I've been immersed in all things mushroom for the past few days. I did not think it was at all possible to spend that much time, eating, collecting, and identifying mushrooms, and then I discovered the quantity of mushrooms that grow in the state of Washington, and some very enthusiastic folks, and then I dawned on me that it is totally possible to get sick of talking about mushrooms for 3 days straight. I joined the Puget Sound Mycological Society this year, being eager to learn all of the secrets behind mushroom foraging - like how NOT to get poisoned. Each weekend beginning in October, the PSMS hosts a variety of ID field trips starting way too early in the morning, so.... that quickly became unappealing. The PSMS have a very active member listserv - that I have tried a few times to filter into a folder that I never see - but it has proved to be a difficult task. I now spend a few minutes each day sorting and deleting too many mushroom emails. Basically, I joined the PSMS to learn a little, got a little terrified, and now regret my decision, but only slightly. After realizing that the enthusiastic efforts of the PSMS were not quite up my alley, I found a mushroom foraging retreat held yearly at the Meany lodge in the Wenatchee National Forest. The workshop seemed more approachable for a beginner, with plenty of food and booze involved. In my mind, I had envisioned a tranquil slightly rustic lodge in the middle of the forest, a massage therapist, gourmet meals, sipping on chardonnay in front of the fire - the works. My vision was crushed when I saw a cob web and dirty tissue tucked into in my bunk, 50 people crammed into a small lodge, and three days of Costco foods. My vision of a clean, romantic, tranquil mushroom adventure in the woods will stay a vision, and the reality that was last weekend, I will try to forget, except the mushroom foraging part, of course. That was fantastic.
In all seriousness, mushroom foraging terrifies me. Well, it's not exactly the foraging that terrifies me, that part is exhilarating. It's the thought of trusting my own knowledge and proper identification techniques that terrifies me. I grew up on a large woodsy forest, my very own personal playground. My father would drill it into our heads that we should never eat anything from the forest, coupled with my excessive worrying and slight paranoia, I find it a challenge to forage for anything, except blackberries - I am perfectly comfortable eating them. While in Turkey last year, I was too skeptical to eat a fresh fig from a tree growing in a perfectly acceptable area for picking, skeptical that this time I was going to stumble upon the infamous look-a-like poisonous fig. No really, that does not exist. The issue is that I am terrified to pick anything that I am not comfortable with, rightfully so. Mushrooms are in the class of edibles that I am definitely not comfortable with, especially because for every delicious edible mushroom, there is also a slightly creepier, deadly poisonous look-a-like. That is why I was excited to partake in a wild foraging mushroom hunt with a trained guide, and then he told me that he had no formal training, and then I became skeptical in his ability to guide me in the right direction. It turned out that he did know his stuff, or so I think, and by the end of the day I felt a little more comfortable with the whole thing.
Despite my thinking that we were going to find a mountain of chanterelles, and all of the other delicious edible mushrooms that I am so fond of, we actually didn't come across as many edibles as I would have liked. Some boletes, russulas, and the big find - a few large matsutakes (found by Brent). Matsutakes are found growing under pine trees, buried beneath leaves and dirt, with only the top of their caps poking out. They live symbiotically with the pine trees, gaining energy in the form of sugar from the tree while in exchange, providing nutrients. Matustakes are interesting, in that they smell like a combination of pine needles, red hots, and dirty socks. Their smell is quite unique, one that lingers in your nostrils for hours. The matsutake is prized and highly sought after in the Japan for its district aroma. Domestic production of the matsutake in Japan has been greatly reduced over the years due to a pine nematode. For a good specimen, you are looking at around $2000/kg, so even though I was confused by the smell, I was eager to take it home and experiment with this little luxury (pictured above).
After spending some time researching this mushroom, I discovered that most people enjoy matsutakes either grilled, seared, in gohan (a rice dish), or boiled into soup. Whichever method you choose to cook the matsutake, you want to choose a style where you can retain as much of the original flavor and aromas as possible. A soup seemed fitting for the time of year, and something approachable for me, with my relatively limited knowledge of matsutake cooking methods. I started with a simple Asian inspired broth - water, soy sauce, mirin, and sesame oil. I rubbed the mushroom with a damp paper towel to remove any dirt and pine needles. I removed the tough stem, and sliced the cap thinly, added it to the broth and simmered for 20 minutes. The aroma from the mushrooms quickly filled the air, and my nostrils became confused by these new spicy smells. For some bulk and calories, I added a small bundle of Tomoshiraga Somen noodles to the broth - a thin and delicate Japanese style wheat noodle. They cook very quickly, so adding at the last minute is appropriate. For color and crunch, I added a few baby bok choy leaves and garnished with sliced scallions. Initially, I tested the broth, noodles, and everything else but the mushrooms. I waited for Brent to get home to do the honors, because I was so terrified of being poisoned, left to die in my apartment alone - I couldn't even work up the courage to plop one into my mouth. After Brent ate a bowl full, and I waited an hour, I deemed it to be safe, and enjoyed the fruits of my labour. The taste grew on me with each bite. The texture soft and slightly rubbery, the flavor spicy and earthy. I encourage you to give them a try if you ever get the chance. A truly unique and exciting experience.
MATSUTAKE MUSHROOM SOUP
notes: matsutake mushrooms are quite difficult to find, therefore substituting in a favorite mushroom of choice would be perfectly acceptable. If you are unable to get your hands on mirin, rice wine vinegar can be used instead. If is important not to place your mushrooms directly in water, as they will soak it up and loose flavors. The best method for cleaning is to rub away any dirt with a damp cloth.
8 cups water
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tsp mirin
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp sea salt
1 large matsutake mushroom
1 bundle of Timoshiraga Somen noodles (enough for 2 servings)
2 heads baby bok choy
1 scallion, sliced
Add the water, soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, and salt to a large soup pot. Remove any dirt from the mushroom with a damp cloth. Trim off the stem, and thinly slice the cap. Add the mushroom slices to the pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste the stock and season with additional salt, mirin, soy sauce, or sesame oil as necessary.
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the noodles and boil for 3 minutes until al dente. Drain and add the noodles to the soup. Wash and trim away the bottom of the baby bok choy. Add it to the soup and continue to cook for a minute, until the bok choy turns bright green, looks slightly tender, but still crisp. Garnish with sliced scallion, and serve warm.