How to Pick and Cook Wild Mushrooms

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A lot of menus will suggest a mushroom is a mushroom – mushroom pizza, mushroom quesadillas, mushrooms in your omelet. But there's endless varieties of these little guys, and the ones you pick and eat can vary from medicinal to super delicious to downright dangerous.

"There are many different types of mushrooms from culinary to medicinal. Mushroom foraging has become a growing hobby as it does not cost any money; all you need is a basket and a good eye," says Sandra Carter, MPH, Ph.D., founder of Mushroom Matrix. "There are so many mushrooms that can be found growing in the wild and are a great treasure to explore and find while forging for mushrooms. Mushrooms have incredible benefits that can help support a healthy immune system. While many of the medicinal mushrooms you find in the wild would not be considered culinary mushrooms due to their rough or woody exterior they are extraordinary to see growing in the wild," says Carter.


There are thousands of different species of mushrooms and approximately 200 species that have been proven to have medicinal value, says Carter. "When forging for mushrooms you have to be careful of which ones you eat. While there are many edible mushrooms there are also mushrooms that have been proven to be poisonous and even deadly when eaten," says Carter. Many books have been dedicated to helping you discover which mushrooms are which in the wild by looking at their shape, smell and where they are grown. 

Finding your mushrooms
"Mushrooms begin to flourish in October or November on the Mendocino Coast. The first mushrooms are porcinis, also called boletes, that are immediately followed by chanterelles, maitake or hen of the woods, and candy caps (which we use in desserts),” says Jeff Stanford , owner of The Ravens Restaurant at The Stanford Inn by the Sea. "The season progresses through black trumpets, winter chanterelles, hedgehogs and wide variety of other mushrooms – there’s some 3,000 species in Mendocino County!" says Stanford.

When foraging, it is best to go after the first rain, says Stanford, when the mushrooms plump up. Subsequent rains often oversaturate some mushrooms such as golden chanterelles that are plentiful even in North Coast yards. 

Mushroom selection
"Instead of picking mushrooms, cut them close to the ground, attempting to leave the duff, soil, intact. Mushrooms should be firm, not slimy or soggy," says Stanford. When you return to your find to your kitchen, use a clean brush to remove any debris that has been splashed onto them. It is best not to wash them. "We suggest people carry a basket with a dish cloth in it (to protect the mushroom from the surface of the basket), and don't place too many mushrooms in the basket at once. Mushrooms are fragile, and people often forget," says Stanford.

Ripeness
"When looking for the perfect Porcini or King Bolete, chefs prefer to pick smaller mushrooms, as larger ones tend to have more insects. When you hold it you want it to be dry and firm to the touch," says Chef Andrew Cooper from Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe who forages for porcini mushrooms in Santa Fe, both for work and for pleasure." If the mushroom is wet or slimy, it means that there has been too much rain, and maggots or worms may be infesting it. Turn the mushroom upside down to inspect under the cap to see if there are any worm holes," says Cooper.

Cleaning
Don't clean mushrooms until you are ready to cook with them. "The natural dirt helps keep them stable prior to consuming.  Next, make sure that the mushroom you pick is without any holes. Look for similar traits in store bought-versions," says Stanford. Mushrooms in stores tend to be badly handled due to packing etc., so it's important to pick the mushrooms out individually rather than piling a big handful into a bag. Watch out specifically for mushrooms that are dried out or damaged.


Eating
Never eat mushrooms raw. "Their cells walls are made with chitin, which needs to be cooked. Chitin is indigestible for humans and if not broken down by heat we cannot receive the nutritional benefits of the mushroom. In addition, heating breaks down other intrinsic compounds that in high doses are carcinogenic," says Stanford.

A mushroom is mostly water, and part of the flavor exists in that water, making fresh preferable to dried if possible.

Pairing Foods
"Porcini mushrooms are so versatile and can be used in almost any cooking application.  You can slice them raw and put them in salads, sautéed with a little butter and garlic, pureed into soups, pastas, sauces, mushroom Bolognese, ragouts, vegetable medleys, next to steaks, etc.," says Cooper, who also enjoys drying the mushroom to use it for the off season. "Dehydrating this mushroom concentrates the flavors, so in the colder months you can reconstitute them in soups, gravies, stews, stroganoffs and bring that intensity of flavors to life again. Drying porcinis is really easy to do: tie them up and hang them high toward the ceiling with plenty of air to circulate. Within a couple of days, the mushroom will be dried and ready for storage for the winter." 

 

Recipe: Quinoa Tagliatelli  with beet greens, maitake mushrooms, sunflower kernels

"We use Maitake Mushrooms in the Quinoa Tagliatelle for their smokiness.  I like to think of this pasta as sort of vegetarian carbonara as it has a similar flavor experience.  The smokey Maitake fill in for the bacon, and the Parmesan and peppercorn do the rest.  The Maitake here are simply pan roasted.  Its important to get nice golden brown color on these mushrooms.  If they cook at too low a temp and end up steaming they can start to taste like leather!” says chef David Standridge of Café Clover in New York City.

Ingredients  

  • Quinoa Pasta (see below)
  • 2 bunches Beet Greens
  • 2 cup maitake Mushroom
  • ½ cup sunflower seed
  • ¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Fresh cracked black pepper
  • Grated Parmesan
  • Quinoa Pasta
  • 2 cup Organic whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup Cooked Red Quinoa
  • 2 tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ cup water

Directions 

  1. Mix flour and cooked (make sure its cool) Quinoa and place in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle of the pile large enough to fit the eggs and oil.
  2. Add the eggs and evoo and stir together with a wooden spoon slowly combining the flour with the egg mix.  When fully combined add enough water to make a firm dough consistency.
  3. Kneed by hand or in a mixer with the dough hook attachment for 15 minutes.   Let rest overnight. Roll pasta with a pasta machine to desired thickness and cut with into ½” strips. Reserve. Wash Beet greens and cut into ½ strips. Cut maitake mushrooms into bite sized pcs.. Spread sunflower kernels on a sheet tray and toast in the oven at 350F until golden brown. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
  4. In a sauté pan large enough to hold all ingredients heat ¼ Cup of olive oil.
  5. Sauté briefly 1 garlic clove cut in half and then remove. Add mushrooms and sauté until golden brown. Cook pasta in boiling water for 3 minutes or until floating.
  6. Add drained pasta to pan with mushrooms and toss with beet greens.
  7. Place all in a serving bowl and top with grated parmesan, the toasted sunflower seeds and fresh ground black pepper.