With the start of the winter rainy season just around the corner, it's almost mushroom time in Southern California.
Not only are mushrooms great eating in cold, damp weather, they're also great hunting. But you don't want to go out and just start picking everything you see. Mushroom poisoning is rare in Southern California, but it can occur if you don't know what you're doing.
The Los Angeles Mycological Society, a group of experienced mushroom hunters, is holding its first meeting of the new season at 8 p.m. Monday at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. There is no charge and nonmembers are welcome. For more information, call (213) 292-1900.
Although you don't normally associate Southern California with wild mushrooms, there are plenty around, given a decent amount of rainfall to get them started. Among the winter season wild mushrooms are chanterelles, morels and boletes (also known as cepes and porcinis).
There are more and more wild mushrooms showing up in grocery stores these days. In upscale markets, you can sometimes find (in roughly ascending order up the scale) chanterelles, morels and boletes. Experiments in farming the first two are beginning to pay off; they may become even more prevalent (and, with luck, inexpensive) in the future.
The quality of fresh wild mushrooms is fleeting, though. Before you lay out $20 or $30 a pound, be sure you're getting good stuff. Feel the mushroom: It should be firm, not flaccid or crumbly. It should feel heavy for its size. Most important, smell it. The mushroom's distinctive aroma should be powerful.
At this point, you get a lot more bang for your buck using the large portabello mushrooms or fresh shiitakes. The first are really just brown or crimini mushrooms that have gotten a couple days older. They have a strong earthy flavor, not unlike that of boletes. Shiitakes have an unusual smoky, woodsy flavor that is unlike the taste of any other mushroom, and they are delicious when used with discretion.