I’m ensconced in our little “Airstream” trailer in the Gorge and feeling very cozy, despite the cooling environment. It’s October and the colors are changing. Here, on the edge of the desert, the wind has stopped, so no more windsurfing for a while. The air is moisture-laden and not conducive for painting outside. There is still no new snow on the mountains. The good news is: mushrooms are sprouting up in them thar hills!
In Seattle, Nina had invited me to go mushroom hunting. We drove over Snoqualmie Pass and detoured over dirt roads which led to one of her “secret” mushroom spots. Unfortunately, she had shared her secret with some of her Russian friends and the grounds were well trodden. Remnants of mushrooms and cut stems were observed only too often. Nonetheless, perhaps by accident or providence, we managed to find some attractive specimens. The preferred pick is always of the legendary boletus variety, the “King Boletus” being the top prize for us former Europeans. I also came across some large but rather ordinary looking mushrooms that I decided to harvest.
I arrived back at the car before Nina did, ate my lunch, and tried to avoid the hot sun. Two women came walking down the dirt road carrying baskets filled with splendid boletus. I asked if they knew their mushrooms (a rhetorical question). When they responded in the affirmative I asked them to pass judgment as to the edibility of my mystery mushrooms. They concluded (in Polish) that this was, indeed, an edible variety.
Soon Nina arrived. When she saw the abundance of boletus in the Polish women’s baskets, she exclaimed: “Where did you find all those?” The two women responded by pointing into the sky with circular motions: “Oh, all over there.”
“Oh, yes,” Nina responded, “I know exactly where you mean.” Later, I chided Nina: “Did you really expect them to tell you their secret spot?”
As I dropped Nina off at her house I dumped my share of mushrooms into her basket. She objected since she had no intention of cleaning and preparing unfamiliar mushrooms that belonged to me. I assured her that my mushrooms were hers to keep and I expected only a small sample of her marinated concoction. Reluctantly, she agreed. The next day I dropped by and picked up a small jar of mushrooms marinated in a slimy sauce. It’s a Russian dish to die for, but it’s an acquired taste.
That weekend, the Northwest Mycological Society was holding its annual mushroom exhibit in Seattle. My interest was piqued and I decided to go. While browsing through the many displays I came across samples that looked remarkably similar to my mystery mushrooms. They were labeled, “matsutake.” Thinking out loud, I exclaimed that I had picked a whole bunch just like that. Immediately, I was surrounded by several middle-aged Japanese ladies who expressed great interest in my comment. “Where did you find them?” queried the little lady on my left. “Well,” I responded, “how do you prepare these things?” I had now attracted a full crowd around me. The little oriental lady folded her arms across her chest and stood her ground: “I won’t tell you how to prepare these mushrooms until you tell me where you found them.”
I remembered how secretive Nina was about her locale and how vague the Polish women had been about theirs. Finally, I responded, “I found them east of Snoqualmie Pass.” There were great smiles on the faces around me. I hoped they accepted my answer with humor. After all, even Spokane is on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass.
I then drove over to Nina’s house. My mystery mushrooms were still in the cardboard box. “Nina, I’ll take those if you don’t want them. Did you know that they are matsutakes?”
“Well, that’s good to know,” she replied. “The Japanese really like them. Go ahead, I’m sick of cleaning mushrooms.”
There must have been over a pound of these prized fungi that I reclaimed—beautiful specimens that held up well with time. I arrived at my place in the Gorge later that evening and began to prepare them for consumption. I sliced them up and “dry sautéed” them. That way they got roasted and developed their strong flavor more readily. I took three eggs, spiced them up and fried the mushrooms into a “frittata.” It was more than enough for two dinners, but I ate the whole thing. What a treat!
It had rained recently in the Gorge, but the weather was sunny and warm again. Inspired by my latest mushroom orgy, I decided to drive up into the high forest of Mt. Adams in search of more fungi. After testing a few locations that were devoid of good mushrooms, I came across a couple of beautiful boletus at the edge of a creek. If there is one—there must be more, I reasoned. I went back to my car and got my shopping bag, a little knife and my trusty mushroom guidebook.
Soon I came across another group of boletus. They were well-preserved specimens with shiny black caps—a variety I had not seen before. The book identified them as “Zellers Boletus.” Into the bag they went. Then, I came across an extensive colony of beautiful white mushrooms with gills on the underside of their caps (rather than pores that boletus have). They were growing clumped together in great numbers. The book showed remarkably similar examples and called them “Fried Chicken Mushrooms.” In the footnote, the author added: “No one seems to know how this mushroom got its name-—it certainly doesn’t taste anything like chicken! Be sure not to eat clumped mushrooms with white to grey caps or with pinkish spores, as they may be poisonous.” Well, I thought, these caps are not “white” white, and certainly not grey. So, I harvested them all and took them home.
The next morning, I cleaned all the mushrooms and dry sautéed the two boletus; I roasted them in a frying pan, adding only salt and pepper. I then sliced up the “chicken” mushrooms and sautéed them traditionally—in olive oil, with salt, pepper and onions. In the meantime, I began nibbling on the two varieties of roasted boletus. They were scrumptious! The roasted flavor of these morsels was powerful and irresistible. Within an hour, my plate was empty and my stomach was full. That was my lunch.
After the “chicken” mushrooms lost most of their liquid, I mixed in a generous portion of sour cream and some spiced up tomato sauce, and stored the concoction away in the fridge. It makes a delicious spread when loaded generously on toasted bread. I have been snacking on this dish with delight for two days now—with no ill effects. I must have picked the non-lethal variety, after all.