Wild and free
With names that reflect their rich meaty flavours – beefsteak, hedgehog and chicken of the woods – British wild mushrooms are out in force and now is the time for foraging. But if wellies, a knife and a carrier bag are not your thing, head for the shops instead – farm shops and traditional greengrocers are a good bet. With luck, you might find stunning yellow-ochre chanterelles. or the sought-after penny bun or cep, with its bulging spongy cap and fat stalk.
It’s a no-brainer that wild mushrooms intended for cooking aren’t toxic. But how can you be absolutely sure? In France, it’s a matter of taking them to a local pharmacist for free analysis. Here in the UK, it’s well worth consulting Roger Phillip’s excellent full-colour photographic guide Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Ireland. Or better still, go on a fungi foray with an expert. The British Mycological Society organizes these and other fungi-related events.
Wild or cultivated, mushrooms are wonderfully versatile. They add savoury meatiness to risottos, stir-fries, soups, stews and omelettes, and bulk to pies and pâtés. They are equally good as a pizza topping or pasta sauce, as in my recipe Mushrooms with Pappardelle, Pine Nuts, Cream, Garlic and Parmesan. They are also delicious in their own right; mushrooms on toast or a giant portabello mushroom burger are treats not to be missed.
Depending on variety, mushrooms are good fried, grilled or roasted. The only slight problem is dealing with the amount of liquid that some exude when fried. They may seem dry at first, but after a few minutes the juices start to flow and the pan will be awash with liquid. You can either pour this off (save it for a soup or risotto) or wait for it to evaporate. I usually take the latter option. Once the pan is drier I add thinly sliced garlic or shallots, chopped parsley, a wisp of lemon zest, seasonings and perhaps a bit more oil or butter if necessary.
Large flat mushrooms are excellent roasted. Toss in plenty of oil and place skin side down on a roasting tray. Season with salt and pepper and splash with soy sauce if you like – this helps produce flavoursome gravy. Roast on the bottom rack of the oven at 220°C/gas 7 for 12 –15 minutes, pressing occasionally with a spatula to encourage juices to flow. Turn and roast for 5 minutes more until brown and tender. Serve on crisp squares of grilled polenta, or as a side dish with roast beef or lamb.
My favourite is the giant puffball fried in butter. The size of a football and luminous lunar white, this is a rare delicacy, though not the most assertively flavoured. To enjoy at its simple best, cut into thick slices and sizzle for a few minutes on each side until lightly browned. Add a sprinkle of finely chopped parsley, sea salt flakes and coarsely ground black pepper. Superb on sourdough toast with a very fresh poached egg.
© Christine McFadden, October 2014