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A WILD MUSHROOM HUNT: THERE’S MYSTERY, MAGIC, DANGER IN WOODSY QUEST FOR THIS FORMIDABLE FUNGUS.

SHARE A WILD MUSHROOM HUNT: THERE’S MYSTERY, MAGIC, DANGER IN WOODSY QUEST FOR THIS FORMIDABLE FUNGUS.

A wild mushroom hunt?

Sure, why not. Might be a pleasant respite from the computer-screen scene. Maybe "a getting back to roots" (and under them) would make a good story."The Utah Native Plant Society is going on their yearly `foray' to the forests above Payson - you know - Mount Nebo Loop," boomed Dave Okelberry, amateur mycologist . . . "and," he continued, "WE WANT YOU!"

This man was so enthusiastic and persistent that I made the commitment a year ago as a fledgling food editor.

Oh, I've mused this past year about mingling with "The My-co-philes" (mushroom-lovers).

Would they lead the life of "wild morels" (a sponge-like mushroom) and talk about where one can find good "smut" (fungus that invades corn kernels and dries them into a mushroomish-tasting mass)?

According to the Wall Street Journal, people with "good taste" will wait hours to buy "smut" - or maize mushrooms - that are served in such fine dineries as the Edwardian Room of New York's Plaza Hotel and the Frontera Grill in Chicago.

But mycology - the branch (great pun here) of botany dealing with fungi, just wasn't among my pile of easy-reading topics.

Okelberry had promised that the 3-day event would be a grand experience - camping in a tent, Dutch oven dinners, the flora and fauna.

Okelberry's predictions were right on.

Over 100 nature-lovers, armed with mushroom field guides and enthusiasm and looking for the cherished fungi moved, as in a dance - gracefully, silently - through the fields and along lakes.

Hunting for mushrooms? Perhaps. Some craved nothing more than fresh air, space - the owl's nightly WHO?

Althought the nine PhDs in our camp thought the mushroom-growing conditions were less than adequate for Utah Native Plant Society members to collect and identify many species (too dry), the treasures were found around the campfire: sharing tall tales and singing off-key to Tex Parker's cowboy crooning.

As laid back as the mushroom experts were, I was reminded many times of thee very serious dangers of eating mushrooms without having positive identification of what kind they are.

And that's a pretty important message.

Dr. Kent H. McKnight, a leading mycologist, and professor of botany at BYU for 20 years, was a guest at the event.

McKnight and his wife Vera, an artist particularly renowned for her mushroom illustrations, are co-authors of the Peterson Field Guide "Mushrooms," sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation.

They were both patiently waiting in Payson's Peteetneet School, hunt headquarters, with microscope and wisdom ready to identify and catalog the collected samples.

The McKnights emphasize over and again the dangers of ingesting unidentified species of wild mushrooms.

"They are toxic, sometimes deadly, perhaps symbols of the dark side of life," says the editor's note in their book.

One species of mushroom is nicknamed "The Strangler."

I could visualize the Food Extra Headline - "All Choked Up About Mushrooms" - not too appealing.

And the result. Sunburned and smiling, none of those on this yearly hunt really cared that the gatherers' baskets were empty. Anyway, I was collecting bags of puns and bushels of mushroom comic relief - realizing that this story didn't hinge upon rotting tree stumps or sultry glebes. For example:

- "If you don't know what kind of species it is, call it a LBM - Little Brown Mushroom." - Dr. Frank Anderson.

- "If you see bones around the mushrooms, don't eat them." - LoAna Anderson.

- "There are no old, bold mushroom collectors." - ancient mushroom saying.

- "Make dead sure" (when eating a wild mushroom) - Ruth Atwater.

And finally . . .

Dave Okelberry and his persistence.

He must have sensed that I'd pick this as a good tidbit:

On last year's foray, Okelberry playfully "planted" a gob of sourdough bread mix in the bushes near the foraging Dr. Frank Anderson.

Anderson excitedly picked up what he thought to be a rare puffball mushroom, thinking that "it wasn't quite right."

Anderson heard Okelberry's booming laughter, and realized his error.

Okelberry was silenced by a newly identified species, attaching itself to his neck.

The flying sourdough bovista pila.

You had to be there.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Local sources of exotic mushrooms

Liberty Heights Fresh

11th East & 13th South, 467-2434

Shiitake ($9.95/lb.), Portobello ($11.99/lb.), Crimini ($5.99/lb.) - prices as of June 24.

New Frontiers Natural Foods Market & Deli

812 East 200 South, 355-7401; 2454 South 700 East, 359-7913

Shiitake ($11.99/lb.) - prices as of June 24.

*****

RECIPES

ROLLS ROYCE-STYLE MACARONI BAKED WITH MUSHROOMS, HAM AND CHEESE

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter (divided), plus unsalted butter for the baking dish

2 pounds fresh mushrooms, quartered

2 teaspoons salt, divided

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided

2 1/2 cups milk

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

10 ounces medium-sharp Cheddar cheese, grated

10 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated

1 pound imported dried penne rigate or other short, ridged, tubular semolina pasta

1/2 pound smoked ham, well-trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 package (10 ounces) frozen peas, thawed and drained

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

3 tablespoons fine dried bread crumbs

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. When it foams add the mushrooms and season with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Cover and cook, tossing and stirring once or twice, until the mushrooms begin to render their juices, about five minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a strainer set over a bowl.

In a small saucepan, bring the milk just to a boil. In a medium, heavy saucepan, over low heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring often without allowing the flour to brown, for five minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture. Whisk in the juices from the bowl beneath the mushrooms. Return the saucepan to low heat and whisk in 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and the nutmeg. Bring to a simmer, cover partially and cook, stirring often, until the sauce has thickened slightly, about 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in the Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses and the mushrooms. Meanwhile, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Generously butter a 3 1/2-quart baking dish about 3 inches deep.

Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil. Stir in the penne and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until it is just tender, eight to 10 minutes, depending upon the pasta brand; drain well. Return the pasta to its hot pan. Add the mushroom sauce, ham and peas, and stir well. Transfer the pasta mixture to the prepared dish, spreading it evenly. The casserole can be assembled to this point up to one hour in advance. Cover and hold at room temperature.

In a small bowl, stir together the Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Sprinkle evenly over the pasta. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons butter into small pieces and scatter them over the top of the casserole. Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the top and sides of the pasta are crisp and brown, about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand in the dish on a rack for five minutes before serving. Serves 8.

- Adapted from "The Mushroom Book" by Michael McLaughlin

- Each serving contains 763 calories, 34 g fat, 60 g carb, 1,508 mg sodium, 153 mg cholesterol.

- Editor's Note: The original recipe called for 1 pound of fresh shiitake and one pound of cremini's. We changed the name, and adapted this deliciously outrageous dish for regular, grocery-store variety mushrooms.

GRILLED PORTOBELLO "STEAKS" WITH GREEN SAUCE

1 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 egg yolk

3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained

1 tablespoon small (nonpareil) capers, drained

1 garlic clove, chopped

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

About 3/4 cup olive oil, divided

1 cup wood smoking chips, preferably mesquite

16 large (5 inches in diameter) fresh portobellos (3 pounds), stems removed and reserved for another use

In a food processor combine the parsley, basil, vinegar, egg yolk, anchovies, capers, garlic, salt, and pepper. Process until the mixture is as smooth as possible. With the motor running, gradually add 1/2 cup of the olive oil; the sauce will thicken. Adjust the seasoning. The sauce can be prepared up to three days ahead, covered, and refrigerated; return it to room temperature before use.

Soak the wood chips in water to cover generously for one hour. Light a charcoal fire and let it burn down until the coals are evenly white, or preheat a gas grill (high heat).

Brush the portobello caps generously on both sides with the remaining olive oil. Drain the wood chips. Scatter them over the coals or the firestones, set the grill rack about 6 inches above the heat, and cover the grill. When the chips are smoking, arrange the mushrooms on the grill, spacing them well apart. Cover and grill, turning the caps once at the approximate halfway point, until the edges have darkened slightly and the mushrooms are tender and heated through but not dried out, three to four minutes total.

Arrange two mushroom caps on each of eight plates. Spoon a generous dollop of the sauce over each pair of mushroom caps and serve immediately. Serves 8.

- From "The Mushroom Book" by Michael McLaughlin

- Each serving contains 243 calories, 22 g fat, 11 g carb, 154 mg sodium, 28 mg cholesterol.

- Editor's note: Utah's mushroom-lovers, especially the Utah Native Plant Society members, rave about the taste of fresh portobello mushrooms. This one's for you, Ardeen Watts.

CREAMY MUSHROOM AND POTATO GRATIN

6 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided), plus unsalted butter for the baking dish

1 pound fresh shittakes, sliced

1 pound fresh oyster mushrooms, sliced (or fresh mushrooms, grocery-store variety)

2 teaspoons salt, divided

3 pounds russet (baking) potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock or canned chicken broth

1 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Butter a shallow (2 1/2-inch sides) 3-quart casserole.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter foams add the mushrooms and 1 teaspoon of the salt and cook, tossing and stirring, until the mushrooms begin to render their juices, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl, toss together the mushrooms, their juices, the potatoes, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and spread evenly. In a bowl, whisk together the chicken stock and cream or creme fraiche; pour the mixture evenly over the contents of the casserole. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons butter into small pieces and scatter over the top of the casserole.

Bake, tilting the dish occasionally to distribute the juices evenly, until the potatoes are tender and the top is crusty and brown, about 75 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the casserole stand on a rack for five minutes before serving. Serves 8.

- From "The Mushroom Book" by Michael McLaughlin

- Each serving contains 393 calories, 15 g fat, 44 g carb, 701 mg sodium, 49 mg cholesterol.

LESS-THAN-30-MINUTES HOME-BAKED PIZZA

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large (12 inches in diameter) Boboli-brand Italian bread shell

1/2 cup purchased thick tomato sauce or pizza sauce

1 cup (about 4 ounces) grated Mozzarella (supermarket type, not fresh)

1 ounce (about 16 slices) sliced pepperoni

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. In a medium skillet over low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the garlic, oregano and crushed red pepper, and cook, stirring often, for three minutes. Add the mushrooms and salt and toss to combine; cover and cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms begin to render their juices, about four minutes. Uncover, raise the heat slightly, and cook, tossing and stirring often, until the juices have evaporated and the mushrooms are lightly browned, about three minutes. Remove from the heat.

Spread the tomato sauce evenly in the central depression of the bread shell, avoiding the wide raised crust. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the sauce. Scatter the mushrooms evenly over the cheese. Lay the pepperoni slices over the mushrooms. Set the bread shell directly on the oven rack and bake until the cheese has melted and is bubbling and the bread shell is lightly browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a board and let rest for five minutes, then cut into six wedges. Serve hot. Serves 3.

- From "The Mushroom Book" by Michael McLaughlin

- Each serving contains 663 calories, 30g fat, 71 g carb, 1,556 mg sodium, 46 mg cholesterol.