Monday, July 9, 2012

Perfectly Clean

Boletes in leaf litter, Vermont

Finally, a blog about mushrooms!
Regular readers know that my warm-months passion is foraging wild, edible fungi. The 2012 season has so far been less than spectacular, so my posts on the topic have been non-existent. Moreover, with my days spent tracking down flour suppliers and begging at municipal building departments, there’s no time left for foraging. Last week, however, I got to an early-season chanterelle spot and came home with some goods. And there (home) I discovered something worth sharing: a better way to clean them.
But first, two background items: 1) Putting together a shopping cart web page is very distracting; 2) The mushroom-foraging crowd I hang out with has one very strong opinion about the right way to clean chanterelles. In fact, when we gather in Vermont for our annual two-day chanterelle forage, a team of 4 is assigned the pre-dinner prep task, which consists of very thorough brushing, then splitting each mushroom and scraping out any internal wormholes (and worms), and re-brushing. With absolutely no washing whatsoever. The process takes hours.
OK, back to my discovery.
Boletus bicolor - an edible (but hard to ID!!) variety
When I dumped the chanterelles on the kitchen counter I was disappointed by the incredible dirtiness of my collection. Most had been growing in a narrow stream bed, and a recent rain had splattered their undersides with sandy grit. They were small specimens too, and the thought of painstakingly brushing each one was boring beyond belief, especially since I’d had a digital insight on my drive home and now wanted to correct some errors on my shopping cart page.
Acting on a whim, I filled a bowl with water and tossed the mushrooms in. They floated like fishing bobbers - probably because this season has been so dry and they were desiccated - as their exquisite perfume filled the air. Back in a minute - I thought, heading over to my desk and laptop. 
An hour later, I closed the file I’d been editing to realize I’d totally forgotten my mushrooms. Exclaiming profanely, and imagining a bowl of orange mush, I darted to the sink. There they were, still bobbing and to all appearances, unchanged.
I poured the ‘shrooms into a colander and shook off the excess moisture. By all accounts I was now about to have a terrible time. Don’t wash mushrooms, they absorb too much water is the received knowledge. The reason? When over-wet mushrooms hit a hot pan, that water gets released, which means they’re being boiled, not fried. The lower heat of boiling isn’t what you want when cooking mushrooms. Mushrooms need the flavor boost that comes from caramelization in oil, a high-temperature reaction. Or so it is believed. 
I’d anticipated that my overly-dry specimens wouldn’t mind a little extra hydration, which was why I’d cavalierly thrown them into water in the first place. After all, dehydrated mushrooms, the kind filling baggies in my cabinet, required a good soaking before they could be cooked. Those chanterelles had simply been naturally dehydrated. However, an hour’s worth of soaking was far more than I’d planned. 
But as I examined my bounty in the colander I realized something: Each and every one of those previously-grit-laden chanterelles was spotlessly clean.
I spread them out on a cutting board. Indeed they were flawless. All that dirt had simply dissolved.
Unscrubbed, unbrushed; only soaked y nada mas
I cut the largest mushroom lengthwise. It was as firm as cork, without a hint of mushiness.  Had they lost aroma? Not a chance - I could smell them 20 feet away. I rubbed a finger over stems, caps, undersides. No grit. None.  No sliminess, either.
My favorite way of eating chanterelles is with scrambled eggs, so I grabbed a few eggs, added cream and milk and salt and pepper, and made dinner for my wife and I. Through the entire cooking process there was no extra water and the mushrooms behaved nicely, and smelled terrific.
Alas they were not the best mushrooms I’ve ever eaten. But it wasn’t because they were soggy - quite the opposite. Our dry weather had “leatherized” them. Which in an odd way confirmed one bit of received chanterelle knowledge: they’re less than spectacular when dehydrated.
However I now submit this thought to foragers: Soak-wash your mushrooms. Forget about dry brushing. 
If you don’t trust my finding (and why should you, I’m hardly describing a scientific experiment), set aside some of your next haul for soaking and compare the results, all the way through cooking. That’s what I plan to do with whatever-I-next-find. And if my no-scrub, no-brush cleaning method works I’ll try to get the appointed scrubbers to adapt it in Vermont later this month. Of course doing so will put them out of a kitchen job. I guess I’ll just have to ask them to do something else. Maybe.... Sing?


DesertSnowdrop said...

Your mushrooms look gorgeous! I have always been interested in mushrooms and would love one day to go foraging with an educated mushroom forager!

Charles Luce said...

Thank you, Desert Snowdrop. Although your screen name indicates you live in a dry area, there may be foraging opportunities near you. I do know that even in Arizona when the monsoons come in the boletes come up, and Mexico is famous for mushrooms. I suggest googling NAMA - the North American Mycological Association - and cheking their list of regional clubs. Mycological clubs usually hold weekly foraging sessions with no charge or low charge to guests. Plus you'll get expert advice, which is crucial for mushrooms since some are deadly poisonous.