My daughter and I went mushroom hunting for the first time last week. We were immediately drawn in by the hunting, wandering through the shade of the woods like children at Easter looking for the golden egg. Everywhere offered opportunities for finding–the mushrooms could be nestled in a clump of grass, or just emerging from the soil. Three hours passed like thirty minutes as we learned the terrain and how to distinguish the marshy land from dry areas. Stepping over fallen logs, we walked on a soft forest floor as if from a fairy tale, and followed along the edge of where the pines met the meadow. Eventually we found ourselves along the edge of a vast meadow, magical, like a secret, surrounded by the pines, the sunshine beckoning us towards it. A tiny rocky creek flowed down its eastern border, the natural version of the kind of creek that gets copied by landscapers at malls and upscale houses, with perfect boulders placed half-hazardly, making perfect stepping stones for us to cross over.
In Telluride, mushroom season usually happens three weeks after the first monsoon rains. We went with Scott from Telluride Mushroom Company, because we’ve seen him on Fridays, at the farmer’s market, sitting at his booth with overflowing baskets of mushrooms. Scott forages for mushrooms for a living so this vast national forest is like his office and he knows his way around in an intimate, authoritative way, giving us pointers like, “Over there, that yellow flower, is the arnica bush,” and “Try these bluebells, you can eat them, they taste like green beans!”
I hated mushrooms when I was little and only grew to like them as an adult, when suddenly I loved how portobello mushrooms tasted, in kebobs, caramelized on the grill, even as the extensive black gills beneath the cap totally freaked me out. I learned to ignore them and focused on the large caps as vehicles for more deliciousness. The gills disappeared into whatever stuffing I made for them, such as one unforgettable buttery crab, cream cheese and bread crumb concoction. I learned to like truffles from French fries, and the first time I had morels wasn’t until I was in my 30s. They were the the star of a homemade ravioli dish that tasted almost perfumed, not in an annoying way, but complex, altogether unfamiliar yet delicious. I was becoming aware of umami, the Japanese word for deliciousness, which is fifth and least talked about along with the flavors sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
We hunted in the woods near Lizard Head Pass, a storybook enchanting place, with its crystal clear creeks meandering through brilliant green meadows, surrounded by forests climbing up dramatic, craggy peaks. The altitude is extreme (over 10,000 feet) and so the air is usually cooler than anywhere else, and in the afternoons the skies often turn dark as storms build. It feels lonely and remote, like being on top of the world, but also privileged because it’s so distant and foreign from Texas and I can’t believe I get to be here. Snow shoeing there in the winter feels like tromping across the world as a beautiful birthday cake, our steps marring the pristine snowy layers, laid upon the topography like a perfect meringue or fondant, the meticulous handiwork of an expert pastry chef.
Until now, I’ve never fully understood what a mushroom was. Obviously a fungus, but the mushroom people describe it as the flowering body of a fungus, similar to fruit from a tree, so it doesn’t matter, conservation-wise, if you pick a mushroom, anymore than if you pluck peaches from a tree. At the Mushroom Festival, I went to a talk by Ken Kassenbrock, a PhD and MD from Colorado State University. He says there aren’t many validly scientific studies about mushrooms, because no one stands to benefit from them, but he has sifted through some of them and vetted the ones with scientifically valid results, and I learned that mushrooms are anti-oxidants. Eating only two servings a week helps with mild cognitive impairment, and they also help to boost the immune system. Not just any mushroom, but all mushrooms. He said his talk could be summed up by the bumper sticker he bought recently: Eat More Mushrooms!
The edible mushrooms we found included porcini, chanterelle, wood ear, oyster, hawk’s wing and bleeding milk cap. These last ones, with their bright orange caps that bleed blue, looked poisonous even if they weren’t, and like many mushrooms, they have poisonous look-alikes that could easily be growing amongst them. “Make sure you pick the ones that bleed orange, not white,” warned Scott. We haven’t eaten those yet, but we did make a predictable pasta with the porcini, and also a salad that we learned from a cooking class by chef Chad Hyatt during the festival. I bought his cookbook as part of my vow to Eat More Mushrooms (shouldn’t be a problem).
Clean your harvest of porcini buttons (the young mushrooms) and slice thinly with a mandolin. Marinate them in the juice and zest of one lemon, 1/4 c. good olive oil, 2 crushed cloves of garlic, salt and red pepper flakes. Make another lemon vinaigrette from the above portions and toss with fresh greens. Serve the marinated mushrooms on top with slivered almonds and shaved parmesan.