds of birds and running water, rather than Skrillex shrieking from someone’s shitty itunes lineup! Cold beer and a whiskey on ice, rather than a fake-ass margarita made with sour mix, blue caracao, Coach perfume, and a little acetone.

I can’t even keep my stereotypes straight with this fucking thing. Who does it appeal to? Sorority sisters or tech-brofessionals? Besides gender (and having a job), is there even a difference between those?

Margaritas. I think maybe the way you make (or take) a margarita is the difference. So tech-brofessionals, feel free to repurpose that blender motor as a percussion instrument when you get all buzzed up on Hoptimus Prime double IPAs (and shaken Partida margaritas, por supuesto) and decide to pretend you’re actually up there on stage with Skrillex like a backup DJ. Only you’re actually just having a tailgate party in the Subie in the parking lot, after the soccer game.

Here, play these both at the same time:

 

 

You know, that actually sounds pretty cool. Maybe this won’t be so bad.

Shrimplike

 

20140823_220053

Russula xerampelina, “the shrimp mushroom,” is a plump, brittle fruit with a viscid cap whose color variation is captured by the species’ poetic surname which means, “the color of dried vine leaves.” Rosy, to red-brown, to just plain brown, its gills are white, and its stem often (but not always!) has a telltale “blush” of pink.

Its flavor is indeed, if one is suggestible and strains their imagination, a little shellfishy. But the common epithet is typically thought to refer to the aroma: shrimplike. As it matures and raises its pileus to expose it’s lamellae, that aroma becomes detectable and finally penetrating. But by then it’s too late.

A similar-looking poisonous species, R. emetica, and the mere fact that it is gilled, deters novices. But that aroma, combined with the sweet and mild, rather than painfully radishy and acrid, flavor are the sure and faithful qualities that set them apart. Yes, it really does come down to aroma and flavor.

“Should I really put something in my mouth whose name means ‘the sickener’ in order to discern the edible from the poisonous, gangster?”

It depends on your level of commitment, doesn’t it? Do you want to be a perpetual dilletante, always nibbling around the edges, but in the end just fodder for the hoard of heavily-armed outcasts and survivalists who will surely seize control of the industrial food supply when our foreign policy fiascos and internal political and tribal strife result in an eternal river of poor leadership complemented by general civil unrest? Or do you want to be an intimate of the sauvage banquet?

Michael Kuo, a mycologist who maintains the mushroom identification site mushroomexpert.com, wrote, in 2005, a little diatribe where he insists that the scent of R. xerampelina is not at all crustacean, but vaginal.  Because men have been responsible for so much of the mycological taxonomy that we still use today, Kuo argues, “spermatic” eventually became an acceptable olfactory descriptor, while “vaginal” is still not. Then he goes on to ask: what does sperm smell like anyway?

Do some mushrooms indeed smell like sperm, or is that just wishful thinking? Losing myself in reflection, a memory surfaces: a wastebasket filled with wads of facial, bath, whatever tissue, and a gray scent, the scent of decaying fungus. Adolescence. Before we gained the privacy and good sense to flush those things. So perhaps semen smells vaguely fungal, and not the other way around.

Kuo admits, however, that we not only have the genus Phallus, which is indeed disgustingly phallic, but the species Amanita vaginata which, like most amanitas, does indeed emerge from a protective sheath. Perhaps not coincidentally, Amanita vaginata is commonly known (to get really off-topic) as the “grisette.” In 18th and 19th century France and England, the word referred to a coquettish, working-class woman with intellectual aspirations. Grisettes traded on their charms, physical and intellectual, to gain access to the Bohemian intelligentsia. The fungal fruit that gracefully emerges from a cocoon-like volva is brown to grey, slender for the genus, and strikingly poised. It is the most conspicuous edible of a genus that includes several lethally poisonous (and equally, if more strikingly, beautiful) species.

Back to the subject at hand: If we agree with Kuo about the aroma, what do we do with this vaginal-smelling mushroom? The preeminent expert for West coast mycological taxonomy, David Arora begins thus: “edible and unforgettable–it is one of the least appreciated of our edible fungi…. The young, nutty caps are caps are superb stuffed with grated cheese, chives, walnuts, and parsley and then broiled.” The irrepressible mycophile goes on to exclaim that, unlike their brethren, “they are rarely riddled with maggots!” I would have loved to go all-in with the xerampelina like that, but until now I’d only ever encountered one or two at an outing which hadn’t been host to a writhing mass of diptera grubs (which insect family has the longest phallus, in relation to body size, of any animal). Those I’d always mixed in with the others, the boletus, the cantharellus, sulfureum, pleurotus, armillaria, the mushrooms for commoners—not to be confused with the common mushrooms—in some ramshackle melange: risotto, burritos, spaghetti con funghi. I didn’t yet know about xerampelina‘s singularity, it’s subtle sophistication. It’s popularity with the the diptera flies should have been all the recommendation I needed, but they’re flies.

So basically my wife didn’t trust them (me) enough to allow me to serve them as the main feast, as I (we) now feel they so richly deserve. She didn’t know that I’d been feeding them to her all along in small quantities all along, combined with the more familiar species. But I wonder: how long must one go on not sickening (or killing) someone before they trust you without question, unhesitatingly, absolument? How long before we can eat a grisette, in other words?  I don’t know, but I started with some ham and xerampelina crepes:

I made some chestnut crepes with this recipe that is accredited to Martha Stewart, and we”ll just leave that here:

1 1/2 C sifted chestnut flour
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/4 C milk
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Mix the first four ingredients in the order listed. Whisk in one tablespoon melted butter. The rest of the butter is to grease the pan a little before each crepe. Or you could just do what I did: put all the butter into the batter, grease the pan before your first crepe, and be done with it. I will say that this recipe is a little unsatisfactory, as it’s really for desert crepes. I’d like a more floury, less eggy crepe next time.

Then I made mornay sauce. Recipes are so fucking boring. Here’s a recipe written by dear old Craig Claiborne, probably taught to him by Pierre Franey. So, like Pierre, we use gruyere instead of cheddar (and this recipe makes about twice as much as I did).

I sliced the mushrooms and sauteed them in butter, with a sprinkle of salt and some thinly julienned red chilies. Chilies with mushrooms is, I think, an Oregon thing. Witness the treatment of mushrooms at so many classic Oregon establishments—Higgins, Joel Palmer House, Columbian Cafe…

Then I put the mushrooms into the mornay:

 

Shrimp Mushroom Mornay

Shrimp mushroom Mornay

The rest is self explanatory:20140825_19280620140825_192418 20140825_192427 20140825_194241

 

The dabbling of mornay over the top is to keep them moist while they bake, uncovered, at 450F until the ends brown a bit and they are heated through, 15-20 minutes.

 

 

Oursin, continued

DPSCamera_0315In fact, Jean brought us a case of wine, vegetables from his garden, and possibly some steaks. I made us all dinner on the patio and I don’t remember what all it included, but it did include a big salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, which Jean refused to eat. He didn’t eat salad.

We learned that he hunted boar and raised vegetables and grapes, and his family made wine. He was vehemently anti-money. “Here we don’t need money; we already have everything we need,” as he liked to say. He apparently lived in the US for a stretch, as a professor I think Doug said, and his opinion of it was summed thusly: “In the United States people always ask: ‘what do you do for a living’ and I think, what kind of a question is that? But I say, ‘I breathe, that’s what I do for a living.'”

He showed us where the hidden beach was, through the forest behind the little resort, and we found even more wandering around on our own. Corsica is full of tiny little beaches, and every one is different: one was in a little bay and had coarse tan sand like small pebbles. One was rocky and wooded practically up to the shoreline. One had white sand that cattle slept upon. But the best beach of all was long and broad and white, and the water was safe to swim in. Near this beach was where the oursin were found.DPSCamera_0294

Jean kept telling us about the oursin, and we kept asking, until one day he came by with the supplies: a bag of baguettes, some bottles of his family’s rosé, a couple of rib steaks, a rubber bucket, another bucket with a clear bottom, and a three-tined hook at the end of a long wooden handle. We walked from the little resort down a rutted dirt road toward the “secret” beach. It just so happened that a bunch of young German tourists, who had recently (and annoyingly) arrived in a bus, were also walking down the road to the beach (not such a secret anymore). We hung back to let them all pass, and Jean swung his fork at their backs and cursed and muttered under his breath, something like: “you stay the fuck away from my fucking spot!”

We took a little trail off to the side of the road which led steeply through a scrubby forest to a little clearing where a grate rested on a fire ring of small boulders. Just a few steps from here was a little cove where the water was relatively calm, and perfectly clear. Standing at the edge it dropped off immediately to two or three feet. The bottom was covered with spiny urchins stuck to the innumerable small boulders strewn across the bottom.

DPSCamera_0297Jean took his shoes and camo off, put on a wetsuit, and waded out with the clear bottom bucket, the other bucket, and the hook. It looked easy. He just looked through the bucket and used the hook to scoop the oursin from the rocks before plopping them into the other bucket. After he scooped a few, I wanted try it. So I waded out in my sneakers and Jean handed over the tools. I located an urchin, took a step toward it, and slipped on the rock underfoot. My sneaker followed the incline till it met the adjacent rock, and the urchin stuck to its side.

“Give me that back. You have to be careful!,” Jean scolded me, and he shooed me out of the water.

Back to the shore I limped, defeated. I pulled off my shoe, and there were about a half dozen spines stuck, fortunately, in the callous on the side of my foot, just behind my big toe. Jean finished up and came back with a haul that makes the little uni plate at the sushi restaurant look downright mean-spirited.

DPSCamera_0300“You have to take those out of there, or it will get” he searched for the word, “infected.”

I got most of them out, but the others were just stuck. Jean eventually changed his mind and said it would probably be fine and sent us to gather some wood for the grill. Soon we had a little blaze of tinder going.

“You’re the chef, right?” Jean asked me.

DPSCamera_0305

“Yeah, I can cook.”

“Cook these steaks then.”

“You have any salt?” I asked.

“How could I forget the salt?,” Jean opined.

“That’s okay, we can just splash some wine on ’em.”

“Maybe that will be good,” Jean agreed hopefully.

DPSCamera_0306In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t just dip them in the sea a couple of times. Still, they were pretty good: French beef, cooked rare over Corsican brush, splashed with a little acidic rosé.

Meanwhile, Jean took a pair of garden shears and started lopping the tops off the oursin. He didn’t use a glove either. When he had  opened a few he showed us: tear off a piece of baguette, take an oursin in hand, and scoop the insides. Shove the whole thing in your mouth.

The inside of an oursin plucked straight from the sea is not just the bright orange dollop you get on top of a sushi roll; it’s a bunch of that stuff (gonads—would that our gonads were such a large part of our bodies!) sauced with a liquid slightly thicker than seawater flecked with green confetti. My experience in restaurants had been that you rinse all that gross shit out of there and eat the sweet orange meat. So I started to do that.

“What are you doing?,” Tonton Jean asked.

“I don’t like the green stuff,” I said.

 

DPSCamera_0303

Tonton Jean scooped his urchin, held up the chunk of dripping baguette, and said, “salad, Mike,” before stuffing it in his face. So I started eating them that way too. It was fine so long as you took a drink of rosé directly after.

After we ate and drank all the steak and wine, as much oursin as we could hold, with just enough baguette to scoop, sitting on the rocks, in that spot of  tree shade protecting us from the fierce Mediterranean sun, everyone felt very tired. Jean succumbed to that early-rising hunter’s instinct, put his hat over his face, his sweater next to a tree trunk, and laid down to nap. The rest of us were still too excited by the vitality of the experience. We sat and watched that cool blue water ripple over the beds of purple oursin, speechless with beauty.

Oursin

20140709_111530

Flip Flops purchased in Ajaccio, France for appr. 7 euro, in 2006.

I have long been under the impression that Facebook is a nothing more than a thinly disguised way to waste time. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. We all need ways to waste time.

But I’m not just wasting time; I’m actually honing my status update to a razor’s edge. Facebook isn’t all dictatorial like Twitter, but people don’t want to read a manifesto on there. People want brevity, concision, acronyms. And just the other day (like three months ago) it finally paid off.

I follow (or like, or whatever the fuck) Saveur magazine, and they shared a contest being held by Lonely Planet’s social media czars— Share a story, in 50 words or less, about your most memorable culinary travel experience. So I wrote:

In Corsica we hooked purple sea urchins from crystal water and, sitting in the shade of the scrubby shore pines, lopped off their tops. We scooped their buttery, briny flesh with chunks of baguette and washed it down with Tanto Jean’s rose. Then we slept on the sand.

And, despite the fact that I don’t know how to spell “tonton” (a term of endearment that nominally means “uncle”), I won an autographed copy of Fork in the Road, a collection of  short travel narratives written by some famous food writers, edited by James Oseland of Saveur magazine, and published by Lonely Planet. Gael Greene signed it, other than that I cannot discern.

I considered reviewing the book here, but I sent a pitch off to Saveur some weeks ago and I’m sure they’re busily poring over this blog right now, hungry for my every word, and that review might dampen my chances of being immortalized in their pages (Thanks for the book guys!). But how we came to be eating oursin on that beach involved a stroke of luck so singular and improbable that it seems, in retrospect, like it may not have actually happened.

Years ago, while we were getting to know Europe, our good friend Doug, through whom we first met, was getting to know his Corsican roots. So he picked us up from the ferry in Ajaccio in a rented Peugeot. We drove the Peugeot around the island for a couple of days, and Doug accidentally filled the diesel car with gasoline, stranding us for a night as we waited for a mechanic to come on duty who could drain the tank. When we finally got the car back to the rental agency, Tonton Jean razzed Doug for “putting water in the car,” then harassed the rental agency to refund the portion of Doug’s money that they charged for the late return. At first they refused, but Tonton Jean, cursing and seething, said some things in French that apparently led them to reconsider.

He drove a little Citroen truckette, which is kind of a cross between a pickup truck and a van. There are no seats in the low-clearance bed, like in a pickup truck, but the canopy is integral to the body, and the bed and cab are contiguous, as in a van. Leona sat in the passenger seat, while Doug and I sat in back, atop the wheel wells.

“So, I think these guys wanted to go camping,” Doug started. Indeed, we had been trudging an overabundance of largely useless camping gear across over-civilized Europe. Corsica, we saw, had deep forests, inaccessible mountains and ravines, and wide swaths of semi-desert coast.

“Camping,” Jean said, as if he were just turning the word over in his mind.

“Yeah, I think they were hoping you might know of someplace.”

Jean pulled a pack of Marlboro full flavored’s from his shirt pocket, put one in his mouth, and offered one to Leona.

“Smoke?”

She accepted, smiling.

“We smoke. These guys,” Jean tilted his chin toward the back, “they don’t smoke.”

Then they both laughed.

So we just sat as Jean drove through Sartene, where he lived, then back out onto roads wending through forests, up and down hills. We weren’t actually ready to camp at that very moment. We didn’t even have any toilet paper. A parking lot improbably appeared in the wilderness. How very European!

“Camping?”

“Yes, camping,” we dumbly nodded, bewildered, and maybe a little frightened. The Corse are known for their fierce determination to protect their island’s character from foreign uglification, and this guy wears camo daily. He’s old and slender, but grizzled and tough as the Corsican boars he apparently hunted in his ample free time. I was pretty ridiculous with my oversize backpack and cheap flip flops. From the parking lot all we could see was a brick wall, partially obscured by trees and brush.

He led us down a narrow concrete path behind the building, then took a left down a path toward the front. We stepped out onto a large terra cotta patio, and took in a view of the forested hills rolling down to the turquoise sea maybe a mile away, and a little terra cotta fireplace in the wall to one side of the patio. Jean pulled out a key.

“Camping,” he announced, before leading us into the sliding glass entrance, startling a cleaning lady. He showed us the kitchen and two bedrooms, one on the main floor and a larger one upstairs.

Still bewildered, Leona started, “We can’t afford this….”

“You don’t need money. This guy owes me a favor,” was Jean’s first lesson for us.

We did need food. We mentioned this to him, and he seemed not to have noticed.

So after we unburdened ourselves, we piled back into the Citroen and headed down toward the sea. Just around the bend we came to a little vacation town. It was the off season, so most things were closed, but Jean pulled up to a little restaurant that was still open. We got a pizza and some wine. Jean ordered Pastis, which he seemed to live on. Another day, I asked him if he ever drank water, and he pointed to the little water decanter served with the Pastis, for mixing. We got another bottle of wine to take back with us. We tried to pay, but the proprietor threw his hands up, and took a step back. Jean urged us to put it away, and not offer anymore.

Heading back in the clear, coastal twilight, Jean explained that around here, favors were currency, as they placed demands on the receiver.

“But tomorrow, we’ll show him. I’ll bring a whole case of wine!”

To be continued…

Mushroom snobbery

basket of fungus

This is a basket of choice mushrooms, matsutake in center.

Every time I go out to pick mushrooms anymore, I see fewer and fewer mushrooms and more and more Subaru wagons, Volkwagens, Priuses and, occasionally, old beat-up Toyotas tucked away at random little pullouts in the woods. What all these vehicles have in common is that they would not typically be driven by the firearm owning public. I sometimes see people getting into those cars with bags and buckets. This past fall was like some kind of goddamn petit bourgeois scavenger hunt up on Larch Mountain. My little hobby has gotten so popular that I even overheard some people in sports attire talking about it at a wine event back in August. This year was a particularly bad mushroom year due to lack of rain, then came the cavalcade of yuppies-come-lately with Shun’s Bob Kramer line mushroom knives, North Face mushroom sacks, and golden retrievers in Arcteryx doggy jackets (just kidding, but they’ll probably be out next year) to scrape every last bit of fungal life from the dry, crusted Earth. Who even wants to get out of the car when you’ll soon be rubbing elbows with Bob, the VP of social networking from the startup Techitty Tech Solutions Inc.? I’d say, “You know what Bob, I think I’ll go look for Shaggy Manes near Dignity Village.”

But a Gangster doesn’t just bitch and whine when life hands him the mycological equivalent of lemons. A gangster bones up on his mushrooms. As a matter of fact, I’ve been boning up on mushrooms for years now in the expectation that foraging would come exactly to this point, the point where I have to compete with “breathable fabrics” and “trekking poles” and “trail runners” (oh haha, it turns out that I have a really fancy Outdoor Research raincoat. Thanks wife!) And while I still would rather find a pound of Matsutakes (Tricholoma magnivelare) than two pounds of Pine Spikes (Chroogomphus tomentosus), I’ve found that Pine Spikes are pretty damn tasty nonetheless. They’re slightly tart, almost Rhubarby. The texture is so-so, but my hippy (pretty near yuppie) neighbor thinks that Chanterelles have gross texture. Here’s a fucking clue: you have to cook ’em for a little while guy! The best part is, Pine Spikes are all over the place and nobody picks them. The reason being that, it’s not as distinctive-looking as a Chanterelle or a Porcini or a Morel. They look kind of like other mushrooms, kind of like a Chanterelle, so one actually needs to know something about identifying mushrooms to ensure that they aren’t eating a poisonous member of the Paxillus genus. They are totally disparaged by the mushrooming community at large, and are primarily collected by recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and, according to David Aurora, people with large families to feed. And the thing is, there’s all kinds of delicious mushrooms that are totally overlooked by most foragers.


Another overlooked mushroom that I enjoyed this year was the Honey Mushroom(Armillaria Mellea). We were out on Larch Mountain looking for our chestnuts, but as usual the Asian ladies got there first leaving only the scrapings. The Asian ladies (along with the Eastern European families) are to foraging what Americans are to subsidized agricultural exports, they fucking rule it. So I expect to be beaten by them. Anyway, I was traipsing about some particularly dark and dank piece of private property looking for what the Asian ladies had left in the brush and I came across a nice little patch of what I immediately recognized as Honey Mushrooms. They’re really a little difficult to know for sure because, as David Aurora informs us, it’s not a species per se, it’s a group.

There are lots of little tricks to differentiating them from other mushrooms, but the best little trick is just to know the mushroom by observing it. I don’t mean that you should go into the woods, find what you think is the right mushroom and stare at it until you feel like you know it.  If that is your idea of “knowing” something, you should stick to the supermarket. Honey mushrooms get lots of bad publicity and I certainly can’t understand why. They’re really quite delicious. I read one prominent forager-blogger describing it as slimy and speaking of its filé-like thickening power. I had to think: “I’m pretty sure you had the wrong mushroom, you’re lucky you’re not dead yet, forager guy.” My opinion was reinforced with his description of how he used a dichotomous key to identify his specimen (a description that was way off base). Here’s a clue (and these clues really are invaluable little bits of information): Don’t eat a mushroom tThese Beautiful Honey Mushrooms stayed put last year, because my basket was to full of Matsutake.hat you’ve identified only once, through the fucking dichotomous key! Trained biologists have a hard time using those things. The Honey Mushroom, when it is a Honey Mushroom, is really intensely flavored, like an over-reduced beef stock that has that slightly scorched flavor. The texture is typically mushroomy, flabby. The stem is often maligned as being tough, don’t be fooled, the pithy white interior can be torn out like string cheese and used right alongside the caps. It does stand up to long cooking. Ideal with, or in place of, red meats.

I also found, but could not eat, some Fairy Ring mushrooms in my front yard. I’d love to be able to tell you all about them, but my wife threw them away (note from wife:  they were rotting!).

Mushrooms, Maggots and Fusion Cuisine.

Fusion cuisine is ridiculous. I think it’s practitioners think that they’re “transcending cultural barriers” and that “flavors exist without contextual association” which are infuriating pseudo- intellectual sentiments. To be perfectly honest, the gangster doesn’t even know any proponents of fusion cuisine, but he commits crimes of culturally perverse flavor building on an increasingly frequent basis.

I first learned the horrific wrongfulness of interbreeding flavors or ingredients of the cuisines of two or more distinct cultures at the Higgins, which restaurant, paradoxically, taught me that flavors are just flavors. Sambal Oleck was a staple of the house, now it’s a staple in mine. Sambal does what cayenne does, only better. It’s fruitier, less abrasive, and disburses more easily. So, secretly I’m a fusion chef too. The case in point is Cauliflower Mushroom and potato soup. By which I mean Sparassis crispa, the mushroom that vaguely resembles cauliflower, not Brassica oleracea var. botrytis, the genetic mutant of broccoli, mixed up with Agaricus bisporous, the supermarket mushroom, as most internet sources seem to understand.

We found this particular sparassisafter a long wet slog through the thick underbrush of Larch Mountain. It was, like all encounters with this bizarre mushroom, a little surreal. It grows from the base of fir trees, right out of the area where the roots meet the ground, and it can be massive. This particular one was about twice the size of my head.

Leona with cauliflower mushroom

Leona with cauliflower mushroom

I left it in the refrigerator for a week, I have my excuses. I didn’t know that it hosted maggots. I pulled it out to make soup and some pickles and found that the base was home to not quite a swarm, but definitely a family of writhing grubs. So I did what any conscientious fungivore would do; I sliced it up and started picking them out with a paring knife. If you think that’s disgusting you should take a close look at the next piece of predatory fish that you buy at the supermarket, especially tuna. I’m just saying, at least I dig out my parasites before I eat.

Potato cauliflower soup is sort of a classic of mycological cuisine, if that “cuisine” could be said to have “classics”. So normally I would start with some salty cured pork product and render the fat out of that, then sauteé the onions, celery and a little bit of garlic in that, then add wine, then milk and potatoes. The mushrooms, previously blanched, come about 15 minute before the end. Finish with pepper, parsley, a touch of vinegar or a little lemon and serve it up with bread. But this time I forgot about the pork. I started with butter which especially sucked because I had some Armandino Guanciale that I brought back from Seattle.

The soup was lacking. Savoryness. What it lacked was something that I always thought could only be gotten from cured pork or, occasionally, from anchovies. But it was too late now and I was determined to not make a fucking mess out of it after all that. Serendipitously I happened to have a little shot glass on the counter half full of toasted, powdered dried shrimp that I needed for some Malaysian crab nonsense. So, in desperation, I added a little and simmered.  When it had had time to blossom, it tasted more better. So I added a little more. The same as with the cayenne trick, the shrimp didn’t assert itself. There was nothing fishy about it, it was simply more savory, more satisfying. So you see that I am a fusion chef too. Just like all the fusion chefs from the 1990’s who made up pan- asian and Franco- Japanese and Russo- North African and….

So here you go interweb, here is something that you really need, recipes for “cauliflower mushroom” not cauliflower with mushrooms.

Cauliflower mushroom soup:

Maybe 1 big onion, diced

Maybe 2 ribs of celery, also diced

about a clove of garlic, thin sliced

butter

2,3 or 4 bay leaves, as you wish

a little bundle of thyme sprigs

pinch of cayenne or 1/4 t Sambal

1/4 t toasted powdered dried shrimp

white wine (whatever you have, provide it’s not white zinfandel, is, I’m sure, just fine) or white vermouth

a quart of chicken stock

a half pint of cream

4 yellow potatoes, peeled and cubed (not red, they won’t thicken the soup properly)

a goodly chunk, maybe a pound, of dewormed, blanched, bite sized chunks of cauliflower mushrooms

parsley, chives

It’s fairly straightforward: melt the butter in your best pot, sauteé your onion, celery and garlic along with the bay leaf, but do not brown. Add the white wine, the cayenne and the shrimp powder and simmer briefly. Add the stock and the potatoes  and season the soup well with salt (it should taste close to how the finished product will tase) and simmer, add the thyme in about 15 minutes. Add the mushrooms a little before the potatoes are done and when the potatoes are done fish out about a half cup, mash them well, mix them with a little stock and cream and stir them back into the soup. Then add the cream, cook until the soup thickens up nice then add the finely chopped parsley and chives and whatever else the soup needs including, perhaps, a squeeze of lemon or a little vinegar.

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.

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