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Fabulous Fungi: The magic of mushrooms

Delicious or deadly. Some grow in dark, moist places while others need a host to propagate. The abundant mushroom can nourish and heal. Some make us hallucinate and many can kill us. Some of these tasty delicacies are also extremely expensive. The fabulous fungi are a gift of nature.

Most mushrooms grow above ground. Some grow on the roots of trees and plants, while others are parasitic and take a host, generally killing it. The highly sought-after morel mushroom grows on decay and can be found around the Tahoe region. Morels love moisture. They are foraged in the spring. This year the late snow created the perfect growing conditions. A friend took me to his secret place on a recent outing to forage for the elusive morel. We found a pound and a half.

Morels are also expensive, but if you have the gift of foraging, they can be found by dead logs, in previously burned areas and under rotting mule-ears from last season. Look for snow flowers. Morels seem to grow around the same time. The Caldor Fire area has provided a bounty of morels, according to Tahoe Mushroom Company in South Lake Tahoe.

10,000 and counting There are more than 10,000 types of mushrooms in the world. They come in all shapes and sizes. They are earthy in flavor. From the humble button to tasty portobello, mushrooms are part of many world cuisines.

Mushrooms add an umami flavor to dishes. Umami means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese. The taste is often described as meaty and savory and is excellent in soups, salads, entrees, side dishes, stews and stir-fry meals.

Morels are expensive, but if you have the gift of foraging, they can be found by dead logs, in previously burned areas and under rotting mule-ears from last season.

The golden chanterelle mushroom adds a peppery flavor to meals. Shitake, maitake and enoki are used in many Asian dishes, from soups to stir-fry meals. Porcini possesses a nutty flavor and is used in many Italian dishes. Cremini mushrooms look a lot like a baby portobello. They have a meaty flavor and are perfect for a mushroom burger.

The large portobellos are excellent when grilled, while button mushrooms are mild in taste, making them versatile. They tend to adopt the flavor of the dish being prepared. Oyster mushrooms are unique looking and great in seafood dishes or for sautéing.

Stuffed mushrooms make a wonderful appetizer. I love mushroom toast with a poached egg.

Growing mushrooms Mushrooms can be grown with a bit of skill and the right conditions. Owners Todd Karol and Stacie Schultze of Little Roots Farm grow mushrooms at their farm in Truckee.

“We grow mushrooms in blocks using oak sawdust. They are grown in a mild, high humidity climate — 60 to 70 degrees and 80-90 percentage humidity. We also sun dry our mushrooms for soups, stocks or backpacking,” says Karol, who has a stand on Thursdays at Tahoe City Farmers Market and on Tuesdays at Truckee Certified Farmers Market.

The mushrooms they grow are beautiful. The subtle scent of the earthy mushrooms was incredible. The pink and yellow oyster mushrooms are delicate and delicious. Karol recommends cooking mushrooms in general. His recipe for preparing oyster mushrooms is simple: heat butter in a cast-iron pan and lightly sauté them for 3 to 5 minutes.

The Tahoe Mushroom Company offers organic gourmet mushrooms including Lion’s Mane, Tahoe Blue Oysters, Black Pearl King Trumpets, maitake and pioppino mushrooms. They also have take-home grow kits for purchase.

Proper storage Once purchased, mushrooms should be refrigerated and used within one week. Fresh morels must be eaten within four days of harvesting or dried for future use and they need to be soaked before eating.

Store mushrooms in a brown paper bag and leave the bag open to help absorb moisture and keep them from spoiling. Do not wash store-bought mushrooms. Wipe them with a dry cloth before using.

Wild Mushroom Sauté From the bar of Priya Hutner

2 lbs. wild mushrooms 1 T olive oil 1 large red onion, sliced 1 shallot, sliced 1 leek, sliced (use white part only) 2 cloves garlic 3 T butter 2 springs fresh thyme 1 t salt 1 t fresh ground pepper *Serves 4

Heat oil in a large cast-iron or frying pan on medium-high. Add onion, shallot and leeks and sauté for 5 minutes. Add mushrooms to the pan and cook for about 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper and mix gently. Reduce heat to low and add butter, thyme and garlic and simmer for 5 minutes.

Serve with pasta, grilled steak or chicken, or with an omelet.

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