Sometimes you come upon a new food item or ingredient that completely challenges you. While out hiking this last spring I thought I'd take a look for some of the fabled morel mushrooms everyone talks about in Iowa where I live. We're in a historic Czech district where the yearly carnival is even named after mushrooms, Houby Days. I had eaten them before, knew they were valuable and had done a little research about where to find them and how to pick them. A friend pointed me towards the woods I was walking and before I knew it I had stumbled upon a nice patch of them below a large oak tree on a really steep slope above a stream. I put them carefully in an old onion bag to allow the spores to be spread back out so they'd come back the next year and expand. That spot actually ended up producing a few rounds of mushrooms last fall. What I ended up seeing even more of which was apparently common across the midwest is oyster mushrooms. I texted a friend who forages with some images and he said they looked like oysters and to bring them by for an in person evaluation to double check. I gave him a nice bag full as it ended up being at least 50 lbs of mushrooms over a span of 3 afternoons.
The problem with picking that quantity of mushrooms is storage or so I thought. I frantically posted on Facebook to see who had a dehydrator to borrow and my sister lent me one but it was much too slow for the quantity of my harvest that was growing by the day. So I thought about how people used to dry fruits, meat or anything else that needed preserving and realized the roof outside my large kitchen window just might be the perfect place to dry out a large pile of mushrooms. Stacked up on baking sheets and parchment paper or wire racks, they were done after 2 days of 80 degree weather. I covered them with thin tea cloths at night to keep moisture off and also experimented with tossing a couple sheets in my oven. Now my oven only goes as low as 175 which is a touch high for dehydration. The result was a really nutty cartelized dried mushroom that became really brittle. My food research had suggested that making a powder out of dried mushrooms was a perfect way to add umami or fullness of flavor to all kinds of dishes from stocks and soups to ice cream even.
Figuring my food processor would be great for the job I tossed the mushrooms in and pulsed the button and voila all I had was slightly smaller dry chunks. I needed a finder grind to get to powder and did what any red blooded human would do- put them into a coffee grinder. I have a grinder dedicated to the task of taking hard chunks of dried hatch, guajillo, pasilla negra, fennel seed, any spice really and making them into a fine powder for cooking. I love making my own BBQ rubs from fresh ground ingredients and this tool ended up being the perfect hammer for the job.
In the end this beautiful flavor enhancer adds a real depth to my food and gets regularly used. I love that it's something I've harvested with my own hands or by my partner Rebecca who trudged through the woods with me many days. The search for mushrooms has given us a reason to get into the woods, take a walk, forget our worries. The feelings of self sufficiency and bonding with the natural ecosystem has done lots for the two of us. This year has been a struggle at times, from losing friends and parents to death to starting our new photo and video collaboration in a city in Iowa and nature has been at the core of our search for balance and peace. When life brings you stress, a walk can help you make sense of it all. We often come back from hikes with all kinds of ideas and a stronger bond between us.
The great thing though about the mushroom powder concept is that you can also just buy dried mushrooms if it's not the season to harvest or you don't have access to a great foraging location. At our local Asian market there are tons of bags of dried mushrooms of all types for under $5 for a decent sized bag. If you're making soup or braising a lamb shank it might be just the thing you need to take that dish to the next level. Lastly, if you do decide to start to forage your own mushrooms I highly recommend finding some experts to learn from. There are loads of Facebook groups, field guides and normally meet ups at nature centers to forage with some friends. To start out, the easiest to identify mushrooms in spring tend to be morels and oysters and in the fall giant puffballs, oysters, shaggy mane, chicken of the woods (pictured above) or hen of the woods. My first rule with mushrooms is if I'm in doubt, I don't eat it. Most of the time mushrooms will at worst give you some gastrointestinal stress but at worst they can be deadly so it's important to learn to identify what's safe. - Caleb