Joe’s Mushroom Report

josef szuecs

artist/musician/chef Josef Szuecs of The-Way-To-Go-Joes

My friend and neighbor Josef Szuecs is one of the most multi-talented people I’ve ever met. Owner of Renga Arts in Occidental, CA, guitarist/founder of the locally popular, self-described ‘porch jazz’ combo, The-Way-To-Go-Joes, Joe is also an accomplished chef, and his food often features seasonal fare he hunts, grows, fishes and forages. Joe is always generous in sharing his knowledge, and recently introduced Ene and me to the craft of cider-making. As a Halloween treat, Joe has penned the primer that follows on foraging and cooking wild mushrooms, an autumnal delight in our region that is often shrouded in mystery:

porciniJoe’s morning harvest of foraged porcini mushrooms

Joe’s Mushroom Report (text by Josef Szuecs):

Most fungi cannot be cultivated. They depend on a complex relationship with the environment. For instance, many form a symbiotic relationship with a very specific species of tree. Therefore, the success of a foray depends heavily on the collector’s knowledge of these dependencies. Of course, one of the first questions to consider: When will the mushrooms appear? As you might expect, it depends on the particular fungus. But let’s limit this to an all-around favorite, the porcini. Formally known as Boletus edulis. Also known as steinpilz and cep. The porcini (por-chee-nee) is one of the first mushrooms to pop up  in the fall. Every fall, I anxiously anticipate the rain. Timing is everything. Too late and the fruiting is sparse. Late October to early November is ideal. Volume of rain is also important. The ground must get thoroughly saturated. Given that, I start checking out my spots after two weeks. Spots? Yes, porcini, and many other mushrooms, are the fruit of subterranean plants.  A seasoned collector generally has a network of very specific locations to look. Much like checking a tree to see if its fruit are ripe. A knowledge of specific spots is not really necessary to have a successful foray. But it really helps to know the habitat that the porcini prefers. In our area, the SF Bay, it’s the coastal Bishop Pine forest. Three to four weeks after the first rains, the fruiting is well underway. After six weeks, it’s over. More rain won’t lead to more porcini. It’s a window of opportunity. More rain will lead to other mushrooms, though. What I refer to as the mid-season fruiting. But we’ll discuss that when it comes.

The flavor of a fresh porcini is typically described as mildly nutty, reminiscent of hazelnuts. It also has a subtle sweetness. When dried, the porcini develops an intense flavor, highly prized for soups and sauces. When I get back from the woods, my first task is to separate my finds into ‘eaters’ and ‘driers.’ Eaters are firm and void of little holes, or tunnels, in their stems. Driers are older specimens that may have significant tunneling. These tunnels are wormholes. Tiny flies are very quick to lay eggs on most fungi. These wee beasties are harmless, although unappetizing. Certainly nothing I would serve to guests. If the thought of worms, dry or not,  in your food is, well, unappetizing, just discard these specimens. Just remember, all commercial foods have guidelines that limit the amount of this type of contamination in products. Limit, not eliminate.


Joe’s Simple Porcini Recipe

OK, a recipe. For me, simplest is best. Each wild fungus has its signature flavor, texture, and aroma. When I prepare them, I try to bring out these characteristics, not mask them behind more assertive flavors. For instance, I would never cook a porcini in a tomato sauce. This recipe is as simple as it gets.

Clean and cut firm and worm-free porcinis into 1/8’ slices. Heat mild (not extra-virgin) olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry the slices, turning frequently, until golden brown. Place the fried slices on a plate, sprinkle with a quality sea salt. Serve with a nice fresh loaf of rustic white bread.

Prepared this way, the sugars in the mushroom caramelize, and the nuttiness is amplified. I cannot overstate how good this tastes. For vegetarians, this is as close to the sublime flavor of bacon that you can get.

If you are fortunate to bring home a few pounds on porcini, you may prepare the whole batch this way. Pack them into small mason jars, top with the mild olive oil, and freeze. You will be able to enjoy them all year long. One warning, the sugars in porcini are quick to burn and become bitter. Don’t turn the heat up too high. Also, change the cooking oil every two or three batches.

Finally, a morning foray in the woods collecting these culinary gems is one of those perfect life experiences. One made even better when shared with a good friend.