On Foraging for Friends and Fungi
This winter, when he’s not working, my husband Clay heads out nearly every day to hunt. Sometimes he goes twice a day. We’ve taken the stance in our household — well, honestly, it’s mine, not his or the dog’s — that we’ll try to limit our meat consumption to what we can harvest from the land and water around us. Hence the daily drives into the foothills of the Willamette Valley, searching for the elusive — but only when they want to be — black-tail deer. A few weeks ago we looked for elk, but they didn’t materialize, either. What we did come upon, however, was the even more elusive Sparassis radicata mushroom (Sparassis crispa it’s often called, but that’s the name applied to the variety that grows in eastern North America), commonly known as the cauliflower mushroom. If you asked me, though, I’d just tell you that it’s the egg noodle mushroom. When it really comes down to it, that’s what you’d have to look for in the deep woods. A giant, tangled mess of just-cooked egg noodles that someone left behind.
A few days before, Clay had returned after yet another unsuccessful hunt and entertained me with a tale of a pile of something in the woods that he suspected to be a mushroom. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what he might have seen, and, as I’ve also been less than entertained with tales of other — man-made — detritus found in the same woods, I wasn’t too keen on going to look. But it did sound like a mushroom.
Typically found under or around the conifer trees that are abundant in the Northwest, this mushroom is highly prized for its mild flavor, and the stories of how difficult it is to locate have somewhat mythological proportions. The internet says that if you are lucky enough to find one of these mushrooms, future growth should be preserved by not pulling it out of the ground, and, for your efforts, you may be blessed with another, bigger mushroom the following year. And be sure to mark the date on your calendar so you’ll know when to revisit the spot again.
We climb into the truck and I’m empty-handed, thinking that if I bring a basket it’ll bring us bad luck. I’m convinced someone will have taken the mushroom by now. But Clay insists, saying that it’s too much for us to handle alone. I’m doubtful, but I grab our garden hod and load the dog in the pickup. We hit the valley road to wind our way into the timber territory.
At a nondescript bend in the road Clay pulls the truck over and announces our arrival. Another lightweight truck passes us, out of nowhere. The occupants look at us as they drive past and I think they must wonder about our small family — the father in hunting attire, the mother in the same Meredith College sweats she wears for barn chores every day, and the baby — a dog —running with her nose low to the ground to capture the scents of all the animals that have passed through here.
We find the mushroom without trouble. Its nearly pearlescent whiteness shines from atop the inky leaf-litter on the forest floor and I suddenly think it looks like a bouquet of giant hydrangeas. I’m enchanted by how it just exists there, taking up a foot of Oregon mountain real estate. It doesn’t hurt that it’s just off the trail and we don’t have to work very hard to find it again. Clay hadn’t marked the spot, but I can’t help thinking how lucky we are that someone else didn’t harvest it before us. I immediately believe that it’s edible — it looks like no other mushroom I’ve ever seen — and once I touch its firm folds, I know we have something special to work with. I’m excited to try it! We carefully harvest the mushroom with a knife, slicing through the stem right above the ground, take a few pictures and head back down the hill.
Once home, there’s the matter of cleaning and cooking to attend to. The maze-like folds are notorious for harboring dirt and insects, so I take my time, swirling the broken-off pieces in water to expel anything I don’t want to eat. As luck would have it, though, Clay has to leave town the next day for work. I’m not convinced that I can do justice to the fungus on such short notice with no recipe yet on hand, so I enlist the help of a friend. Her instructions are simple: slice and clean the mushroom, sauté a little garlic in olive oil and toss the mushroom in. Let it cook down a bit, and freeze it until I’m sure of what I want to do with it. So simple. And that’s exactly what I do, except that I have the pleasure of wonderfully flavored oil and liquid left over that I immediately use to flavor butternut squash soup for dinner that night. The rest of the mushroom goes into freezer bags and is labeled according to how I think I’ll use it. Woodier parts are kept for broth and the rest will have to wait for the big dishes I have planned with my new friend Nicci, a chef who happens to know a lot about cooking with mushrooms and who just can’t wait to show me her collection of fungus and foraging cookbooks. On a cold, blustery day when Clay is home again, Nicci, her mother-in-law, and the two labs Jordan and Brandy host me for a cooking afternoon. Oregon does have a knack for providing in the most unexpected ways.
First published February 2015