Wild About Mushrooms

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You might spot them as you are driving the scenic mountain roads of Colorado in late summer, carrying bulging pillowcases, heavy baskets or loaded buckets. They may avert their eyes, wary of giving away their secret. Alternately, they may not be able to hold back the silly grins on their faces. They’re an ambivalent group, the mushroom hunters, torn between a desire to guard their prize and an urge to share their admiration for fungi. Like most passionate hobbyists, mycophiles are a bit eccentric, complete with odd rituals and superstitions.

I understand this well, because I am one of them. Hunting mushrooms is one of the greatest pleasures I know. It’s treasure hunting with an edible reward.

Each year in the Rocky Mountains, the monsoon rains combine with summer heat to kick-start the mushroom flush. Those same rains set off an itch of anticipation in me as well, stimulating deep memories of the thrill of the hunt, and the earthy-sweet smell of Boletus edulis, something like a mash-up of baby skin, loam and rain on pavement.

In the high reaches of the mixed conifer forests of the Rockies, this species of mushroom known the world over for it’s fine white flesh and rich earthy flavor, and sometimes known as king boletes, or porcini, flourishes yearly. Preferring the young tap roots of spruce trees in particular, the Rocky Mountain kings are recognized by their wine-colored cap, fine pores and fat stalk marked by a faint pink netting.

Safety and etiquette in mushroom hunting

Easy to identify, king boletes are considered to be choice in flavor. However, to many who didn’t grow up hunting mushrooms, there is a culturally engrained, and not unwarranted fear, of mushrooms. Probably the best way to address the fear factor is to get in contact with a local mycological society. There, one can find seasoned mushroom experts who can help identify unknowns and also participate in guided mushroom hunting walks.

Once you know how to safely identify Rocky Mountain porcinis, very few tools are needed for harvesting them. Aside from basic mountain safety equipment, you’ll need a small knife, and a container that will allow the mushrooms to breathe.

There are some basic principles to know when hunting mushrooms. First, respect the land and the mushrooms that grow there. Turning over every mushroom you come across is poor form, as is over harvesting. Leave the tiniest buttons and the oldest, most overgrown mushrooms to complete their life cycle.Wild mushroom hunting grounds

My own mushrooming manners are impeccable. However, I’m guilty of lacking decorum on the mountain. Whenever I find a king bolete, I jump, I shout, I do a little happy dance. Actually, I do a great big dorky happy dance. But who can blame me? I’m not the first to be bewitched by the full buttery flavor of porcinis, which have notes chestnuts, unsmoked ham, and wood.

Preparing wild mushrooms to eat isn’t much different from cooking with commercial mushrooms. You must keep in mind that being a wild food, porcinis may have been nibbled by other creatures, and most have at least a few worms. Field dressing mushrooms is essential to the cleaning process. Immediately after harvesting a mushroom, gently brush dirt and duff from the cap, then use your knife to cut away the dirt-encrusted bits of stalk. If you take these extra steps while still in the forest, all you’ll need to do at home is finish cleaning off your mushrooms with a soft brush and a vegetable peeler.

Simple, rich recipes

Simplicity is the rule when cooking fresh Rocky Mountain porcinis, so their special flavor isn’t masked. I prefer them sautéed with butter and sea salt. However, if you are lucky enough to collect an abundance of Boletus edulis, they take well to both freezing (after being sautéed) and pickling.

Perhaps the easiest way to preserve king boletes is to simply dry them. Sliced a quarter-inch thick and left to dry in a well-ventilated area, porcinis keep well in an air-tight container for up to a year. Dried mushrooms need only some hot (not boiling) water and 30 minutes to rehydrate.

You can also take those same dried mushrooms and make something that will add real sparkle to your recipes. Place dried Boletus edulis mushrooms into a food processor, and buzz them up until they resemble a fine sand. The resulting powder is real workhorse in the kitchen. It can be used as a rub for meat, inserted into spice blends, added to deepen risottos, or to enrich soups, stews and sauces. Another stunning application is to blend a few spoonfuls of the porcini powder with softened butter.

Hunting for Rocky Mountain Boletus edulis is both an obsession and passion. I suspect some might even say it’s a disease. So I’ll kindly give you a word of warning: Mushroom fever is contagious. If you should happen to catch the bug, don’t fight it. Your kitchen will forever be better for it.

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Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she is a forager, photographer and wild foods consultant. She writes about her adventures with mountain food on her blog, Hunger and Thirst.

Photos, from top:
Boletus edulis, ready to be trimmed up and prepared in a dish.

Wild mushrooms ready to be harvested.

Credits: Wendy Petty

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