Monthly Archives: September 2009

Dear pink mushroom: I love you. Yours, K.

Assorted oysters.

Assorted oysters.

Source: Kari and Joe of Herb’n Oyster Mushroom Farm in McFarland, Wisc. Kari was at the Tuesday-afternoon Isthmus farmer’s market in Madison. All Pleurotus, I’m told, but which ones?


I’ll help you with that dairy glut

I’ve never been to a World Dairy Expo or any dairy expo, but I’ve been salivating for weeks at the thought of booth after booth of cheese samples. I’m on my way this morning. The dairy farmers are in crisis at oversupply/low prices, so I figured they’ll be extra excited to see me, although I expect I’ll have to hide from them the fact that I’m hardly a new customer.

The Wisconsin State Journal somewhat derailed my enthusiasm by describing the main buzz at the event as a machine that will “remove the odor from liquid manure.” I investigate, and learn the booth categories range from Animal Genetics to Sanitation Equipment; the closest they come to cheese is Milk Marketing; and the food concessions include Pizza Hut.

The NYT jumps in to say, accusingly, that the milk glut is the farmers’ own damn fault, because they sorted the sperm and grew too many milk heifers.

Wisconsin dairy leaders respond to the crisis by going over to China and modernizing their dairies. (“We’re trying to teach Chinese people to like cheese, because right now they don’t like cheese very much unless it’s on a piece of pizza,” Nielsen said [of what is Wisconsin’s fifth-largest customer base]. Can we teach a nation of lactose-intolerant people to love cheese? Should we?) The China news spawned a lot of nasty comments out here in Dairyland, let me tell you.

I say it’s time to build up our nation’s artisanal cheese caves.

A log, a log / It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood

What is that you're growing on, dearie?

What is that you're growing on, dearie?

I wake up instantly, with specific focus. Often: bills left unpaid, errors left in news stories I have written, ovens left on. On the good days, it is simply a full awareness of my to-do list for the day. (Buy wok. File for unemployment. Wash mushroom crud from purse. Find job.) Today, it was trees. I’ve been ignoring the trees!

As I recall, the suburban Maryland where I grew up has lots of trees. Don’t ask me what kind they are, though.

These are the types of trees I remember: Trees that drop leaves I must rake. Trees that can be climbed. Maple trees, which someday I will learn how to get the syrup from. Dogwoods. The nasty-smelling ornamental pear trees inexplicably planted everywhere there. A few others.

Certainly my father tried to teach me others, but I couldn’t tell you which trees are dominant there, which ones lined the highways, what lives in them, what their bark looks like. I have, it turns out, a vast ability to ignore large classes of objects in my view.

Only when I went to Africa, a totally foreign place, to study gorillas was I forced to ask, “What is this?” several hundred times a day. A deep desire to categorize and label all that green in front of me. Each month my neck got a crick from the phenology transects, in which we tracked certain trees to see when they flowered and fruited. So most of the trees I know are those of central Africa’s wet forests, and they all have Baaka, not Latin names.

However. This morning’s fully formed realization was that mushroom hunting might be easier if I knew something about those big wood objects in the forest. As Michael Kuo writes:

Mushrooms and trees are inextricably linked. Most trees cannot survive without mycorrhizal partners from the fungal world–and saprobic fungi play a vital role in forest ecosystems, decomposing tree litter. Thus identifying trees is essential to understanding and identifying mushrooms.

And I’d just been dividing them into oak, birch or apple. Whoops.

My knowledge grows in organic blooms, one topic infecting the next. A desire for mushroom soup leads to chanterelles and honeys, but also inedible earthstars and jelly fungi; my curiosity about some hanging yellow frills, some curious puffballs, leads me finally to pay attention to the trees.

A prickle of hedgehogs

Surely, said California friend Peter, I could find something more interesting than oyster mushrooms here.

So I did.

It finally rained this week ... so everyone came out.

It finally rained this week ... so everyone came out.

I can’t say I picked all these; I was with the Wisconsin Mycological Society’s Madison Interest Group—a small bunch of knowledgeable, kind and obsessive people.

My brain, at the end of the hunt, was completely full of fungus names, shapes, oddities of behavior. Instead of wondering about each strange new mushroom I found, I’d simply bring it over to one of the gurus. “Hygrophorus,” he’d say. “Clitocybe. Oh, I haven’t seen one quite like this.” At which I would get a little thrill. I have too many mushroom pictures to post, and almost too many to eat, but the best find of the day was a flock of hedgehogs—wait, I’m told the collective term is “prickle”—all on a single root line, a half-pound or more. Each of us came home with several.

See those teeth? Rawr!

See those teeth? Rawr!

The only thing I don’t like about group-hunting is the odd competitive tingle I get whenever someone finds a mushroom more interesting than mine.

Little Coral travels the world.

Little Coral travels the world.

Among my own finds were honey mushrooms, in all of their many short and fat incarnations; perfect lemon-colored Amanita citrina; rusty-capped Russulas; a field of white-tipped coral mushrooms, which look like undersea creatures on a strange forest vacation; bright-yellow, slimy little waxcaps; a yellow puffball that had already blown its spore wad; frilly Hygrocybes, which look edible but sadly aren’t. And many others that smashed into an icky sandy duxelles in the bottom of my purse.

The hedgehog, Hydnum repandum, is a meaty toothed mushroom. It loses quite a bit of water upon sauteing and is mild and unremarkable in flavor. I suspect people love it because it’s so huge. I wholeheartedly agree.

(This may require more study. Last night a hedgehog stuffing on top of baked salmon was not, I’m sorry to report, delicious. But I blame myself, not the mushrooms.)

Another picture I like:

A mushroom huntress in the society examines her kill: chicken of the woods.

A mushroom huntress in the society examines her kill: chicken of the woods.

Addendum. This probably ain’t the usual chicken of the woods—Laetiphorus sulphurus, aka sulfur shelf. The chicken-o-woods species were split pretty recently (according to Wisconsin mushroom professor Tom Volk, who was involved) … this lighter one, growing in a rosette at the base of a tree, is more likely Laetiphorus cincinnatus. So I’m told.

Tomato transformations

A solid three hours of cooking, and I was ready for my man to make me dinner.

Blighted tomatoes never got so much respect.

Blighted tomatoes never got so much respect.

I dutifully experimented with my windfall of blighted tomatoes (except it’s not a ‘windfall’ if I’m the one who initiated it, by pulling the whole plant up by its roots? And in related lingering trauma, you have not seen true carnage until you’ve seen the ground matted with tiny orange Sungolds.)—making sauce. Three variations, plus tomato confit.

I learned about confit from a lovely French matron outside Paris. At the time I preferred cooking your hundred-ingredient Kashmiri curries, and didn’t know squat about French food. Making confit was a passionate affair, with plenty of smoke and bravado; the tomatoes reducing in a pan on high heat for as long as one could stand it in the kitchen, transmogrifying into a charred gold. It’s the sort of dish that cannot be done without disabling the smoke detector first.*

Thomas Keller’s version, however, is an Apollonian one, methodical and pure. You core, blanch, peel, halve, and seed your tomatoes; lay them cut-side-up in an olive-oiled baking dish; lay sprigs of thyme, add salt and pepper; and cook at 225 degrees until you remember they’re there again, maybe three hours. During which time the tomato thinks hard, transcends, transforms into the condensed taste of summer.

2. Cherry tomato sauce—The cherries sat around for a few days while I worried about skins, picturing myself blanching and peeling 200 tiny tomatoes. I hate running into tomato skins in sauce. Then a bright light in the musty old head, and I pureed them. Perfect. One version: preserved-lemon puttanesca, with two heads of garlic and three jalapenos for a quart of sauce. For the boldest company.

3. Broiled cherry tomatoes, pureed with fried garlic, parsley, basil, olive oil. So easy. Hope it keeps.

4. With mushrooms. Pureed orange Carolinas with the usual (see above), plus wine and dried aspen boletes that W. brought from Alaska.

* I have not gone to the lengths that Jeffry Steingarden has, attempting to disable his oven’s thermometer so he could get it past its natural inhibition about temperatures beyond 500 degrees. But I once dated a housefire-phobic man, and that was doomed from the start.

Mushrooms, unnamed

All these mushrooms that grew in the rain
I found twelve. One looks like a brain.
I’m hoping to name these
In case they are tastees
But this fungus ID key’s my bane.

Eating the experimental subjects

After plant science ends, then begins salsa science.

Viva la research garden! Except the scary apples over near the manure pile, which I hear may be test subjects for systemic pesticides.