When rains come to the wild places of the Pacific Northwest, so do the mushrooms and mushroom-seekers.
This time of year, it's the prized chanterelle, along with a plethora of lesser-known edible fungi that are plucked from their wooded landscapes and brought into the kitchen.
Within the past 20 years, these exotic gifts of nature have become more than hobbyist passion. They're big business — a multimillion dollar industry in the Northwest alone. But the gastronomical relationship between mushroom and mushroom lover pales in comparison to the more complex relationship between the mushroom and the forest it inhabits.
Take a stand of Douglas fir, for example. Most species within this type of forest require ectomycorrhizae — types of fungi (including chanterelle) — that develop on the short, feeder roots of the tree.
Their presence helps the tree absorb nutrients from the soil. In return, the tree exudes amino acids, carbohydrates and other compounds helpful to the fungi. Once established on the tree, and as the tree's fine root systems stretch through the soil, the fungi release enzymes that increase the availability of phosphorus and other nutrients to the trees. They also produce their own compounds that stimulate other soil organisms into action, which ultimately influence the growth of the trees.
But while the relationship is known to exist, forest mycology researchers are seeking a deeper understanding of precisely how it works because the short- and long-term health of many of our nation's forests is influenced by this relationship. Unlocking the mystery most certainly will lead to growing and maintaining healthier forests.
It also may lead to greater commercial production of prized, wild mushrooms. After all, once researchers are armed with greater understanding of precisely how these fungi grow, then the chanterelle, and other highly coveted wild mushrooms, potentially could be cultivated indoors with the same ease as the common button mushroom.
Wouldn't that be lovely?
This is the time of year when most of the following wild mushrooms are available. Although not found at every corner grocery store, they most certainly will be abundant where specialty produce is ordered and sold. It also helps to be pals with trained seekers of wild mushrooms! They usually take pity on nonseekers once they've satisfied their cravings and begin to share.
CHANTERELLES (Cantharellus cibarius): Harvested mainly in fall and winter. Fruiting seems to be kicked into action by the onset of rains and a decrease in temperature; symbiotic with a number of forest trees; in the Pacific Northwest, most commonly with Douglas fir. The Northwest is a major producer of the chanterelle. The most common species is the yellow chanterelle (cibarius), which resembles a beautifully shaped, curving trumpet. It smells slightly of apricot and has a wonderfully delicate flavor. To prepare, remove dirt by brushing or wiping with a damp towel; trim stem ends. Recipes for the chanterelle generally are simple so the delicate flavor is not disguised. Simple sautes with butter, shallots and garlic are nice, or with eggs and in delicate cream sauces over pasta.
CEPE (Boletus edulis and Boletus mirabilis are the preferred varieties): Widely available in fall, sporadically the rest of the year, these are some of the most sought-after wild mushrooms. It's known to be symbiotic with pine trees and perhaps some hardwood species. In preparation, some people remove the spore-bearing body under the cap because it can develop an unpleasant texture after cooking. Cepes are very versatile and often sauteed in olive oil, grilled, stewed or marinated in a vinaigrette after briefly blanching.
HEDGEHOG (Dentinum repandum): Available winter and spring, it is symbiotic with Douglas fir and other forest trees. Not as well-known in the commercial trade, but mushroom companies are quickly seeking to expand the harvest as demand has increased. To prepare, remove dirt by brushing or wiping with a damp towel; trim stem ends. The hedgehog often is substituted in recipes calling for chanterelles
MORELS (Morchella sp.): Most cooks associate this tender treat with spring. But they do grow sporadically all year. To prepare, simply brush or wipe clean with a damp towel; trim stem ends. They often are sauteed, stuffed, braised, added to omelets or cooked in simple cream sauces.
MATSUTAKE (Amillaria ponderosa): Grows sporadically all year long. This prized mushroom is the American cousin to the revered Japanese "pine mushroom" and, as its name implies, is found in association with pine trees. It generally is picked with a damp cap, which, when ready to prepare, may be wiped with a damp cloth or clean sponge. The matsutake is very aromatic and, on occasion, tough. Although steaming or simple sautes are not uncommon, in Japan they are used in soups and stews, as well.
TRUFFLES (Tuber gibbosum): Truffles in Oregon? You bet. Especially in association with one of the state's most predominant conifers, Douglas fir. And if you're a huge fan, then consider getting in on the ninth annual Oregon Truffle Festival, slated Jan. 24 through 26 in Eugene. Tickets went on sale in September, and — trust me — they go fast. So if you're even mildly interested, jump online and check it out at www.oregontrufflefestival.com.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.