Years ago my father made a great discovery in his own backyard. On an otherwise unremarkable winter day, he spotted a cluster of frilly, orange mushrooms peaking out from underneath fallen leaves. He decided to pick the mushrooms and cook them for dinner. My mother was alarmed -- she recounted many tragic tales of expert foragers who had fallen ill after ingesting a bad mushroom, but there was nothing that could be done to dissuade him. He was sure that those orange mushrooms were golden chanterelles.
Wild mushrooms are such precious finds because they are the result of a symbiotic relationship between fungus and living tree, and therefore can only be found in a forest environment. Cultivated mushrooms, on the other hand, live on decaying plants and will thrive in simulated conditions. Humans have devised ways to successfully farm a few dozen of the more than one thousand species of edible mushrooms. Those fungi that elude cultivation command a high price. For instance, fresh white truffles regularly sell for more than $2,500 per pound.
My father began by melting a pat of butter in a skillet. He swirled in some olive oil and sprinkled a handful of fresh thyme leaves. In went the cleaned mushrooms. They sizzled in the hot oil as they formed a crisp exterior, perfuming the kitchen with an earthy, seductive scent. After a few minutes, he seasoned them with salt and pepper and poured in a generous splash of cream. We ate the mushrooms with fresh pasta and I was sure I would never taste anything better in my life.
My mother, however, refused to try a bite. "I will be the one to call the doctor when you need her," she told us. Every year, following the first rains of the season, my father now searches for golden chanterelles. They have never reappeared in my parents' backyard, so he forages for them elsewhere, usually at his local market. It may not be as thrilling as finding them that first year, but at least when he cooks the store-bought mushrooms, my mother happily digs in.
Mushroom Ragoût on Creamy Polenta
Any type of edible mushroom, wild or not, would be great in this ragoût. I like to use a combination of dried wild mushrooms, which are relatively easy to find, and fresh cultivated mushrooms, which are affordable. If you can find golden chanterelles, you are all set and need not use any dried ones.
1 cup polenta
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ pound fresh oyster mushrooms
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1½ teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
3 fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced
¼ cup red wine
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring 5 cups water to a boil in a Dutch oven (or equivalent heavy-bottomed pot). Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon salt. While whisking the salted water, slowly pour in the polenta. Continue whisking until the polenta is fully incorporated into the water. When you first add the polenta, it will sink to the bottom of the pot, but after you whisk for a minute or two, the polenta will rise to the surface and mix in with the water. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting possible and cook the polenta for 45 minutes. Every 10 minutes or so, give it a good stir, making sure to scrape your whisk along the bottom and sides of the pot so that no polenta gets stuck there and burns.
Meanwhile, place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and pour 1 cup boiling water over them. Set them aside for 10 minutes, or until they are fully hydrated and tender.
Clean the fresh mushrooms by brushing them with a damp cloth to remove any dirt. (Don't submerge them in water because they will absorb it and become soggy.) Heat a skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Swirl in 1 tablespoon butter and the olive oil. When the butter has completely melted, add the fresh mushrooms. Using a wooden spoon, stir the mushrooms until they are coated in oil and butter, then stop stirring and let them sear for a few minutes. Resist the urge to stir; letting the mushrooms sit allows them to form a golden crust. Flip them over and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Turn down the heat to medium, add the shallot, thyme, sage, ¼ teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes, or until the shallots begin to caramelize. Pour in the wine and cook until the liquid has completely evaporated, then add the soaking dried mushrooms with their water. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat.
When the polenta is done cooking, remove it from the heat and stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Taste for seasoning.
To serve, ladle some polenta into a shallow bowl. Scatter some mushrooms over the polenta, then drizzle a spoonful of broth on top of the mushrooms. Sprinkle each bowl with a few chopped parsley leaves.