I've always been fascinated by wild mushrooms. As a kid, I used to go on forages, searching for exotic varieties of fungus in pastures and underneath logs, identifying species by consulting a field guide.
But given the obvious dangers of gathering wild mushrooms without the guidance of a pro, a visit to the farmers' market is an easier -- and safer -- option.
Sunny Shin and her husband, Sam, own Solano Mushroom Farm, with property in Vacaville, Suisin and Mendocino. The Shins grow a wide variety of cultivated mushrooms, Japanese yams, chestnuts and persimmons, and they forage for wild mushrooms on their 160-acre organic Mendocino property.
The Shins, who are from Korea, specialize in unusual Asian varieties of cultivated wild mushrooms, which they grow without the use of pesticides or other chemicals.
"Sunny decided she wanted to go organic 12 years ago, because she saw a demand for it," says the farm's senior salesman, Michael Salinas. "But culturally, Korean farmers don't really use pesticides, anyway."
Pesticides are often applied to conventionally grown cultivated mushrooms to control worms that live in the growing medium -- a sterilized straw/manure blend. But because mushrooms are mostly water, they also absorb high concentrations of pesticide.
The Shins' solution is to use steam. "The steam creates a more humid environment, so it takes less time for the mushrooms to spore, and thus less time for worms to possibly develop," says Salinas.
Cultivated vs. wild
People are often confused about the difference between wild and cultivated mushrooms. Cultivated species are those that don't grow in the wild, such as the standard white "button" mushroom, and the squat, brown-capped crimini, which are called portobello mushrooms when mature.
When wild mushroom varieties are grown in a controlled environment, they are referred to as "cultivated wild" mushrooms. These include the Shins' blue, pink and brown oyster mushrooms, which have a mild, oyster-like flavor and slightly chewy texture.
The Shins just began selling white shiitake mushrooms, which are more delicately flavored and less chewy than the brown. They are popular in the cooking of East Asia.
Other cultivated wild varieties grown on the farm include maitake, an earthy tasting mushroom that looks like a frilly, crumpled-up handkerchief; eryngii, a meaty, white species with a subtle, abalone flavor and somewhat crispy texture; and yanagi, a cultivated matsutake with a long, crispy stem and chewy, brownish cap reminiscent of a shiitake's woodsy flavor.
The Shins employ professional foragers to scour their Mendocino land for indigenous wild mushrooms such as yellow, black and white chanterelles, which grow nine months of the year in the damp coastal climate. In the spring, earthy, honeycomb-capped morels make their way to market, while the wet winter produces porcini, candy cap, and dense, toothsome matsutake, which Salinas describes as strong and almost spicy.
"I like them sauted all by themselves with some extra virgin olive oil, to get the maximum flavor out of them, but they're also great in risotto, or as a meat substitute," Salinas says.
Something is mysterious and primeval about mushrooms. Unfortunately, one of the biggest mysteries for consumers is how to properly store, prepare and cook them.
Mushrooms are best used within a couple of days. They should be refrigerated in a paper bag, which allows them to breathe, or spread them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate.
Avoid washing cultivated mushrooms because they soak up water like a sponge. Their growing medium is sterilized, so all you need to do is brush the dirt off with a soft-bristled brush or damp towel.
Truly wild mushrooms may require a brief soak and agitation in cold water to rid them of dirt, pine needles or insects just before cooking. Drain well before using.
Because they are mostly water, mushrooms will release a lot of liquid in the initial cooking stage. The key is to continue sauting them until all of the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms begin to caramelize and take on a nutty aroma, which usually takes between five to eight minutes. The other key is to not overcrowd them in the pan, although they will shrink down considerably.
For a pasta dish, try slicing the mushrooms into quarter-inch-thick slices so that chewy morsels of mushroom appear throughout the dish. For crostini, it's preferable to either finely chop or very thinly slice the mushrooms so they don't overwhelm the toasts or fall off when you bite into them.
I like to saut my mushrooms in a mixture of unsalted butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. Toward the end of cooking, I add some garlic or shallots and a little marjoram or thyme, and saut for a minute or so, just until fragrant and cooked through. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
If you're interested on foraging for mushrooms yourself, Sea Ranch Lodge on the Sonoma Coast is offering its fourth annual Camp Mushroom Weekend Dec. 6-8. The event will include a forage, lectures, wine tastings and dinners in honor of wild mushroom season. For more information and reservations, call (800) 732-7262.
Solano Mushroom Farm is at the following farmers' markets: Berkeley, Marin, Jack London, Danville and Pleasanton.
RISOTTO CAKES WITH FOREST MUSHROOMS
Recipe by Ralph Tingle, chef/owner of Bistro Ralph in Healdsburg. From "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" (Eating Fresh Guides, $17.95).
4 cups chicken stock
1 small onion, finely chopped
10 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Arborio rice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Salt and pepper to taste
9 tablespoons unsalted butter
11/2 pounds mixed mushrooms of your choice
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Make the risotto first so that it will have time to cool before you cut it into cakes: In a pot, combine 3 cups chicken stock with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and keep it simmering. In a second, larger pot, saut the onions in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Once the onions are translucent, add the Arborio rice and stir. Add a few ladles of the simmering stock to the rice and stir until liquid is absorbed. Add a few more ladles of stock and repeat process until the rice is tender, but still has a little texture to it, about 20 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of the fresh thyme, the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and season to taste.
Pour risotto into a baking dish large enough to make a layer of risotto about 1-inch thick. Place in the refrigerator to cool. When the risotto is completely cool and firm to the touch, cut out six 3-inch cakes using a cookie cutter or knife.
Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil plus 1 tablespoon of the butter in a heavy saut pan. When the oil begins to smoke, saut the cakes over moderately high heat until golden brown on both sides. When they are finished, keep them warm in the oven while the mushrooms are cooking.
Cut the mushrooms into 1-inch squares or bite-size pieces. In a large saut pan over high heat, heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil and 4 tablespoons of the butter. Once the olive oil is smoking and the butter is melted, add the mushrooms. Stir every 2 to 3 minutes, for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, shallots, parsley and remaining 1 tablespoon of thyme. Stir over high heat, add 1 cup of the chicken stock. Reduce this by half, and then add the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, stirring to fold in. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, place one risotto cake on each plate and surround with mushrooms. Serves 6.
Per Serving: 658 Calories; 42g Fat; 11g Protein; 57g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 52mg Cholesterol; 1575mg Sodium.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org