>My year in Italy included a meal in a private dining room at one of the city’s finest restaurants. It was October, the height of mushroom season, and the menu our host chose made the most of it: antipasto with herbed, marinated mushrooms, a first-course pasta with a heady sauce of fresh porcinis, and Portabella mushroom steaks for the main course. The only off note among the chorus of “oohs” and “ahs” around the table was my friend Patrizia, who could be heard muttering “We’re going to be poisoned.”
Therein lies the challenge for mushroom aficionados.
Once you move beyond the basics of the common cultivated button, cremini, and portabella mushrooms (and several varieties of Asian cultivated mushrooms, such as shitaki) you’re at the mercy of the mushroom pickers who comb the woods and fields. Fortunately, the vast majority of them, and the markets they sell to, can distinguish the edible wild fungi from the dangerous ones. That means the morels, chanterelles, and porcinis that turn up at your local market present only the most infinitesimal risk while offering the rewards of fabulous flavor for pastas, soups, sauces, risottos, and more. If you don’t find them locally, a good online source is Foods in Season, specializing in fresh wild mushrooms (including truffles) from the Pacific Northwest.
Go to town cooking up Risotto al Funghi Porcini and the like, but, unless you are a mushroom expert with extensive experience, do not eat the mushrooms found in your yard or on hikes. Most of the perfectly safe wild mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes. Also, be aware that some amateur mushrooms pickers — and hikers — insist not only on eating what they find, but in serving mushroom-laced dishes to unsuspecting guests. Their dinner parties are good ones to avoid during, and right after, mushroom season.