Friday, December 13, 2013

Signed Gift Books

Give a signed copy of The Mushroom Hunters to the readers on your holiday gift list! I'm happy to inscribe, sign, and mail books. The cost is $25 for the book, including tax (a discount on cover price), plus $5.60 to ship each copy priority mail with 2-3 day delivery, for a total of $30.60.

Contact me at finspotcook AT gmail DOT com with mailing address and recipient name, and I'll send you PayPal instructions. No gift wrap. Hurry while supplies last and there's still time to send priority mail.

Everyone knows Santa loves mushrooms... Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Seattle Book Events

Two pieces of good news: The Mushroom Hunters was just short-listed for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards (thank you local indies!), and my first TV interview will be broadcast on the PBS show Well Read. Admittedly, I didn't sleep much before the interview (and I had a frog in my throat, the first cold of the season), but the 30-minute conversation flew by in a blink, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with host Terry Tazioli, who is smart, curious, and an all-around good guy.

I'll be staying close to home through the remainder of 2013, with plenty of readings and slide talks planned for the Seattle area. If you're curious about edible fungi or the hidden subculture of mushroom pickers and buyers, stop by one of these events:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Next Stop, the Big Apple

The West is now home, but I never pass up a chance to revisit my childhood roots and plug into the electrical current that is New York City. On November 21, at 7 p.m., Slow Food NYC is hosting me for a slide presentation in Brooklyn, at Fitzcarraldo restaurant, and I guarantee a good time for all.

The picture above was snapped a few years ago from the inside of a wild mushroom delivery van at dawn as it hustled several hundred pounds of Oregon chanterelles from Newark International Airport to the finest restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn. You can't research North America's fast-and-loose wild mushroom trade and not visit the most fabled eateries on the continent, where fungi have been elevated to a place among the top ingredients in a chef's pantry. I write about my time in New York in a chapter titled "Ingredients as Art," a phrase borrowed from Sam Sifton's 4-star review of Del Posto in The New York Times. President Obama happened to be in town to light the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and Occupy Wall Street protesters had just been evicted from Zuccotti Park. As always, electricity was in the air.

If you're in the New York area and you're curious about the wild mushroom trail—and the colorful characters who make their living on this itinerant, informal circuit—then come on by, have a beer, and stay for the presentation. I'll be showing slides and talking about the book.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pickled Chanterelles

As reported in earlier posts, the Pacific Northwest's fall mushroom season has been a boon to recreational pickers this year. Kings, matsutake, chanterelles, sparassis, and others are fruiting in big numbers, and such abundance encourages us to get creative with how we stock the larder.

Most years I'll sauté and freeze more than enough chanterelles, to name but one variety, to get me through the rest of the year. This season I'm taking it a bit further. I'm dehydrating and powdering the mushrooms to make a Chanterelle Spice Rub, and I'm also pickling them.

Here's a very simple way to pickle chanties. The key is to get as much moisture out of the mushrooms before pickling so that they can then be bathed in liquid later. This makes for flavorful mushrooms with good texture. You can use any sort of vinegar, but cider vinegar complements the hints of stone fruit in chanterelles, while the addition of water insures that the mushroom's delicate flavor isn't overpowered.

2 lbs chanterelles
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp kosher salt, plus a pinch
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp pickling spices *

* I used a commercial pickling blend that included black peppercorns, allspice, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, bay leaf, red chili pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace, and cardamon. An equivalent amount of black peppercorns, allspice, and coriander seeds is fine, plus a bay leaf.

1. Use button chanterelles if possible. Clean carefully. Keep small mushrooms whole; cut larger ones in half or quarters.

2. Heat a deep sauté pan over medium without oil or butter. Add chanterelles and stir immediately, continuing to stir at an easy pace until the mushrooms begin to release their water. Increase the heat to high and continue to stir until most of the water has evaporated. Sprinkle a healthy pinch of salt over the chanterelles and reduce heat again to medium.

3. Add vinegar, water, salt, sugar, and pickling spices. Simmer 5 minutes.

4. Use a slotted spoon to pack mushrooms into sterilized jars. Pour liquid and spices over to cover, with a quarter-inch of head room. Top off with more vinegar if necessary.

5. Seal jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Wild Table

One of the perks of being a writer (besides the endless hours of self-doubt and boatloads of cash) is the chance to hit the road and meet up with likeminded folks—and call it work. Likeminded in my case means those who enjoy spending time both outdoors in nature and indoors in the kitchen.

This past weekend I traveled down to Eugene, Oregon, for the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival. Along the way I stopped near the funky coastal hamlet of Yachats to visit with a friend who I knew only from Facebook. David is an ace cook, mushroom forager, and photographer. His food photography graces the web site Earthy Delights. His wife Anna is of Russian descent, which makes her genetically predisposed to sleuthing out fungi.

Together the three of us hunted some of their favorite spots and came away with a cooler filled with beautiful #1 matsutake buttons, plump porcini, and a variety of other edible boletes. Back at their home, we celebrated our bounty in Russian fashion—Za vashe zdorovie!—with a shot of yellowfoot-infused vodka (and then another) and got down to the business of snapping a few pics of that evening's wild table.

Unlike me, David is an organized and well prepared food photographer. He had a light box and tripod in his office along with various deflectors and gizmos. We set up some of that evening's goodies, starting in the upper right corner and moving clockwise: yellowfoot-infused vodka, salt-cured saffron milkcaps, matsutake, golden chanterelles, king boletes, shots of yellowfoot vodka, wild scaber-stalk bread, dried chanterelle spice rub, and smoked salmon spread.

After a first course of homemade ravioli with a pork and chestnut filling and a salad course of romaine hearts with fresh-shaved porcini and a Meyer lemon dressing, we proceeded out front into the cool evening air to grill: matsutake caps with a ponzu marinade and dipping sauce of soy and key lime; traditional olive oil and garlic marinated porcini; a fillet of wild Chinook salmon with chanterelle spice rub and rock crab butter; and a dessert of pears with spruce bud syrup. As the decanter's waterline of yellowfoot vodka ebbed, multiple bottles of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir appeared. It was a feast to savor, capping off a fruitful day of foraging with new friends on a miraculously sunny fall day on the Oregon Coast.

The next morning, after a rise-n-shine bowl of Matsutake Wonton Soup, I drove the pretty little Alsea River through the Coast Range, spying salmon fishermen along the way, to Eugene for the mushroom festival. It was a huge success, with a big crowd of fungal fanciers, more than 400 species identified, and a bluegrass band playing outside. Volunteers whooped it up at the After Party and I made the wise decision to spend one more night. I also had the opportunity to put a few faces to names, including the elusive Chicken-of-the-woods (aka Laetiporus Sulphureus) and Dimitar Bojantchev, moderator of the Mushroom Talk listserv. As a nightcap, my hosts in Eugene, Bruce and Peg, plied me with their delicious (and powerful) homemade blackberry brandy.

The next day I bid adieu to Madame Muscaria and the rest of the characters that make Eugene and the Oregon Coast such a pleasure to visit, with plans to make it back down there again as soon as possible.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Upcoming Events

This fungi train keeps a-rolling...

Thursday night, October 24, I'll be part of an all-star lineup for Seattle Lit Crawl. Other readers will include Ivan Doig, Will Self, Claire Dederer, Neal Thompson, Ellen Forney, and many more. Join me at Capitol Cider at 8pm for the "Farm to Fable" crowd, with readings by Kathleen Flinn, Joe Ray, Kurt Timmermeister, and myself. After Party at Richard Hugo House at 9pm.

This weekend, October 25-27, I'll be in Eugene, Oregon, to speak at Lane Community College on Friday at 7pm, as part of the Cascade Mycological Society's fall lecture series, and on Sunday I'll be signing books at the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Fest.

For fungi fanciers around Puget Sound, I'll be reading and showing slides at Village Books in Bellingham on November 13 as part of the North Cascades Institute's "Nature of Writing" series. And on November 14 I'll be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

After that, I take a bite out of the Big Apple. More on my East Coast swing later...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Porcini Lasagna per Marcella

My first cookbook was Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which collects into a single volume two of her earlier books, The Classic Italian Cook Book and More Classic Italian Cooking. (Actually, it was owned by my girlfriend Martha, who would later become my wife, and even back then it was dog-eared and flecked with red sauce.) We refer to the book simply as Marcella, and it remains our go-to reference for Italian cuisine.

For many of us, making Italian at home means a night of romance: wine, maybe too much of it; endless antipasti of olives, roasted peppers, prosciutto; some candlelight. It’s an occasion. Having a signature Italian ingredient on hand such as fresh porcini mushrooms (translated as the evocative “little pigs”) seals the deal.  

When we heard that Marcella Hazan had passed away at the end of September, we took a nanosecond to decide on dinner. It would be a night to celebrate the whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking woman who introduced so many Americans to Italian culinary traditions. We cracked open a bottle of Chianti and started slicing up the last of our hard-won little piggies, which we had gathered in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington State for just such a meal. Next we flipped open Marcella to remember her very particular rules about making a béchamel sauce. A Porcini Lasagna would mark the occasion.

This recipe is adapted from both Marcella and a recent edition of Health magazine (a publication she would surely object to). While conventional, store-bought mushrooms such as cremini and portobello will suffice, it’s the sweet, nutty flavor of fresh wild porcini that truly makes this dish.

12 lasagna noodles, boiled and drained
4 cups milk
8 tbsp butter (1 stick)
6 tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/8 tsp nutmeg
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1 tbsp thyme, chopped
1 tbsp sage, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 lbs mushrooms, sliced
1 cup Parmesan
1 cup Asiago cheese
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Make the béchamel white sauce by simmering milk in a saucepan and setting aside. In a separate pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour to melted butter while stirring until a paste forms; the paste should darken ever so slightly without becoming too colored. Slowly whisk hot milk into flour. Continue to whisk until the sauce is smooth. It should be thick enough to coat a spoon. Stir in minced garlic, most of chopped parsley (reserving 1 tablespoon for garnish), salt, white pepper, and nutmeg. Set aside and cover.

2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a pan over medium heat. Sauté diced onions until soft and translucent. Remove to a bowl.

3. In same pan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat and sauté sliced mushrooms until tender (porcini mushrooms should be lightly golden on outside). Season with salt and pepper. Return onions to pan and add chopped thyme and sage. Cook together, stirring, another minute. Remove from heat.

4. Mix cheeses together in a bowl.

5. In a greased 13 X 9 inch baking dish, assemble the lasagna. Spread a few spoonfuls of béchamel over bottom. Place three noodles lengthwise in dish, then spread about a 1/2 cup of sauce over, followed by a third of the mushroom-onion mixture, and 1/3 cup of cheese. Repeat layers twice more. Top with final layer of noodles, remaining sauce, and cheese.

6. Bake uncovered, about 45 minutes. It should be lightly browned on top and edges. Garnish with remaining parsley and allow to sit for 15 minutes before serving.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Wild Mushroom Show

This year marks the 50th year of the Puget Sound Mycological Society's annual mushroom show in Seattle, and what a silver anniversary it will be! Join the fungal fun this weekend in Seattle.

Unless you've been living under a mossy rock, you probably know this has been a extraordinary fall for fungi in the Pacific Northwest. The cool, wet weather is bringing out a diversity of wild mushrooms, including some of the mycophagist's favorites: king boletes, matsutake, bear's head, and many more. The woods are so full of chanterelles right now that commercial pickers are earning a dollar or less per pound!

Rarities will also be on display. Seems like everyone is finding blue chanterelles this year, in a addition to many unusual varieties of inedible, colorful, and poisonous fungi.

If you're new to mushrooms or looking to improve your knowledge, the annual show is a great way to bone up. Real mushrooms, identified by common and scientific names (and edibility), will be on display. Expert identifiers can ID your catch with their microscopes. There will be cooking demos, lectures, slide presentations, and more mushroom-themed kitsch than you can shake a morel-handled walking stick at.

I'll be at the show on Saturday from 3pm until close, selling and signing copies of The Mushroom Hunters, and on Sunday I'll be giving a slide talk, "Adventures on the Mushroom Trail," at 1pm and signing books afterward.

PSMS Annual Show

Saturday, October 12, 2013 – 12pm - 7pm
Sunday, October 13, 2013 – 10am - 5pm

The Mountaineers
Magnuson Park
7700 Sandpoint Way NE,
Seattle, WA 98115

Friday, September 27, 2013

Fungi on Tap

Ask commercial mushroom pickers in the greater Pacific Northwest how the season's going and they'll probably shrug. The central Oregon matsutake pick is weak, chanterelles on the coast—though abundant—are at rock-bottom prices, and Cascade lobsters are turning fishy fast.

Now ask a recreational picker and you're likely to hear that this is the best fall in recent memory. How can these two viewpoints coexist?

It's just a function of the different perspectives. Commercial pickers are trying to earn a living while recreational pickers are stocking their larders. The fact is, it has been a boon season for rec hunters—and not just for edibles. All kinds of unusual species are fruiting this year, for reasons that are not readily apparent. It's a reflection on how little we know about fungi.

Initially many of us figured this fall would be another bust, similar to previous falls of the last couple years. Oregon's morel patches dried up fast, and an unusually parched July and early August suggested a dearth of fall fungi. Then we got hit with some heavy August downpours, and September has been noticeably cool and wet. Mushrooms that are especially sensitive to rainfall—hello kings!—have exploded. The chanterelles are always there, rain or shine, and earlier than most rec pickers think. But mountain kings, those persnickety royals, are harder to pin down, and this year they've popped in a big way. I've been picking them since mid-August, first on my huckleberry outings and now whenever and wherever I happen to be outside, it seems. They're showing in places where I've never seen them before, among tree species that I wouldn't expect.

The other day I stumbled on a riparian patch below 3,000 feet in a grove of Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and red-cedar—not exactly fall king habitat. Enormous #2 boletes with perfect white sponges and caps the size of cantaloupes ringed a guerrilla campsite like fenceposts, all of them miraculously worm-free. Hunters are also finding blue chanterelles (pictured above right) coming out of the woodwork. This is a rarely encountered species that is generally local to a few very specific areas, yet I'm hearing from hikers who are finding them right on the trail in some odd places.

If you're a fan of Suillus, well have at it. Matsies are now carpeting the slopes. And Hericium is general. One species I haven't seen much of—yet—is Sparassis, the cauliflower mushroom. Give it time.

This is a good year for recreational mushroom hunters to learn new patches. Many of these patches won't produce on an annual basis, but if you remember them you can always check. The more patches, the better, especially if those patches are in diverse habitats.

This is also a good year to put up quantities of mushrooms. I've been drying and freezing porcini, not to mention lobster duxelles and chanterelles. As for the fresh menu, pizza bianca with sliced porcini buttons, sun-dried tomatoes, feta, and basil was a winner, as was the porcini-wine reduction sauce that gussied up my New York strip the other night. It's fat times for mushroom hunters.

Full buckets, everyone!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Mushrooms for the People

My new book The Mushroom Hunters has been on the shelves for nearly two weeks and I couldn't be happier with the reception so far. If it inspires a few curious readers to get outside and interact with their natural environment, all the better.

The Wall Street Journal calls the book a "rollicking narrative...delivering vivid and cinematic scenes on every page," and The Seattle Timescomparing the book to Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Michael Pollan, and Hunter Thompson, says it both "instructs and delights" while "connect[ing] the dots between natural history, socioeconomics and cooking." Callers jammed the lines at both my Diane Rehm Show appearance and on Wisconsin Public Radio.

But equally important to me are the testaments from readers outside the professional media outlets. Ronald Holden at the Cornichon blog writes, "As always, it's Cook's story-telling skill that keeps you reading," and here's a post from a reader from Portland that recently circulated on Facebook:
I just finished reading The Mushroom Hunters by Langdon Cook... It's beautifully written and has a powerful, interwoven story. He really knocked this one out of the park! More than just a book about harvesting and selling mushrooms, he takes on so many important issues such as wealth/class structures, ecology and human interaction, small business challenges, immigration, and asks profound questions about happiness and satisfaction in life.
I feel lucky to have readers like these.


In my next post I manage to sneak away from my desk to see why recreational mushroom hunters in the Pacific Northwest are calling this a banner year...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Launch at Elliott Bay, Sept. 12

For those of you in the Seattle area, please join me at Elliott Bay Books this Thursday, September 12, at 7 pm. I'll be reading from The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, showing slides, and raffling off bags of dried morels. The cafe will have shroomy bites and wine. There might even be a special guest visitor...

This past Tuesday I was in Washington, D.C., for the official on-sale date, to make an appearance on the Diane Rehm Show. You can listen to the broadcast here. On Thursday I'll be at my local NPR affiliate, KUOW 94.9 FM, to tape a segment that will air between noon and 2 pm.

Other upcoming appearances include Wordstock Lit Fest, October 4-6, Portland, OR; and Breitenbush Mushroom Gathering, October 17-20, Breitenbush Hot Springs, OR. More events are in the works, so check back here for listings.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

This Tuesday, September 10

Friends and readers, the publication of my new book, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, is just around the corner. Good things are brewing. Publishers Weekly calls it "intrepid and inspired," The Daily Beast named it a "Hot Read," and both and Apple picked it as one of the Top 10 Best Books of September. The Seattle Times reviewed it this past Friday, with comparison to Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Michael Pollan, and Hunter Thompson.

Here's a snippet from a Library Journal review that, to my mind, encapsulates my efforts:
Not simply about mushrooms, this book examines human behavior, economics, food, society, and nature. In the end, readers will have learned a great deal about U.S. economic and social structures—all while being entertained and enlightened by stories of gastronomy and mushrooms. Highly recommended.
The book goes on sale September 10. That day I'll be a guest on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR (check for your local listing). The official book launch will be at Elliott Bay Books on Thursday, September 12, at 7pm. I plan to show slides, read a bit from the book, raffle off bags of morels, and the cafe will have some shroomy bites to eat. There might be a spacial guest in attendance as well...

After that I hit the road to visit mycological societies, mushroom festivals, and do other events through the fall and winter. I'll be at the Wordstock Lit Fest in Portland the first weekend in October and the Breitenbush Mushroom Gathering a couple weeks later.

The confluence of food, nature, and adventure is a mother lode of literary possibility. Join me on the mushroom trail and get your copy soon!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

New at Huffington Post

I've started blogging for the Huffington Post. You can read my first article here, and catch a glimpse of a couple characters who star in my new book.

The article begins:
In early August I got a call from a producer for the PBS TV series Food Forward. He had seen a review copy of my new book, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, and wanted to film itinerant mushroom harvesters for an episode on wild foods. I knew just the guy to talk to...
Read more.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Know Your Vacciniums

Fly fishermen like to joke about PhD trout and poindexter anglers crawling the banks spouting Latin. On first blush it may seem pretentious to be holding a trout rod in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, while reeling off the taxonomic names of various species of Baetis and Pteronarcys. But the truth is, the fly fisherman who has an understanding of entomology has a cast up on the one who doesn't.

And so it is with huckleberries. In the Pacific Northwest there are at least a dozen species of Vaccinium, and it pays to recognize them all. There are early fruiting huckleberries (the red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium) and late fruiting huckleberries (evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum); there are tart, bright blue huckleberries that make good jam (Vaccinium ovalifolium) and nearly black huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) that taste great right off the vine. There's a huckleberry that colonizes wetter habitats (Vaccinium deliciosum) and one that can be found high in the mountains (Vaccinium caespitosum). Read this post for more tips on huckleberrying.

The other day I visited my patch of Vaccinium membranceum. This is the main species picked and sold commercially. It's big, which makes for faster picking, and sweet. It goes by various common names including thin-leaf huckleberry, globe huckleberry, and mountain black. This is a decent year for V. membranaceum and I would encourage my readers in the Greater Pacific Northwest to search it out. Right now! It's common in the mountains of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana, and British Columbia, with more localized populations south to California and east to the Upper Great Lakes.

We freeze as many huckleberries as we can pick, and eat them year-round. As I say in Fat of the Land, huckleberries are a baker's wet dream. The balance between sweet and tart is ideal for pastries, and they make the best pies, cobblers, crisps, and tarts.

But we're not the only members of Mammalia with a sweet tooth for Vaccinium and its allies. Ursus americanus and Ursus arctos horribilis are fans, too, so be prepared to share!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Merry Pinkmas!

I wrote about the Pink Invasion in the July issue of Seattle Magazine. Truth be told, since that article first appeared I've been too busy fishing for pinks to do much blogging. Fishing...and filleting, brining, and smoking. Repeat. My freezer is rapidly accumulating a two-year supply of smoked salmon.

This is a fishery that hardly existed a generation ago in Puget Sound. As such, in this age of general decline, it feels like a special gift. And it's not too late to get in on the action. Read the article and then check out these tips for smokin' yer own.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wild Red Raspberry

Each summer we visit family in the Colorado Rockies, where it's tradition to kick off the trip with a walk up to the same overlook, a place we dubbed the "Bear's Lair" more than a decade ago after spooking a bear from its fern-matted day bed nearby.

The route to the Bear's Lair follows an old hunter's jeep track up a ridge through oak scrub and aspen glades, finally topping out on a knoll covered in spruce and lodgepole pine. Sadly, the large pines are all dead now, victims of the pine beetle epidemic that's ravaged Colorado in recent years, and the forest doesn't offer the same respite from the sun that it once did. But the woods are still painted in wildflowers and home to a herd of elk that moves quietly among the hidden meadows and quaking aspens. From there a quick scramble up a dry, dusty slope and over big boulders takes us to the Lair. A single Douglas fir twists out of the rocks and shades the place. We sit up there and admire the view back across the valley. Sometimes we spot golden eagles circling high in the thermals above.

I've hiked to the Bear's Lair countless times in summer and snowshoed up in winter. It's become a ritual to pay our respects here. Yet, on this trip, for the first time, I noticed a nice little patch of wild red raspberries growing from cracks in the rocks right around the base of the Lair, in perfect fruit. How had I missed these before? Could they have just gotten a foothold?

More to the point: Who doesn't love raspberries? Sweet, tart, soft, delicate. Ruby red. I'm more familiar with the blackcap raspberry (Rubus leucodermis), which we find back at home in sunny spots on both sides of the Cascades, often in areas of disturbance such as logging clearcuts. Blackcaps are dark blue or purple and often mistaken for blackberries; the more widely known form, Rubus strigosus (or Rubus idaeus among those who consider Eurpopean and North American red raspberries to be the same species) looks very much like a typical cultivated variety, if a bit smaller. Unlike a lot of domesticated fruits and berries with wild relatives, the taste of the wild raspberry is very similar to the cultivated.

Wild raspberries seem to prefer marginal habitats and tough growing conditions. As a result, it's a rare day when I find enough of them to make a dessert or put up for later. They're trail food—a tasty jolt of energy while hoofing it through the wilderness. And this day was no different. We ate up all the ripe berries we could find, leaving behind plenty that would be ripe for the local bruins in a few days, taking note of this cache for future visits to the Bear's Lair.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Of Grays and Greenies

The first day I visited the burn, in early June, there wasn't a car in sight. The fire had burned right down to the logging road and a trailhead was marked off with police tape. Signs warned of falling trees and other dangers. We could see the morels before getting out of the car.

Over the next week or two a few other pickers trickled in. To the south, a large, well-publicized burn was taking all the pressure—though I knew it couldn't last. By the time this smaller patch was on the radar, I'd dried enough morels for several winters and many holiday gifts. After a few weeks of staying away, I went back the other day. Again, not a car in sight. The conica morels were long gone for the season.

But not the grays. While the morel season is winding down in Washington State (some years, with enough summer rain, you can pick well into fall in the Northwest), the last of the morels are fruiting in limited numbers at the higher elevations. Conditions might be different up in British Columbia.

Just the same, the last act is a good one. Finding clusters of big grays always makes my heart skip a beat. The gray morel (Morchella tomentosa) is the easiest of the many burn morels to identify. In its youth it has a distinctly gray cap that's densely pitted, and unlike other species it also has a dark stem with a nearly rubbery texture. Under a microscope you can see lots of little hairs at the base of the stem, hence its other common name, fuzzy-foot. Grays can be quite large, and mature specimens seem to have two color phases, gray and light yellow, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Commercial pickers sometimes call the big yellow ones blonds, not to be confused with the mountain blond (Morchella frustrata).

The photo at top shows a pod of mature grays, each of them several inches tall. Notice how the stems appear white at this stage, in contrast to the dark stems of younger grays. As these morels age, the stems lose their gray exterior and the ridges on the cap become sharp and brittle. As little bits of the ridges crumble off, the cap takes on a speckled look. Now look at these younger, smaller specimens below.

The shape and coloration is variable. Of the nine in this picture, all but one still have dark outer stems that contrast noticeably with the inner white where they've been cut. The pits on the smallest are elongated and barely open. A few of these, particularly those three on the right, appear to be maturing into the blond form.

Grays often command a slightly higher price in the market place because of their beauty and meatiness, even if their flavor is mild compared to other species.

I also found a few greenies, or pickles, the other day. At first I wasn't sure what species these were, but Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles confirmed them as greenies based on these photos.

Notice the multi-layered stem when cut (at right). Sometimes the stem is so thick it appears solid, as seen in the photo at lower left. To my eye, these morels look quite a bit different from the greenies I saw in the Yukon two years ago, which were considerably larger and darker, with noticeably dense pitting like gray morels. Faber suggested that the lack of moisture this season has prevented this variety from attaining its usual size and coloration. They were scattered in the burn mostly as singletons, with perhaps a dozen in all making it into my bucket.

Some mycologists dispute the existence of greenies, considering them just another form of typical burn morel known in the industry as conica, of which there are probably several hard-to-separate species that require microscopic study and DNA analysis for identification. Still, the greenie familiar to commercial pickers has its own distinct appearance and it's always the last to show in the burn, if it shows at all. The species that it seems to come closest to in the recent taxonomic reclassification of morels is Morchella capitata, but I wonder whether it's in fact a species that has yet to be described by science. No doubt the mystery surrounding greenies will be unraveled in coming years as morel classification continues to be a hot topic among mycologists.

So, what about the taste? Unfortunately there wasn't a conica in sight the other day, and the non-burn morels have been done in my habitat since mid-June. That leaves grays and greenies to duke it out. Most western morel enthusiasts rank the non-burn "natural" black morel as the tastiest, with conica next. Mountain blonds, though beautiful, tend to lack strong flavor, and the early season logging morels are generally derided as unsightly. And those late-flushing burn morels?

I put two grays and two greenies head to head in a summer burn morel taste-off. They got simply sautéed side by side in butter, with a sprinkling of salt. The grays, it must be said, had tremendous texture: meaty, chewy, crisp on the outside. The greenies, however, get the nod for taste. I won't bore you by waxing grandiloquent like a wine snob. The bottom line is that I was reminded yet again that morels don't really taste all that much like mushrooms; they taste like something that hasn't been named yet—a mixture of meat and fungus that pleases the palate with its burst of umami. And for this reason, they made an excellent accompaniment to my first beach-caught salmon of the season, in a summer risotto, along with chard and tomatoes from the garden.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Big Fall Books Preview

My new book The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America has been included as an Editor's Pick in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview. Scroll down to read editor Jon Foro's review. He calls it "a ton of fun—equal parts adventure, natural history, and gastronomy." Foro adds: "Naturalists (who aren’t necessarily foodies) will learn about some of the more exotic fungi and their uses on the table, while foodies (who might not be naturalists) will find the loamy details of the mushroom trail enlightening." Loamy details. I like that!

Also, Amazon's book blog Omnivoracious has a slideshow of my personal photos of mushroom hunters and buyers paired with excerpts from the book.

The book is available now for pre-order and officially on sale September 10.