by Chef Igor Breyman
It was three weeks before I was set to begin my pre-med degree at a university in Philadelphia when I realized I wasn’t following my dreams. Food has always been an integral part of my Ukrainian-American family’s life and attending culinary school has always been my father’s dream; I chose to do this for both of us and follow my passion. Was I nervous? Yes. Did I think I made the right decision? Not immediately. Do I think I made the right decision now? Oh yeah.
Just thinking about it brings back all the wonders of culinary school! The new challenging techniques, the sour attitudes of competing classmates, and the ingredients—oh those whimsical ingredients. I tasted and fell in love with my very first chanterelle in culinary school; a wondrous yet grotesque looking mushroom whose flavor is reminiscent of apricots, butter, and the forest floor, yet shines with its sun touched golden personality.
Cooking with these delicate specimens is easy, but purchasing them is not. First comes finding them. Unless you’re ready to dish out $30 a pound at Whole Foods, you better trawl the local farmer’s markets and Berkeley Bowls out there for a seasonal treat. However, if you’re like me, you’d rather be buying produce from Grocery Outlet and picking your own tomatoes in the backyard. Purchasing these babies was out of the question. I’ve always been a hiker and have seen mushrooms growing around the area in large bunches (note the year is 2011 or so here, the rains were plentiful), so I decided to let my curiosity get the best of me.
I went out on a normal hike down one of the trails in my suburb of Castro Valley in the late fall and began my trek. Under the open arms of bay trees and through the gateways of oaks, I approached an area off the beaten path that I like to call “Deer Canyon”. Have you ever seen a ballet dancer perform on a stage rubbed with butter? If you have I envy you, but that is exactly how my mud caked trek through this mini canyon began. What looks like hard ground is a spongy pile of leaves waiting to suck my foot in, and what looks like a pile of leaves is actually a stable rock to ground myself on this journey. Through slips and falls for the next half hour, I finally made it to a clearing where I saw the gold that was shining from the ground. I mentally rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t seeing things (I’d never touch my eyes on such a messy hike, can you imagine poison oak in them!?). Sure as day there they were, a beautiful family of chanterelle mushrooms having a game night or a nice family dinner beside a fallen tree. I scanned to the left and there were more families, and couples, and to the right even more bachelors and bachelorettes. I was in awe, sheer awe. Me being the usual scatterbrain, I didn’t even think to bring a basket or backpack, so I made sure to note my location and come back another day. These weren’t the only mushrooms however; there were beautiful purple mushrooms that emitted a pleasant bay laurel aroma (later learned these are edible blewit mushrooms), and familiar looking shelf like mushrooms protruding from a fallen tree (oyster mushrooms!).
I immediately rushed home and asked myself “how am I sure of what I’ve seen?” and began to panic. Did I just see a hoard of mushrooms that may not even be edible and give myself false hopes? I immediately began to do thorough research. Mushroom encyclopedia after encyclopedia, bay area foraging website after website, and fungus loving chef blogs after blogs, I educated myself. My favorite encyclopedia lists all of the edible mushrooms in California, where they are found, multiple pictures of them, scientific analysis of structure, and more. Chanterelles I am sure of how to identify at this point. They’re a peculiar mushroom; instead of having gills on their underside, they have ribs. In fact, these specimens don’t even have a familiar cap or hat like we’re used to, but more so a shape solely built of hearty trunk. These mushrooms made me mad… in a good way. I had to think back and figure out if I was correct.
Long story short, I entered the forest with an empty basket and left the forest with a full one of chanterelles, oyster mushrooms (easy to tell), miner’s lettuce, and a few stray end-of-the-season blackberries. I asked my Ukrainian grandmother what’s the best way to cook these chanterelles, and I was immediately corrected that they are called “lisichki” in Russian. Quite a dainty sounding name for such a hearty mushroom I thought, but the name grew on me. Her go-to recipe for most mushrooms is simple. Butter meets a pan to melt with some garlic, the mushrooms go in and cook to release their juices and begin drying out, then goes in salt, pepper, sometimes a hint of nutmeg, and a generous amount of sour cream. Whether this is a side dish, a sauce, or a filling, I really don’t care, because it’s delicious.
Now you may be asking, “is it safe for me to go in the forest and pick a mushroom that I think is what it is?”. Absolutely not. Foraging is a dangerous and possibly lethal conquest that takes some intense research to master. There is no room for trial and error, because the error could end up being your life. Like any forager’s motto goes, “ when in doubt, throw it out.” I may bring home something I am unsure of, but I will never eat it until I research it thoroughly and am 110% sure. I usually don’t pick button mushrooms for this reason because there are so many look-alikes. I go for the main mushrooms that may only have one look alike and are easy to tell the difference. For example, chanterelles grow on the forest floor and are bright golden yellow. There is only one other look-alike in the area called the Jack O Lantern mushroom, which grows only on trees and has actual gills, not ribs like the chanterelle. I do not recommend going out to forage unless you are with someone who is knowledgeable and safe. Many foraging tours and trips are held in the SF Bay Area and are easy to find, sign up, and enjoy the adventure with. That is my recommended first step in starting this journey of becoming a forager.
Once you master some basic foraging, the doors open like floodgates. There are so many things to forage out in the forest that I am sure I can camp out for days with no food and be very well fed. Chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, bay boletes (porcini’s cousin), blewit mushrooms, candy cap mushrooms, shaggy parasol mushrooms, hedgehog mushrooms, puffball mushrooms, black trumpet mushrooms, wild blackberries, elderberries, wild watercress, stinging nettle, miner’s lettuce, sorrel, redwood sorrel, yerba Buena, false strawberries, tree strawberries, alpine strawberries, bay laurel leaves, pine and eucalyptus, lemon-mint, and more are all things that I personally have found and enjoyed. I enjoy it even more because unlike most things we eat; we don’t choose where a wild mushroom grows. The mushroom chooses for us, and it’s grown in that same spot for hundreds if not thousands of years. If you want to really feel like the indigenous people of California felt, you have to forage. Mushrooms aren’t just about the culinary aspect either; they’re about life and death. They’re about rebirth. They’re about the energy that is captured and recycled through the earth to begin life anew. A mushroom is nothing more than a fungus, a mold, a sign of decomposition, yet it holds immense culinary and personal value to me. Foraging has helped me through tough times and has made me realize that I am a spiritual person, even though it may not be in the sense that some would be able to understand.
From the very first taste of my buttery chanterelle, through that journey of madness, to the point where I am now, mushrooms have caused an immense growth in me. For lack of a better term, a wisdom that I cannot put into words is instilled in me because of my passion for foraging and my passion for food. Imagine if I chose to attend school for pre-med rather than Culinary Management… I would not be the same person I am today, and I am grateful for the journey I have taken – mushroom madness and all.
Below is my babushka’s recipe for simple “sour-creamed” chanterelles. Enjoy, my friends.
by Svetlana Nesteruk and Igor Breyman
Yield: 4 servings as a side dish, or 8 servings as a light sauce for chicken, pork, etc.
1 lb of fresh wild chanterelles
½ stick butter
4 cloves of garlic
Heavy pinch of salt
Heavy pinch of pepper
Small pinch of nutmeg
1c sour cream
- Melt the butter in a heavy pan (I prefer cast iron) and continue until it begins to lightly turn tan
- Tear the chanterelles with your hands into pieces (their structure likes to be teared, or if they’re small, leave whole), finely dice the garlic, then drop both into the hot pan and allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until the juices have run out and began to evaporate
- Season with a heavy pinch of salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste
- Once the mushrooms are almost dry, add the sour cream and stir to combine