Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Behold my evil gingerbread army

The reason they all have evil red eyes is because that's the only kind of decoration I had.

Zombie gingerbread. Want to eat your brainz....
Evil gingerbread

And here are some very good dogs waiting to eat their gingerbread dog cookies.

It's a labrador eat terrier world out there.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Honey mushroom-mageddon

As I was driving home from Nick's preschool today, I noticed that one of our neighbor's huge elm trees had died and was being cut down.

"Huh," I thought, "A dead tree. I wonder of oak root fungus got it."

Then I looked into her front yard, and saw this:

Oh hai. We is honey mushrooms. We is in your yard killing your trees.
Yeah, I'd say oak root fungus got it. In fact, it's probably the same organism that's been killing my trees (we live three houses down and across the street). Armillaria mellea can get really large. There's one covering 2200 acres somewhere in Oregon.

I narrowly avoided a car accident as I was staring at the mushrooms, dug out my phone, and called my neighbor.

"Hi Julie, I was driving by your house and you have all these mushrooms in your yard."

"Yes, it's the *&#^% oak root fungus, it's been killing my trees."

"I know, I'm sorry about that, I've lost some trees too. Can I have your mushrooms?"

"Ummm... Yeah.... Why?"

"I am going to eat them. They are very tasty. Hello? Julie? Are you there?"

.... silence on the line ....

Telling an American that you are planning to pick and eat wild mushrooms is akin to saying that you've decided that today is a good day to poison yourself. As much as I love this country, one thing they do not do here is eat wild mushrooms. Which is a continuous source of confusion to the many Russian, Polish, Italian, and other immigrants, who just don't understand why not? 

I patiently explained to my neighbor that oak root fungus produces a fruiting body called "honey mushroom", which is delicious sautéed or preserved in salt brine. I explained that honey mushrooms are a relative of shiitake, the harmless fungi you buy at the grocery store. I invited her for an evening of drinking and eating salted honey mushrooms (a classic Russian past-time). 

In the end, I convinced her enough that she let me have the mushrooms. I did not convince her to come for dinner at my house though. I think she's waiting to see if I am still around in the morning.

Good enough.

Armed with a knife and several large containers, I trekked over to the house. The mushrooms looked even more awesome close up.

Honey mushrooms growing along a tree root, probably the one from the tree
in the background. That tree is still alive, but things are not looking good.
Some were over-ripe, but I still ended up with an enormous amount.
The haul.

I haven't had my hands on so many honey mushrooms since we left Russia when I was a teenager. I vaguely remembered horror stories of "we picked all these mushrooms and then we had to clean them". Ah. Yes. That. 

Thankfully, a friend came over just as I was about to start cleaning, and I pressed her into service. I kept her here for over an hour, until all the mushrooms were done. I don't think she's coming by ever again. At least not during mushroom season.

Mushrooms cleaning. Perfect social activity.
Better than Facebook.
The cleaned mushrooms took over every large container I had at the house. That's another childhood memory: looking for pots and bowls to hold honey mushrooms because everything is overflowing.
Ready for processing
Some of the largest caps I put in the dehydrator. I made another liter of salted mushrooms. Even though I already have about four liters in the fridge, I just couldn't stop myself. There will be lots of vodka drinking soon.

The rest I boiled, put in plastic bags, and froze. They will be good in soups, sauces, and just plain defrosted and sautéed later.

And of course, we saved some for dinner. I tried a new recipe tonight. Cooked with garlic, white wine, and some balsamic vinegar.

The mushroom consumer is happy!
We now have enough mushrooms stored up to last us for months. And yet, I cannot stop myself from scanning the ground in my neighborhood looking for more. It's an addiction, I tell you!

And if you want to come over and drink vodka and eat salted mushrooms, come by in about a week, when the salted ones are ready. We'll be waiting.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Best mushroom poetry yet.

A talented friend created a poem to go with the bitter mushroom story.

"Le Beau Champignon Sans Merci"
Oh what can ail thee, wanderer,
Alone on misty forest-heath?
The leaves are fallen in the cold,
A darkling wreath.
Oh what can ail thee, wanderer,
What mourning does your soul embrace?
Your ally looks to you in woe,
A piteous face.
I found a mushroom in the wood,
Full beautiful, of palest gold,
A netted stalk, a velvet cup --
My Grail of old.
Yet bitterness is brought to me,
Though promising a world of good;
Cruelty only shall it be,
In this new wood.
And this is why I wander here,
Alone on misty forest-heath,
Though leaves are fallen in the cold,
Treachery beneath.

Friday, December 5, 2014

I quit. No, really, I quit.

California has many different mushrooms. In particular, it has many different bolete mushrooms. Boletous edulis, the King Bolete, or Porcini, being one of the most famous and sought after. I am still to find one of these. However, I believe I have found pretty much every possible version of bitter bolete species, including a ridiculously rare, not even named one.

Some back story first.

In Russia, where I grew up and learned to identify mushrooms, things were easy. All boletes were good. If it had a sponge on the bottom, it was edible and good. If it was big and had a sponge on the bottom, it was very good. Boletes were some of the first mushrooms you learned to identify because it was easy: sponge=good. There were rumors of such things as a B. satanis, or Satan's Bolete, but we never saw one around Moscow, and in fact it was treated as something from a horror movie: a bolete that wasn't good!!!

Then we moved to the US. In addition to many other traumatic events (new country, new language, new school, new food, new everything) I also had to learn that there is such a thing as a bitter bolete mushroom. I remember my first or second fall here, bringing home a bunch of mushrooms that looked very much like something from back home. My mother lovingly made soup, which was a beautiful clear color -- the measure of any bolete is whether the broth made from it is clear or dark colored; the porcini makes a clear broth, and other, lesser boletes, produce cloudy and dark soup. We proudly served it for dinner, with sour cream and herbs, tasted the first spoonfull and gagged.

It was unbearably bitter.

We threw the whole thing out. A whole pot of beautiful mushroom soup, brimming with nostalgia.

Seriously? A bolete that you cannot eat? How screwed up is this place anyway?


This experience scared me into not picking anything with a sponge on the bottom ever again. Yes, I probably can tell apart a porcini (although I don't know, maybe this place has bitter porcinis too!), but since I still haven't found a porcini, I've stayed away from the whole bolete family. 

Until today.

While walking the dog in one of the preserves in the Santa Cruz mountains, we stumbled on a big, fat, firm mushroom, with a brown cap, wide bulbous stalk and faintly yellow pores. I had the list of edible local boletes burned into the back of my eyeballs at this point: king bolete, queen bolete, white bolete, and butter bolete. They are distinctive. The first three do not stain blue, and the last one barely stains. They have a distinctive shape and unique coloring. You. Cannot. Confuse. Them. With. Anything.

The thing I found looked like this:

It's a butter bolete. It has to be!
Butter bolete. It has to be. The description reads (I have it memorized, remember): 
  1. cap yellow brown -- check
  2. surface of cup bald, not sticky or slimy -- check, had the pleasant velvety texture of the "good boletes"
  3. underside with a sponge layer, pore surface yellow but bruising blue -- check
  4. stalk thick, upper part might be finely netted -- check, very fine netting, but it was there
  5. flesh thick and dense, pale yellow except at base of stalk, blueing erratically -- yup
  6. flesh at base of stalk tan -- totally
I got one! I got an edible bolete, and a good one at that! 

I proudly brought it home. I sautéed it in butter. It looked and smelled amazing. I tasted it. You know what happens next, right?

It was unbearably bitter. 

You're kidding, right?

I took out my books. The first one had a picture of my mushroom and said B. appendiculatus, butter bolete. The second one too. As did the third one. Finally, I went and got out The Tome. You know things are bad when you start consulting The Tome, or Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, 1000 pages of dense mushrooms classification.

I read the butter bolete description. Yup. Still fits. Then, on the next page, there it was: Boletus "marshii" also known as "Shucks Bolete", a rare, unclassified and unnamed mushroom.

A what now?

"This bolete appears to be unnamed ...  in the vicinity os Santa Cruz, CA ... Distinguished from B. appendiculatus (butter bolete) by a paler cap". 

So I found some as-of-yet not even named and classified mushroom, that only grows around Santa Cruz, and is only described in one of my mushrooms books. And of course, it's bitter. 

I quit. Seriously. I am done. I am going to get my boletes at the farmer's market. Hopefully I won't get the bitter ones from there. Although given my luck, I don't know...


The honey mushrooms are up into back yard again! Getting the vodka ready!

Today's haul (good thing I looked behind the planters, these are almost
too old!)

More coming up in the front yard.
For a long and sordid story of what honey mushrooms are, what they do, and what I do to them, take a look here.