Like far too many cooks, I've gotten used to thinking of true wild mushrooms as the bookends of winter. Between fall porcini and spring morels I simply settle for cultivated shiitakes and portabellos -- half the flavor is better than none -- or dried mushrooms, which taste right but take just short of forever to resuscitate.
While waiting for this spring's first morels, though, I started realizing that now is actually a smart time to get better acquainted with the whole category. More wild mushrooms than usual are turning up in the United States lately, with increasing supplies from Europe and South Africa supplementing local varieties, and they are so much more appealing, and definitely less intimidating, than the dried kind. Any of them can go from raw to bliss in about 10 minutes.
West Coast foragers right now are gathering hedgehogs, black trumpets and yellowfoots. But good markets are also carrying chanterelles from farther afield, as well as maitake, or hen-of-the-woods (which can also be cultivated) and bluefoots (also cultivated). All of these, with their deep, dark, truthful flavor, are so intense that they could almost persuade you to give up meat, and not just for Lent. That haunting quality is umami, the so-called fifth flavor, which gives wild mushrooms the capacity to accentuate other tastes. In other words, they do naturally what monosodium glutamate does chemically.
Wild mushrooms are classic as accompaniments, particularly for steak, pasta and seafood, or in sauces, particularly those heavy on the cream. But what appeals to me most about the winter varieties is how easily they can slip into meatier roles. At a restaurant, I recently had rillettes made with chanterelles and shiitakes that were almost more satisfying than the usual creamy spread done with duck or pork. I've substituted black trumpets for beef -- in a winter salad or even in the French translation of enchiladas (crepes) -- and there's really no comparison: The mushrooms are not just smokier but juicier and literally toothsome -- the texture is alluring and not just chewy. And just about all wild mushrooms can fill in for veal or lamb in a French ragout that differs from the original only in the cooking time: less than a third.
Anything but steaming
All wild mushrooms need to be cooked, but that's a good thing because it makes them agreeable with any kitchen verb. You can saute them, grill them, braise them or roast them -- anything but steam them. While each variety has nuances, there is no trick to cooking any of them; the same methods essentially apply to all. Connie Green, whose Napa company Wine Forest Mushrooms supplies top restaurants including the French Laundry, says most chefs actually roast mushrooms, then finish them to order in a saute pan. This technique works the same magic on just about any variety.
Along with seafood, mushrooms are virtually the only foods we eat that are completely controlled by nature. Harold McGee writes that more than 1,000 varieties are known, but only a few dozen have been successfully cultivated (and many of those, particularly morels, have nothing like their wild flavor). Yet big stores such as Whole Foods Market can now count on a relatively steady supply -- as demand has grown, foragers and their buyers have developed networks in the same way fishermen and dealers now work together to make wild salmon nearly as ubiquitous as the farmed kind.
Varieties sold wild in winter include chanterelles, yellowfoots, black trumpets and hedgehogs. Maitake, or hen-of-the-woods (which really does look like a chicken), can be wild or cultivated. Bluefoots, which are increasingly available, are a cultivated form of wild blewits; they look something like shiitakes but smoother, with a colored stem; they have a wonderfully wild flavor. The farmed category encompasses the supermarket staples: shiitakes, creminis, portabellos (which are creminis that have been allowed to grow and grow), oyster mushrooms and enoki.
"Winter mushrooms are a very big thing in California and southern Oregon," Green says. "People think of wild mushrooms as an autumn experience, but our winter in California is much like autumn elsewhere." Porcini, however, are likely to be imported this time of year.
Whole Foods Market, where wild mushrooms sell particularly well and particularly to vegetarians, is probably typical of retailers. While sales of cultivated mushrooms are "slow but steady" there, Kate Lowery, a spokeswoman for the Austin, Texas-based chain, says sales of foraged mushrooms are "extremely strong" and even spike when supplies are at their peak.
How does a customer know they're safe to eat? "We never stray from long-established sources, and require that virtually every supplier we buy from carry a minimum $1 million in product liability insurance -- we find this discourages the 'weekend experts' that want to sell to us," Lowery said.