After a long dry spell in the Northwest—one of the longest in recorded history—the rains finally have come. With uncanny prescience, my good friend Susan invited us to Whistler to participate in their Fungus Among Us Festival. There, we would have a chance to go mushroom hunting with expert mycologists, as well as attend a wild mushroom cooking class.
My last foray into foraging was nearly 40 years ago, when I went to a very secret spot on the Olympic Peninsula in search of the elusive matsutake, known by some as a pine mushroom. Since Washington State is on approximately the same latitude as Japan, we are fortunate to be able to enjoy this prized delicacy locally. It is rare and expensive.
Every fall, Japanese American families pack their picnic lunches and head to the woods to hunt the fragrant fungus. It is rather comical to see the large numbers of Japanese American families sitting in the ferry line, not making eye contact with other Japanese American families—lest dropping their guard would betray their secret locations. Even funnier is when one happens upon families in the forest, who immediately stand up, cross their arms and pretend that they are simply there, wearing red jackets, for no particular purpose.
Why red? Because matsutake season, at least back then, coincided with deer hunting season. It was therefore important to whistle, sing loudly and wear red clothing, as this is something deer seldom do.
At Fungus Among Us, we did find hawk wing mushrooms, some beautiful but deadly amanita, and honey mushrooms, but our party only found one matsutake. Today, much of our local matsutake goes to Japan for a pretty penny. But you can get them at Uwajimaya, along with many ingredients for making a good meal with matsutake. Yes, they are expensive mushrooms, but they are SO fragrant and SO unlike any other taste you have ever had. Like distilling the essence of a pine forest and adding umami.
I rather like them brushed with oil and grilled over charcoal. If you are ever lucky enough to have too many at one time, you can wrap them in foil and freeze them, or you can pickle them.
Make a solution of about 3 T sake, 3T rice wine vinegar, 2 T sugar and 1T soy sauce and heat until everything is one big happy sauce. Salt to taste, and cook sliced matsutake in it until tender. Or you can grill them first and then put them into the sauce. Or you can use another kind of mushroom.
My friend Tomoko Matsuno, who is the CEO of Uwajimaya, served an amazing kabocha (Japanese sugar pumpkin) and matsutake soup. I nearly swooned, it was so good. I tried to recreate it later for my mother at Thanksgiving dinner.
Zap one small kabocha in the microwave until it is soft. Cut it, scrape out the seeds and then cut out the flesh. In a large pot, sauté one chopped onion and about 3 chopped large matsutake until soft. Add the kabocha and 4 cups of dashi or chicken broth. Season to taste with about 2T sake,1T sugar, and 1 T fresh grated ginger, more or less. Cook it until it is soft and then blend the soup and add salt and white pepper to taste. It may be creamy enough for you, but I added a dollop of thick cream to smooth out the taste. I then season it with a little freshly grated nutmeg and a sprinkle of cayenne. Enjoy!
Autumn is here, and as the temperature inches down and the rains return, I already miss the warm days of summer. Mushrooms help to fill the void.