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Peak Pick: Mushrooms

I had a bit of a panic moment earlier this month. Our annual office holiday meal was right around the corner and I was having no luck locating good foraged mushrooms (Chanterelles) for the dish I traditionally contribute. Fortunately I had a trip scheduled to Austin the day before the event and the Whole Foods Market store there had about 25 pounds of perfect chanterelles. I also discovered in the process that carrying four pounds of fresh mushrooms through airport security raises some eyebrows but is generally allowed. Foraged mushrooms are like that - it's almost impossible to predict how much of what will be available from week to week because supply is driven largely by the weather and the ability of the foragers to get out and harvest. The winter and spring rainy seasons are when we are far more likely to see them, so chances are good that you can plan for foraged mushrooms to be available during Christmas and into the spring. Available varieties will change but here is a rundown of what is commonly available: Chanterelle: The most common foraged and perhaps the most versatile, the common Chanterelle can be pale white to a brilliant orange-yellow and is a delicate, mild-flavored, trumpet shaped mushroom. Their size can vary from as small as a quarter to as large as desert plate and they can be roasted (my favorite), sautéed and baked. A popular way to prepare them is with scrambled eggs or omelets since the mild flavor blends well with eggs. Another less common but similar mushroom is the Black Chanterelle (or trumpet) - this is a smaller, earthier-flavored version of the larger cousin. Chanterelles can be available year round, but we see an availability peak in the U.S. from late November through January, weather permitting. Morel: In the early spring, the morel emerges and for a few precious weeks, we see sporadic availability of this exceptional foraged mushroom. Morels are varying hues of brown with a white stem and are shaped like a Christmas tree with a woody, robust flavor. I like Morels as a simple sauté with just about anything. Dried Morels are also commonly used in sauces. Available dried year round and fresh generally in March and April. Another noteworthy aspect of the Morel: the more active the forest fire season the year before, the larger the morel harvest. Porcini: The king of the wild mushroom, porcinis have a strong distinctive flavor and the iconic shape we generally associate with mushrooms (a thick stem with a large umbrella shaped cap). The porcini also has an inedible veil (the stringy underside of the cap) that must be removed prior to cooking. Porcinis can be prepared in many ways and are a common ingredient in spaghetti sauces. If you want a more reliable source of mushrooms, there are several varieties of cultivated versions you will see year round. In addition to the common Agaricus white and brown variety (which includes the larger mature version, Portobello), you will almost always find the uniquely flavored Shiitake and several cultivated Oyster varieties. Because of the delicate nature of mushrooms, most are grown in the same region they are sold. The medium used for producing mushrooms commercially (compost or ground wood products) will also see a second life as compost for row crop farming and gardens. I often combine cultivated and foraged when I cook with mushrooms, since foraged are often very expensive. Using both helps me stretch a side dish afforably if I am serving several people. Roasting with fresh herbs and butter is my favorite method but I would love to have some new recipes, so please share. Many thanks to Bryan Doane, Kevin Doty, and John Walker for contributing to this post.