Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Note: This blog does not give you enough information to identify any wild mushroom.
Never eat a wild mushroom unless it is absolutely identified by an expert!

            Night was falling as I lurched through the woods, my feet finding the trail by instinct. An expanding patch of chanterelles had drawn me deep into the forest and I'd only stopped picking as the last rays of sun disappeared through the oaks. Fortunately this was a familiar place, and I was confident I could get back to the car. But it would be no fun in the pitch-black.
F. hepatica's sticky upper surface
            Suddenly I stopped. Hanging onto the side of a dead stump was what looked like a cow tongue. Although I could barely see it, and really didn't have the time to inspect and judge, I went over for a squeeze. Squishy. Damp. An acidic scent. Could it be? I reached for my knife and collecting bag.

            20 minutes later my car's dome light revealed my good fortune. That fat tongue was Fistulina hepatica, AKA beefsteak mushroom, an unusual but delectable species. Cautiously I took a confirming nibble. F. hepatica is one of the very few mushrooms that is safe to eat raw, and it has such a distinctive flavor it's hard to mistake. A better ID - checking the undersurface with a hand lens, which, if the specimen was Fistulina, would reveal a network of independent tubules - would have to wait; my lens was at home. But my mouth didn't lie: sharp ascorbic acid gave way to rich mellow fungus. F. hepatica indeed.
The distinctive underside in close-up

            Several years had passed since I'd found one of these, and I was thrilled. The question now was what to do with it. I've made a decadent and simple appetizer with the last "catch", slicing it thin and layering it with stale, stinky mozzarella. Alas my "mozz" source has gone out of business. Plus we were going to dinner with friends the next evening and I wasn't sure their taste for the unique extended so far. The appetizer was, frankly, weird. F. hepatica is slimy-chewy, and the lemon-plus-raw fungus flavor borders on disgusting, with a strong undercurrent of danger.

            And then it hit me: the combination of sharp and rich was not unlike beef cooked with sour cream.  Stroganoff, in other words. Before I left the parking lot I'd mentally formed a recipe: F. hepatica and onions sautéd in butter, cream added, maybe garlic, served over noodles.

            There was one significant obstacle: Hurricane Irene was due to hit in 48 hours and the last thing I could imagine was me in the grocery store searching for GF noodles. Luckily my pantry revealed a box of unopened spaghetti. Well, I rationalized, this wouldn't be a traditional Stroganoff anyway. Sticking the spaghetti back and putting the F. hepatica into the refrigerator, I set the project aside for a night when I didn't have dinner already prepared.
Peeled, it looks like sandstone cliffs

            24 hours later I pulled the mushroom out for a photo session, only to discover its gooey upper surface had stuck to the paper storage bag. (Note to the uninitiated: wild mushrooms, which are often super-hydrated, should never be stored in plastic). This turned out well, for that layer was unappetizingly decorated with bug bites, pine needles and random dirt, and when I tried to loosen it from the paper, discovered it peeled from the rest of the 'shroom very nicely. Moreover, when peeled, F. hepatica turns out to be a most attractive specimen.

            Sliced, in fact, this unique mushroom looks a dead ringer for well-marbled brisket.
Yes it is a mushroom!

            I wanted to barely sauté this specimen. Long cooking would soften it a bit much, I thought, and there was something about that disgust/danger/umami combination I found appealing. However, the acidic taste was very strong, and I also wanted to incorporate lots of cream flavor. I ended up barely softening the mushroom in hot butter, then simmering in cream for a few minutes. A bit of Mexican lime (Cal, or calcium hydroxide) neutralized some of the tartness (baking soda would have done as well, perhaps), and shavings of garlic scape produced a nice finish. It became a bit bland, but retained its tongue-like chewiness, which made for a very sexy meal. Grated Parmesan gave a final burst of flavor. My one regret was insufficient onion. However, thats better than overabundant onion.

            Granted that few readers will ever dine on anything so exotic, I do think a similar dish could be accomplished with Portobellos (which are not wild, btw, or even any different from white button mushrooms. Theyre just overgrown buttons) or Porcini. Lets call this a vegetarian Stroganoff, and if you ever do have a chance to prepare it with F. hepatica, I hope you will.



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