How to annoy Alice Waters, or, The rise of the cultivated wild mushroom

Fungi_2

Remember when mesclun wasn’t available in the bagged lettuces section of every grocery store? Remember when there wasn’t a bagged lettuces section, because lettuce plus plastic bag plus refrigerator shortly meant an unidentifiable sack o’ juicy brown goop?

In the early 1990s, mesclun started showing up on menus across the country. (And by “across the country” I mean Dallas, which is where I was reviewing restaurants at the time. Anyway, every chic restaurant had to have it, although they didn’t have to have a spellchecker, which is why it often wound up "mescaline," heh heh.)

Shortly, it was in fancy grocery stores at outrageous prices per pound. And then the prices were less outrageous and then the damned things started showing up everywhere except 7-11 in sealed plastic bags and they looked fine; in fact, more than fine. They looked great and tasted about the same. And now no one would dare spell it mescaline because mesclun is all but mundane (though still tasty).

Well, now someone’s trying to do the same thing with wild mushrooms.

Lest you think that’s some leap o’ logic, mesclun (basically French for mixture) is comprised of a bunch of (baby) lettuces like tatsoi, oakleaf and mache. Technology solved two mass-market problems: How to grow a lot of them and how to get them across long distances before their delicacy turned to mush. (For a great treatise on this topic, read, The New Yorker’s 9/6/2004 article "Salad Days" by Burkhard Bilger. Long abstract here.)

Enter Golden Gourmet Mushrooms, which is betting, big time, that cultivated wild mushrooms are the next mescaline. Some mushrooms are truly wild — no one’s been able to figure out how to grow domesticated truffles or morels; domesticated chanterelles exist, but barely. However, King Trumpet, Hen of the Woods, brown beech and white beech mushrooms are all happy to grow at GGM; as for shipping, they benefit from similar technology, US Patent 5254354.

(Side note: Mass-market mesculn and exotic mushrooms probably have something else in common, which is annoyance from slow foodies. Alice Waters hisses at Todd Koons, the man who created mass-market mache; I have to believe she’d feel likewise about GGM owner Craig Anderson. However, Waters’ preciousness is a topic for another day.)   

A few weeks ago GGM hosted a "mushroom dinner" that, while inventive, the One Sunset chefs sort of buried the lede. Up against chorizo, shellfish and salsa verde, king trumpets don’t say much; corn, pine nuts and beech mushrooms were delicious, but the lettuce wrap made it seem like they were hiding. GGM COO Steve Farrar admitted that he liked "more mushroom" in his dishes; his favorite, he said, was marinated and thrown on the grill. I like more mushroom, too, which is why it was nice to get a mushroom goodie bag.

And then I didn’t have time to cook for three weeks.

So tonight, I come home hungry and not wanting anyone else’s food but mine, even if "mine" has to mean a can of Trader Joe’s Vegan Split Pea soup with a shot of curry powder fresh from the microwave. Then I remember the mushrooms and figure after three weeks I’m screwed, but it’s worth a shot: Slice the King Trumpets, sauté in a very very hot pan with a shot of olive oil until they’re striped tan with caramelization; salt and pepper; deglaze with sherry vinegar and serve on garlic-rubbed toast. With the soup. (I skipped the curry.)

And they’re fine. More than fine. I hope the patent holder is a rich man.

That said, I think GGM may have a struggle on its hands. Mesclun had to fight the "You want me to pay for a bunch of lawn clippings?" factor, but after that it’s just lettuce, which is just salad and the majority like it in one form or another. Not everyone likes mushrooms and, presumably, not mushrooms that look vaguely alien. Search "hen of the woods" on Google and this is the first result:

Fungi

Yep, they’re fungi.  They’re also delicious, especially that one. The one that GGM sells is a much more manageable; it’s about 3 1/2 oz., the size a man’s fist. It’s still in my refrigerator and this is how I’ll eat it tonight:

Marco Canora’s Pan-Roasted Hen-Of-The-Woods Mushrooms
(adapted from a recipe on nymag.com)

1/4 pound hen-of-the-woods mushrooms
1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 sprig fresh rosemary
1 tsp unsalted butter
kosher salt
fresh-cracked black pepper

  1. Using your hands, gently break mushroom into 2 pieces.
  2. In a sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium flame. Season mushrooms with salt and pepper, and place them in the heated oil, taking care not to overcrowd the pan, and cook for 3 minutes.
  3. When the mushrooms have a golden-brown surface, flip them with a spatula and continue cooking for 2 to 3 minutes. Add butter and herbs; baste mushrooms for 1 minute.
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1 Comment

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One response to “How to annoy Alice Waters, or, The rise of the cultivated wild mushroom

  1. yum, hen of the woods. i was at the ferry building in SF and they have this mushroom vendor that sells mushrooms on rocks, like you can grow your own mushrooms as if it were a basil plant or tomato vine. While the slow food aspects of this new “trend” aren’t appetizing, if it can get some good mushrooms to consumers, I don’t see why not.

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