Joe’s midseason Mushroom Report

matsutake2

This week my friend Josej Szuecs has graciously penned the second installment of his Mushroom Report:

Midseason Mushrooms (text and photo by Josef Szeucs)

The question is often posed to me: “When do the mushrooms start coming up?” In the western US, I start foraging two or three weeks after the first significant rainfall.  This is rain that penetrates the top leaf layer of the forest floor and moistens the underlying duff.  Usually this happens in late October or early November.  If the rain comes, I can expect of find numerous early season species.  Porcinis, golden chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, and cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassis crispa) are the prime examples. If the rain comes later, like mid-December, I can expect a poor year for those species.

I’ve found that many fungus want to fruit within a certain window of time.  The season can be broken down into three parts:  early, middle and late.  These are rough, and there is much overlap, but still a useful demarcation.If the weather conditions don’t line up with the fruiting window: better luck next year.

Once the porcini hunting has started to wind down, about a month after the onset of fruiting, I start to focus on my favorite mid-season fungus:  the matsutake, *Tricholoma magnivelare.  *Matsutake translates to ‘pine mushroom’, although in our area it grows under oaks.  The true matsutake of Asia grows under pines, and is actually a different, although closely related, species.  A truly beautiful mushroom that has an unusual aroma that is difficult to describe.  It is highly sought after by the Japanese.  On the other hand, it is not held in high regard by many collectors of Italian, and other European, descent. Simply put, it does cook up well using western methods. It’s all about highlighting that unique aroma.

Before I get further into cooking, I need to warn the reader about this mushroom.  It is medium to large sized, is white (with some brown patches on the cap), and shares a couple of characteristics with the Amanitas.  This last part is the warning.  Matsutakes resemble white Amanitas.  One of the white Amanitas has the common name ‘Destroying Angel.’  It is deadly poisonous.

A few years ago, I took a chef out on a foray during matsutake season.  I spotted a patch of them on the forest floor and stood back so my friend would ‘find’ them.  She yelped, “Matsutake”, and quickly picked them and put them in her basket.  As we readied to move on, I asked what she had picked. She looked at me, a bit puzzled, and answered, “Matsutake.”  I replied, “Yes, but you also picked something else.”  I lifted one of the white egg-like buttons from her basket and cut it in half. “No, this is an Amanita.”  I emphatically impressed upon her the danger of being careless when collecting this mushroom.  And then re-iterated my rule of matsutake collecting: “You have to smell every one of them.  If it doesn’t smell strongly of matsutake, toss it.” Needless to say, if you are interested in collecting this mushroom, have an expert identify your finds.

OK, back to cooking.  As I mentioned before, the aroma is the main charm of this mushroom, so keep it simple. Thinly sliced Matsutake briefly simmered in homemade dashi stock is the classic.  Throw in some mild miso paste – a great idea.  Toss in a couple of shrimp and a few slices of scallion, even better.  To really nail it, a squeeze of yuzu lemon to finish is ideal.  Yuzu is hard to find, Meyer lemon is a good substitute.  Any lemon or lime works.

My favorite recipe couldn’t be simpler.  Get a bottle of high quality, dry, mildly flavored sake.  Heat it up in a small stainless steel pot.  Just before it boils, toss in some thinly sliced matsutake.  Turn off the heat and let steep for a couple of minutes.  Serve in small sake cups.  Make sure to put a slice of the mushroom in each cup.

To read Joe’s first installment of the seasonal Mushroom Report, click here.

Thanks Joe!