The mushroom hunting season in California has started with the winter rains, and our intrepid fellow Alchemist and Mushroom Hunter Natty has stepped up (in one case literally) to the plate. Unfortunately, it also means doggerel, as we’ve all learned from Part One. — Cat
OUR FIRST CONTESTANT: THE ZELLER’S BOLETE (OR IS IT?)
Taking bets on what it is, which may not always be a good idea with mushrooms.
Natty is as confused about this mushroom as I am about her bizarre habit of roaming sodden, freezing, filthy woods. Her first message was typically direct and initially decisive:
Consultation with ID book and Interwebz suggests that this is a Red-Stemmed Bitter Bolete. Not deadly, but not edible either.
Cool, I thought, don’t pick it, and went on my merry way wasting time on the Interwebz (“working”) in my warm and non-raining office. But moments later there was another message, one that raised alarm bells, one that sounded both confused and resentful:
Or it could be Zeller’s Bolete. Which looks similar, and is not bitter. Argh! It was so much easier back in Russia. Anything with a sponge on the bottom was edible and tasty. This whole “bitter bolete” thing in California (and East Coast too) is annoying.
Good grief! Help is on the way! I sprang into decisive action the way everyone does nowadays, which meant clicking on Wikipedia while getting another cup of coffee. Unsurprisingly, there’s not much help to be found. The photographs of the Red-Stemmed Bitter (Boletus rubripes) show it to look pretty much exactly like the Zeller’s Bolete (Boletus zelleri), so much so that cynical persons like myself start wondering if some puckishly sadistic mycologist might be pulling one over on us. The question remains tantalizingly unresolved:
I am a BO-leet,
and not a bo-LEH-tay.
So while you can cut me
With your machete,
I’ll continue to taunt you
And cause you to jitter —
Am I a sweet Zeller’s
or a Red-Stemmed BITTER?
OUR SECOND CONTESTANT: THE ARMILLARIA, A.K.A. THAT ROOMMATE YOU THOUGHT WAS COOL UNTIL ALL YOUR STUFF STARTED DISAPPEARING
Armillaria, “oak root fungus.” Delicious, like the tears of tortured unicorns.
I am Armillaria —
A wraith of wretched ruthless rot,
A parasitic pathogen
Who’ll eat trees live or not.
So call me “honey fungus”
(My P.R. is elite)
And toast me with your vodka,
While I spread beneath your feet.
Natty’s remarks on this specimen are heartbreakingly tormented.
While the Russian in me rejoices at the prospect of salting it and serving it as an appetizer with vodka, the gardener in me wants to turn a flame thrower on these things. These guys are also known an “oak root fungus”, the evil killer of fruit and other trees around here. We lost two decorative plums and a peach to this stuff.
Wikipedia (why yes, I did just get another cup of coffee) confirms that this particular mushroom is both delicacy and destruction. Let’s start with the good stuff first. In colloquial English it’s nicknamed “honey fungus,” while in Ukrainian it’s called either “openky” or “pidpenky,” which means “on/beneath the stumps.” (In a second you’ll see why this differential is so perfectly explanatory.) Its edibility is regarded as “choice,” and it is esteemed above even morels and chanterelles. It makes a delicious and classic side dish, as Natty notes, or at least the excuse to have lots of vodka; as a child, she brought bucketsful home to her mother. We’ll get to the recipe below just in case, like Natty’s mother, you end up with buckets too.
But there’s another side to the Armillaria — most strains are so profoundly, unrepentantly parasitic that they kill their hosts. It’s an unusual trick Armillaria has; it can thrive on dead trees as well as live ones. (Most of the parasitic mushrooms moderate their growth in order to avoid killing the tree). The Wikipedia description of what it does to trees sounds like something out of a horror movie. And it’s a fast and prolific spreader — so successful, in fact, that Armillarias form some of the largest living organisms in the world. There are literally armies of Armillaria out there committing mass arboreal murder.
So there we have it. Delicious amuse-bouche or tree-murdering pestilent horde? “Honey fungus” or “beneath the stumps” (of the trees it just massacred, presumably)? You make the call!
If you do end up in possession of some confirmed edible Armillarias, though (don’t mess this part up), and choose to side with the “honey fungus” position as opposed to the “flamethrower” point of view, Natty has a recipe that she remembers from her youth. The captions explain each step in detail.
After picking, remove the “stems” (or stypes as the mycologists call them). Some people peel them and saute them, but I was too lazy.
We just eat the caps. Wash.
Slice the caps.
Put in a pot of water, bring to a boil, drain and rinse, then refill the pot with cold water, bring to a boil and cook for about 20-30 minutes. The drain/rinse is to get rid of the scum that will come up.
Prepare the salting ingredients: pepper, bay leaf, garlic, and salt. For the purists, in Russia we also use blackcurrant leaves, sour cherry leaves, and horseradish leaves. And it should really be dill flowers, not dill itself. And, I had to walk to school 4 miles, in the snow, uphill, both ways. And it was dark too. Both on the way there and on the way back.
Drain the mushrooms after the cooking is finished.
Find a glass or enamel bowl. Layer herbs on the bottom, then a layer of mushrooms, then sprinkle generously with salt, then another layer of herbs, more mushrooms, more salt, etc. For 1 kg cooked mushrooms, use 40 g of salt (yes it’s a LOT; you may wish to notify your cardiologist).
For the final preparation step, put a cover over the mushrooms (I used shrinkwrap), and then a plate or bowl on top of that, and then something heavy on the plate or bowl. The idea is to keep everything compressed.
For authentic compression, I used the staple of every sophisticated Russian kitchen — a rock.
Leave the weighted, salted mushrooms in the fridge for a week. The dish is served cold, with only the herbs removed, and can be topped with onion slices and a drizzle of sunflower oil. Then they’re ready for you to break out the vodka and toast the Armillaria in a superbly appropriate way — by eating them with about as much remorse as they show their victims. It’s a tough old world out there, even for mushrooms. And revenge is best when, as here, it’s served cold.