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Home Plate: Wild mushrooms present endless opportunities for easy cuisine

  • Stir-fried mushrooms, beef and rice noodles.<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor
  • Oyster mushrooms like to grow on maple trees.<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor
  • Dried mushrooms<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor
  • Dried mushrooms<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

Last week while out inspecting their woodlot, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law spied a dead sugar maple bristling with ripe oyster mushrooms. In warmer weather, the bugs have usually discovered the mushrooms long before we do, which means they’re full of maggots. But autumn’s cold has driven the bugs away, which meant these oysters were going to be perfect.

We went out with knives and bags and carried away about 15 pounds of gorgeous white anise-scented oyster mushrooms, far more than we could possibly eat fresh. So we simply sliced them up and dried them, tucking them away into jars to use in winter stocks and soups.

My nephew also taught me the trick of grinding up the dried mushrooms into a powder that works a bit like instant soup mix. I recommend throwing a spoonful of it into stock or risotto or sauteing vegetables for a satisfying umami boost – it’s absolutely delicious.

We’ll keep looking for wild oyster mushrooms for the next few weeks, or as long as this unusually balmy fall weather lasts. If you’d like to forage some of your own, please do take along an experienced mushroom hunter and an excellent mushroom guidebook. Misidentifying mushrooms can be deadly, or at the very least decidedly unpleasant. A friend of my nephew’s recently treated his friends to what he thought was a fry-up of chanterelles. They turned out to be jack o’lantern mushrooms; the dinner party guests spent the better part of the night with serious gastric distress.

If you’d rather not take a risk, do your mushroom hunting at the farmers market or grocery store. The recipes below can be made with any variety of fresh or dried mushrooms. For the best prices on dried fungi, take a look in the Asian food section of the grocery store – shitakes, especially, tend to inexpensive and readily available.

Dried Mushrooms

Remove any bits of dirt from the mushrooms using a soft brush or a piece of paper towel (it’s best not to wash them as they will absorb a lot of moisture). If drying oyster mushrooms, slice them into pieces about 1∕2-inch wide. If drying small button-type mushrooms, you may leave them whole or slice them in half, leaving the stems on.

Mushrooms dry well in a food dehydrator if you have one – simply follow your machine’s instruction manual. If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can dry your mushrooms by arranging them on a parchment-lined sheet tray (don’t pack them tightly; leave a little room around each piece), and then placing them in an oven pre-heated to as low a temperature as it can maintain; 150-200 degrees will work well. If your oven has a convection fan, turn that on, too.

Keep a close eye on the mushrooms, turning them occasionally so they dry evenly. If they seem to be browning rather than drying, turn the oven off completely for a while. The mushrooms will gradually shrink quite a bit and eventually turn hard and dry; this will take about 1 to 2 hours in the oven, depending on the size and moisture content of the mushrooms.

Once they are completely dehydrated with no sign of moisture and have cooled, the mushrooms can be stored at room temperature in a tightly sealed plastic bag or a jar with a screw-on top.

Mushroom Powder

Place some dried mushrooms in a small spice grinder and whir them until they turn to a homogenous powder. Store the powder in a tightly sealed jar at room temperature.

Mushroom, Chicken
and Quinoa Soup

8 or so dried shitake mushrooms

1 cup water

pinch sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup minced leeks

1 tablespoon mushroom powder

1∕4 pound oyster mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 or 4 fresh sage leaves, minced, or 1∕2 teaspoon dry sage

1 small sprig rosemary, minced, or 1∕2 teaspoon dry rosemary

1 cup chopped tomatoes (canned are fine)

6 cups vegetable or chicken stock

1∕2 cup sherry (optional)

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

freshly ground black pepper (to taste)

1∕2 cup quinoa

1 cup chopped, cooked chicken

1 tablespoon cider vinegar (or to taste)

Rinse the dried shitakes in cool water to remove any grit. Place them in a microwaveable bowl with the water and sugar and then microwave them at full power for about 1 minute, or until the water becomes very hot. Leave the mushrooms in the water and set them aside to cool a bit. When the mushrooms are cool enough to handle, take them out of the soaking water (reserve the water) remove their tough stems and discard them. Slice the caps into strips about 1∕4 to 1∕2 inch wide.

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large pot then add the leeks and saute them gently until they are soft, about five minutes. Stir the mushroom powder into the leeks and cook for a minute or so, until you can smell the mushrooms cooking.

Add the shitakes and oyster mushrooms to the pot and cook them for 5 minutes or so, then stir in the herbs and cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes and cook for another minute, then add the reserved mushroom water, the stock, the sherry (if using) and the salt and pepper.

Simmer the soup gently for about a half an hour, then add the quinoa and chicken. Simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the quinoa is cooked. Taste the soup, and if you think it needs a little zip, add the optional vinegar. Serve hot. Serves 6.

Oyster Mushrooms with Beef and Rice Noodles

1∕2 pound rice noodles

1 pound oyster mushrooms, cleaned and sliced into 1∕2-inch-wide strips (you may substitute other fresh mushrooms or about 2 cups of dried mushrooms)

water and a pinch of sugar (if using dried mushrooms)

2 tablespoons oil

1 cup chopped leeks or 1 bunch chopped scallions

3 tablespoons minced ginger

3∕4 pound beef (any kind of steak would work), thinly sliced against the grain

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 cup stock or water

Place the rice noodles in a large bowl of warm water and set them aside to soak and soften while you prepare the vegetables and meat.

If using dried mushrooms, rinse any grit from them, then cover them with water mixed with a pinch of sugar in a microwaveable bowl and microwave on high for about 1 minute, or until the water is very hot. Set aside to cool. Alternatively, you may cover the mushrooms with very hot water and set them aside to soften for about half an hour. When softened, throw away the tough stems (if any) and slice the mushrooms into 1∕2-inch-wide strips. Reserve 11∕2 cups of the soaking water.

Heat half the oil in a wok, then add the leeks or scallions and the ginger and allow to cook for a few minutes until softened. Add the beef and salt and stir fry for another minute, just until the meat has lost its red color, then pour all the contents of the pan out into a bowl. Pour 1∕2 cup of water into the wok, swirl around to capture the cooking juices, then pour into the reserved mushroom soaking water or into a bowl containing 11∕2 cups of water. Dry the wok.

Return the wok to the heat and add the remaining oil. When it is hot, add the mushrooms and cook for several minutes. Add the reserved water and soy sauce, then add the softened rice noodles and cook them until they are tender but not mushy, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add the stock or additional water, then the bowl of cooked beef and vegetables. Cook for another minute, until everything is well heated. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

Adapted from
Beyond the Great Wall,
by Jeffrey Alford
and Naomi Duguid

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