Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Circle of Life


Freshly foraged chanterelles
“Christianity has a built-in defense system: anything that questions a belief, no matter how logical the argument is, is the work of Satan by the very fact that it makes you question a belief. It's a very interesting defense mechanism and the only way to get by it -- and believe me, I was raised Southern Baptist -- is to take massive amounts of mushrooms, sit in a field, and just go, 'Show me.'”
Bill Hicks, American Comedian 1961-1994

When I was kid, I would regularly freak out my mother by telling her I wouldn’t have kids – I would just bud. There would be a Mini-Me branching out from one of my appendages and that would be that. No crazy pickle-ice cream binges, no swollen feet, no epidural. And the best part – I wouldn’t need a man. It seemed like the next step in the human evolutionary scale.
            Unfortunately, due to the college biology classes I was forced to endure as a 13-year old (I have an Asian mom), I learned that this was just not going to be biologically possible. And after I met my husband, I decided that sexually reproducing might be a good thing. But after the birth of my daughter, I was really wishing that budding was a reproduction mechanism for humans. It would saved a lot of cursing at the hospital.
            As many of you cooks know, yeasts are fungi. So are the little blue veins in blue cheese. And any penicillin. But for the foraging cook, the fungi you want are mushrooms. As long as there is the circle of life, there will be ‘shrooms.
            While many think that mushrooms are plants, they are not. They have their own kingdom (like plants, animals and protista)[1]. And unlike bacteria, with which they are often confused for, fungi are eukaryotes.[2]  And one more nerd classification point – mushrooms are NOT plants. They share some of the aspects of plants, such as vacuoles and reproduction mechanisms (spores), and food and water systems, such as rhizomorphs (as in rhizomes, such as ginger). But unlike plants that can fix carbon into organic compounds (via photosynthesis) needed for living (carbohydrates, energy, etc.), mushrooms must have their carbon pre-transformed into organic substances.[3]  In other words, mushrooms can’t make their own food (just like us humans).
            This particular fact, the need for pre-fixed carbon is the reason why mushrooms are around dead plants. They are the ur-composters of the living world, secreting enzymes that “digest” matter around them (just like animals do), and extracting nutrients from both living and dead substances. And they can break down substances that many other living things can’t – such as woody material. They also depend upon bacteria and other decomposers (worms, for example) to break down their carbon sources.
            But the one place you will not see mushrooms is in a desert. Mushrooms need damp conditions and certain nutrients to grow, fruit (this is why a dry summer will produce very few mushrooms in the fall) and reproduce. But unlike seeds that have a food source stored within it’s own structure, spores don’t. Thus it must depend upon its immediate environment to grow. Spores will not develop the hyphae and mycelium (the thread-like network of cells) needed to grow and fruit if their conditions are right (wrong soil, too little humidity, etc.)
            For this reason, most mushroom foragers look for particular types of trees and plants in old growth woods when hunting for mushrooms and are always out after a good rain. Some like pines or coniferous areas (Larch Boletus), others like oaks (Hen of the Woods), elms (morels) or deciduous areas. Some are growing on trees and others will be close to the ground. One thing is for certain – you will have to look carefully.
            And this is where we get to the actual mechanics of mushrooming. Like the earlier posts on our “you can eat that” series (click here), the same general rules of foraging apply; but with mushrooms, I would add a couple of other precautions. First, lots of mushrooms are severely toxic, causing mild stomach discomfort at best and death, at worst. If you are not absolutely sure about what you have, then DO NOT EAT IT. It’s not worth your life to eat a false chanterelle and go to the hospital. Second, bring at least 2 different mushroom guides with you, that way you can cross-reference any questionable mushroom. Also, if you have a smart phone, having Internet access is fantastic. You can easily look up several online sources for mushroom identification on the spot.[4] And third, if you can, find an expert forager to go with you the first time around. Most foragers are happy to do so, but mushroomers are a bit secretive – lest their favored foraging spot goes public. But honestly, unless you are looking for truffles (which humans can’t do anyway – dogs and pigs do all the work), it’s doubtful you will find the motherload of mushroom booty. You will probably find a few to start and get better at spotting with time.
            Decay is a good thing. Really. It’s all part of the cycle of life – and in the case of mushrooms, a pretty tasty one at that.

This post is dedicated to Dryden Wode Hull. May you rest in peace.

Pasta with Fresh Chanterelles

Right now, it’s the season for chanterelles or Cantharellus cibarius. Where I am in Europe, they are often found in deciduous forests that are heavy with beech trees. You can usually find them at the base roots or the vicinity of the tree (they are symbionts). They will have a warm yellow appearance and no true gills. If you open one up, the interior should be white. There are two mushrooms that might be confused with a true chanterelle. “False chanterelle” or Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca will have a more orange color and true gills attached to the stem. While not completely poisonous, it’s not particularly tasty and will cause some mild stomach upset if ingested. The Omphalotus (Jack o’-lantern mushrooms) also resemble chanterelles, but if you open one up, the flesh will be orange-yellow, not white, like a true chanterelle.
Chanterelles are best left on their own, sautéed simply with some olive oil or butter. Their peppery flavor (they are called Pfifferlings in German!)  and high glutamate (the same stuff that makes miso so yummy) content make them a natural flavor booster. They make a great accompaniment to most anything: soups, pastas, sauces, meats, etc. Here’s my version with cream and pasta.

16 oz. package of tagliatelle or other wide-banded pasta
3 tbs. olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced or crushed
1 pd. of chanterelles, cleaned or brushed for dirt (and critters!), large ones cut in half
1/4 c. dry white wine
1 c. heavy cream
2 tbs. of fresh thyme, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

1.     Heat a medium non-stick pan with olive oil over medium high heat. When the oil shimmers, but is not smoking, add shallots. Sauté over heat, until shallot soften, but are not browned. Add garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds.
2.     Add mushrooms, and sauté with shallots and garlic. When the mushrooms start releasing their liquid (about 3-4 minutes), add white wine to the pan. Continue sautéing over medium heat until almost all the liquid has reduced. Add cream to mushrooms and heat gently to thicken. Season with salt and pepper.
3.     Meanwhile, prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss with mushroom mixture. Serve with thyme scattered on top.
NB: This recipe can easily be made vegan by replacing the cream for soy cream.


[1] For some of you, especially those interested in biology, this stuff is old hat. But for those that haven’t taken biology since high school, the world of living things is classified through a system started by Carl von Linné (otherwise known as Linnaeus) in 1735 with his groundbreaking book, Systema Naturae. Although the classification and taxonomic standards have gone through several major changes (from species on up), the structure remains basically the same since the 18th century.
[2] Once again, science geeks can skip this part. All living creatures have genetic material embedded in them, but not all have a membrane surrounding their cell nucleus. Eukaryotes have a membrane surrounding their cell nucleus, while prokaryotes, such as bacteria, do not. (The name eukaryote comes from the Greek, ευ , meaning good/true, and κάρυον meaning nut, refering to the nucleus. Prokaryote is πρό, meaning before, and the same ending κάρυον for nucleus.)
[3] In chemistry, the distinction between organic and non-organic chemistry has to do with the element carbon – the element that is basis for all life forms. (There are specifics regarding the types of carbon bonds, such as C-H or double or triple bonds. For our purposes, this is not important. ). Although diamonds and coal are also carbon-based substances, for historical reasons (alchemy has a large part to do with this), they have always been considered inorganic.
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