…and all you need is a small sharp knife!
Well, that’s not exactly true as you’ll also need the following:
• A wide basket or container so that you can spread the mushrooms in a single layer to avoid crushing them.
• You’ll definitely need a reference book unless you’re an expert. I recommend ‘Mushrooms of Colorado’ by Vera Stuckey Evanson. If you don’t live in Colorado always do your research before eating anything you find.
• Deep-wood bug repellent – the mosquitoes are the size of kittens in the Colorado high country right now.
• Plenty of drinking water.
• A soft bristle brush to remove the dirt and some paper towel in case they’re a bit soggy and to place them on in the back of your vehicle.
• A friend, if there’s no cell service and you’re in a remote area.
• A firearm, if there’s any chance of a mountain lion, grizzly or Bigfoot.
• A tank full of gas.
• Long pants, long sleeves and water resistant hiking boots.
• A camera.
I’m going to describe how to preserve most of what you find by drying them, plus give you a recipe for ‘duxelles’ – a classic French dish that reduces finely chopped ‘shrooms to a rich dense paste that can be frozen until needed. Incredibly versatile, it can be used for pizza topping, stuffing a baked potato, baked eggs or omelets, mashed potatoes, rice, soups, topping for steaks and burgers; layered between filet and pastry in beef Wellington or salmon ‘en croute’…you get the idea but first, the experience:
Hunting for edible mushrooms in the Colorado high country is far removed from the gentle, misty woodland experience of mushroom hunting in England. For starters, the only creatures your likely to disturb over there are deer, squirrel or rabbit so a shotgun isn’t necessary. The seasons are different as well; here it starts mid July through early September. You can still find them that late in the season but by then they’ve generally blown up into massive, soggy, worm-ridden, footstool-sized things that are not worth all the work needed to clean and dry them.
I only hunt for ‘porcini’ (Latin name, boletus edulis) that grow in pine forests in Colorado. I’d never turn my nose up at a clump of oyster mushrooms growing on a log, a golden patch of chanterelles, or a morel but I haven’t come across any of those here as yet.
In the UK porcini are a bit harder to find as they tend to lurk amongst the fallen brown Beech leaves from early to late fall. This is challenging as they’re the same color as the leaves that they’re hiding under and nine times out of ten it’s raining, so the experience is usually a wet one. Sharp eyesight is needed and a Barbour and wellies are essential gear. If you aren’t familiar with either item, let me explain; a Barbour is a waxed, thorn-proof, windproof, waterproof hunting jacket with enough deep pockets to stuff a brace of pheasant, a flask of hot coffee with brandy, assorted knives and mushroom cleaning tools, a cheese and pickle sandwich, first aid kit, keys, cell phone, camera and some rope. I like to carry rope in case I meet someone who asks “Hello, I need help – do you happen to have any rope?” Wellies are knee high rubber boots and are 100% waterproof. Enough of the nostalgia – now back to Colorado….
Aside from large predators, there are some other things to watch out for that can give you a jolt; imagine bending over in dense pine forest and upon standing from gathering a fine specimen that had been hiding in the undergrowth, you find yourself face to face with half a ton of snorting Black Angus. The fact that the occasional cow pat should have been an indicator shows how focused I was on finding ‘shrooms. Very unnerving! And something else totally weird – out of the corner of my eye I spotted an incongruous patch of bright blue in a clearing behind a tree. This turned out to be a 2 ft high portable plastic toilet that someone had positioned by a burned out fire pit. Campers, please! Can you take it with you when you leave?
Anyway to continue; having just made just made my 4th trip to a remote high mountain area this season, I filled the back of my SUV with about 40 lbs weight of the things. Driving for an hour followed by 7 more miles on a dirt road covered with fist sized rocks, is evidence of my determination. The one problem I have is not picking everything I see. A haul of 40 lbs weight is a lot of cleaning and slicing and my weekend is taken up entirely with mushroom related activity.
I avoid any with a cap diameter of more than 6 inches unless they feel really firm to the touch and a quick slice through reveals minimal worm activity. I brush/trim as much dirt away before loading into my car. If it’s been raining, the large ones may have a coating of slime and your hands will acquire an unpleasant brown layer which has to be scrubbed off. If you’re at all squeamish and the sight of a millimeter long white worm waving its face at you sends you shrieking for cover, this is not for you. Fellow intrepid hunters, read on….
Drying intensified their flavor a hundred-fold and they’re a delicious addition to anything needing mushrooms.
After brushing off as much dirt as possible and finely trimming the base with a paring knife, remove stubborn dirt by wiping with a damp cloth rather than running under the faucet – no need to be neurotic about it as the odd pine needle isn’t going to hurt you.
I start by cutting right down the center through cap and stalk. That way I can see if the worms have really had their way with them or are just starting to. A few tiny worms will crawl out, dry up and disappear so don’t worry. However, if it’s riddled, cut away that part and preserve the good bits. Slice these thinly; about 2 cm or 1/8th inch thick and spread in a single layer on paper towels on a rack so that air can fully circulate. Depending on the humidity level where you live, they’ll take up to 3 days to dry completely and your home will smell wonderfully mushroomy. Turn the pieces occasionally. You’ll see those pesky little worms wriggling out and drying up so they won’t be part of what you eat. When completely dry, store in airtight glass jars. I still have one jar left from the 2001 season – that’s how good it was that year and shows how long they last when dried.
To reconstitute dried mushrooms: take a small handful (or more), place in bowl and pour just-boiling water over them to cover. They’ll smell wonderful and after 15 minutes you’ll have a dark delicious broth as well. Line a fine strainer with a paper towel and pour the mushrooms and their soaking liquid to capture the liquid in another container. Remove the paper towel and give the soaked mushrooms a rinse under the faucet to remove any lingering debris, dried worm etc. Chop them up finely or use in large pieces; it’s up to you. Use the soaking liquid in whatever you’re cooking or save that for something else like a soup etc. Better yet, make this below…..
I haven’t been too fastidious with quantities, so here goes:
Reconstitute a large fistful of dried porcini as above; finely chop the soaked mushrooms and add them back to the strained broth. Set aside.
In a large skillet, melt a good amount of equal quantities of butter and x-virgin olive oil. Add half a cup of finely minced shallots and sweat gently until translucent.
Meanwhile, take a combination of fresh button baby porcini if you have them, otherwise a pound or two of portabellas or any combination of your favorite ‘shrooms (Shitakes are OK-ish but keep their addition to a minimum). Wipe any dirt off them with a damp cloth then chop finely; I pulse them in a food processor. Add to the shallots and stir until well coated with butter and oil. Sweat them over a low heat until softened.
Add the chopped dried ones and their soaking liquid. Throw in a sprig or two of fresh thyme and half a glass of marsala, madeira or sherry. Drink the other half.
Bring to a boil, season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover and turn down the heat to a low simmer for approx 45 minutes to one hour.
Check every 10 mins or so and add a little hot water if it’s drying out. During the last 5 minutes, remove the lid and bring the heat up to reduce any remaining liquid.
You’ll end up with a wonderful, rich, aromatic, chunky, mushroomy paste. If you use large portabellas the end result will be very dark. I used smaller ones here.
The tiny pieces of mushroom will have retained their shape so it’s important to chop them finely at the outset. I finish this all off with a drizzle of white or black truffle oil.
Once cooled, I store it in ice cube trays or little plastic containers in the freezer. That way you can pop out small amounts whenever you want to improve plain mashed potato, an omelet or pizza; soup, gravy, or perhaps pile some on top of a juicy steak, pork chop or a slab of pan-roasted halibut; slide it under the skin of a chicken breast before roasting – you get the idea – it’s incredibly versatile and well worth making a large batch once or twice a year.
You can make duxelles without using dried porcini but as dried mushrooms are available in most supermarkets these days, why stint? Otherwise, use big dark portabellas and have some organic vegetable broth warmed on the side to replace the mushroom soaking broth. It will taste very good but it won’t taste incredible!
Happy hunting – and bon appetit!
This is very cool Jacque. The duxelles sound divine. Warm hug. Adam
Oh so this is what is happening with all these cars parked up and down Squaw Pass Road when I ride my bike by! Folks carrying baskets, usually Russian speaking, traipsing off into the woods and not nearly as geared up as you recommend 🙂
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