This forager had the good fortune of spending Saturday combing the hills of Eastern Washington for wild edibles with Seattle chef and cookbook author Becky Selengut (Washington Local and Seasonal Cookbook) and go go green gardener Amy Pennington. Both proved quick studies on the fungi trail—and highly entertaining sidekicks to boot.
After loading up on jerky and pepperoni at Owen's Meats in Cle Elum, we made for the mountains. The first stop of the day was a thigh-burner wake-up call (make that a triple grande no foam) that produced a patch of thirty or so morels in an area smaller than a pool table. This was an area I had explored last week, and except for this one score it was pretty much tapped out by now.
We admired the view at the top:
Another spot yielded nice freshies, but they required a fair amount of work, with a lot of bushwhacking in between each find.
Morels continue to elude me in a more scientific sense. The singletons seem to occupy shadowy haunts—in darker woods or along riverbottoms. Sometimes they can be quite big owing to the moister conditions of their habitat in these places. They're apparently mychorrizal with both cottonwoods and various species of fir. The clusters, however, seem to need more disturbance—areas that have been logged or burned or otherwise altered. This habitat tends to be more open conifer woods, with dappled light and drier conditions. Sometimes you'll find scores of morels in a tiny area in these places. Are they a different species? Superficially, it would appear not.
After spending the better part of the day hunting morels, I suggested we take a stab at finding some early spring king boletes—what Italians lovingly call porcini, or "little pigs." Normally my porcini patches would be in full bloom right now, but this spring has been anything but normal. With morels about three weeks behind schedule, I figured the boletes would be late, too.
To get to the patch we had to ford raging rivers and endure a scary moment of self-inflicted 'shroom knifewounds. Portents were not good. The ground had a matted look to it, indicating the snow had just melted out recently. Queen's cup lilies weren't even budding yet, and many of the trilliums were still white. Yellow violets bloomed in dense thickets along damp creek bottoms, some of which we took for salad.
At the base of a big fir tree something caught Becky's eye. In the next moment the three of us were all kneeling around the trunk. We madly scraped away the duff to reveal first one, then three perfect porcini. Each cap was six or seven inches across and firm. These king boletes had just pushed their royal heads through the surface. Huzzah!
After the hoots and high-fives and endzone celebration we sliced one in half to check for worms. The inside was pure white and pristine. This was the capper on a great day. Going home with a bag full of morels was sweet; going home with porcini was something altogether different.
I was exhausted after the long day in the woods, but there was no way I was going to bed without tasting the first porcini of the year. I cut it into 1/4-inch slices, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, seasoned, and added chopped garlic, then grilled until very lightly browned.
I've been known to suffer from hyperbole, but I can safely say this was the best porcini ever. At least from my kitchen. The outside was grilled to perfection with tons of flavor while the inside was succulent, almost like a pan-seared scallop. I was rendered nearly helpless after a single bite. That's what the first porcino of the season will do to you.