Chef Matt on mushroom foraging and a new quesadilla

November 8th, 2012

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New on the menu – Quesadilla with hen of the woods mushrooms, epazote and habanero salsa























Each year, as the days grow shorter and the first fall rains arrive, one can find me in my free time hiking through the wooded hills of Marin county, eyes darting across the forest floor in search of flashes of gold, telltale signs of a fruiting of Cantherellus Californicus, our local strain of the golden chanterelle mushroom.   Or searching for the prized Boletus Regius, porcini, under raised tufts of fallen Monterey pine needles.

Almost 20 years ago, I was introduced to a book entitled “Mushrooms Demystified”.  This field guide was written by David Arora, who is a professor of Mycology, or the study of fungus, at UC Santa Cruz.  This was around the same time that I was beginning my career in culinaria, and I became fascinated by the possibility of “finding food”.  I essentially educated myself by walking through the woods with field guide in hand.  I find it to be a true exercise of the senses.   I learned early that many wild mushrooms have a “mycorrhizal” relationship with a particular type of tree.  Mycorrhiza are the living body of ther fungus that remains  underground, the mushrooms themselves are the fruiting bodies of said fungus that emerge from the soil in order to spread their spores to the wind and procreate.

I now know that in the Bay Area, chanterelles will be growing under live oak trees that skirt the edges of meadows.  Often these woods are mixed with California Bay Laurel, so I often associate their fragrance with chanterelles, in fact, the mushrooms often carry the scent of fresh bay from the soil in which they are growing.

Not surprisingly, I am always excited to see which wild mushrooms are at market when I am travelling through Mexico.   Due to the warmer climate, most of the varieties eaten in Mexico are Agaricus mushrooms or “field mushrooms”.  This family includes the common cultivated button mushrooms and portobella, which is essentially an overgrown brown button mushroom.  But I have also seen other more exotic varieties in Oaxaca, including yellow foot chanterelles and blewits, which also grow locally in mixed woods.

This just in: the Gods were generous – first porcinis of the season emerge in Matt’s secret stash

As we transition into fall and winter, mushrooms will take center stage at Comal.  Even when the wild varieties aren’t available, some of the exotic cultivated ones will make an appearance.  This week, roasted hen of the woods mushrooms will replace pumpkin blossoms in a quesadilla.  This is one of my favorite mushrooms, it has a deep, chocolaty flavor, which really shines when accompanied by epazote, an herb that pairs wonderfully with mushrooms.

Mushrooms can be so elusive. Some years, everything lines up, but last year was particularly fruitless.   Hopefully, my secret spot for porcini mushrooms will begin producing next week.  It usually does about 2 weeks after the first significant rainfall.   May the mushroom Gods be generous.