The afternoon was as rainy as the autumnal Pacific Northwest offers, with buffeting breezes whisking dollops of rain off the 50-foot Douglas firs onto our barely waterproof hats and jackets. The area was perfect, finally encountered after hours driving through potholed back roads. A forested bench, secreted in the thick, soggy duff beneath towering trees, held our quarry. As evening darkness became our quiet companion, our eyes quickly swept the gloomy ground studded with fallen leaves, patiently urging our golden prizes to appear.
“Wait, c’mere, is this one?” I heard Mark call as I tripped over yet another shadowy log.
Running over and making out a lovely, upright yellow form peaking out from the fallen branches, I shrieked in delight, “Yes, yes, yes, it is! Our first chanterelle!”
We only found a few more fresh, musky-smelling specimens that evening before the lack of a flashlight sent us back to the car and the trip home to civilization. But something about our methodical search through deep forest brought thoughts of my great-grandparents’ pursuit of the same foraged food in the woods of Poland and the Ukraine, many decades ago, listening for the sound of hoof beats that might mean the beginning of another pogrom or an attack by the soldiers of the czar.
Wild mushrooms have been, of course, popular foods among all European and Middle Eastern cultures for millennia, but for the centuries when Jews all over Europe could not own property, raising poultry and foraging and collecting the fruits of the pasture and forests were a normal part of seeking survival.
Skill in recognizing and collecting edible wild mushrooms has, of course, been part of all cultures that existed during the millennia when hunting and gathering prevailed as a predominant method of gaining food. Jews, having been around for millennia, have had cultural, social, culinary and even early spiritual connections with different fungi, some very pleasant and aromatic (the culinary connections), others ringing with vitriolic anti-Semitism, and still others bespeaking shadowy mythic spiritualism.
The “Jews ear” or “Judas ear” mushroom (Auricularia auricula-judae) is a little mushroom that grows on tree bark, sticking out from the tree’s truck in rusty pink-brown colonies that look very much like groups of little veined ears! The name “Jew’s ear” apparently was a contraction over time from “Judas’ ear,” so-named because, according to Christian legend, after Judas Iscariot reputedly betrayed Jesus he hanged himself from the branch of an elder tree, which species often supports communities of the edible fungi.
Jew’s Ear has also been popularly cultivated in China for 1,000 years, where it is left to grow dark with maturity. It picks up the names “black ear” or the familiar “wood ear” and is often eaten in soups and lightly cooked dishes, as well as used in medical applications.
“The Poisonous Mushroom” is a famous story from the children’s book Der Giftpilz, published in 1938 by Julius Streicher, the editor of the widely read weekly newspaper Der Sturmer, which was devoted to arousing hatred against the Jews in Nazi Germany. A mother tells the story to her children as they gather mushrooms in the woods. She equates Jews to the poisonous mushrooms that are crucial to be able to recognize from the good “mushrooms” — people, of course — in society, even though they may look the same or act normally. The worthy mother praises her children for already knowing the Jews are “poisonous,” but despairs that not everyone in society recognizes them for what they are. She relates that just one Jew in a village can poison a the whole town, the whole region, the whole country! The remaining stories in the book are cautionary tales, instructing children in fear and hatred of Jews, whose God is money, whose intentions are criminal and lascivious, and whose louse-infested beards and filthy, protruding ears hide sub-human minds that know only cheating and swindling. The idea of Jews as “poisonous mushrooms” killing Germany from its insides became a powerful propaganda message of the Nazis before and during the Holocaust.
But let’s move on to more delightful Jewish uses of the wild, foraged mushroom: in the cooking pot! With such a long relationship to edible fungi, Jews have created, adopted and passed along hundreds of recipes for mushrooms, largely from the European theater. Here are a couple for you to enjoy during this fall foraging season, whether you brave the drippy forest search or not! Wild mushrooms are available now in most larger produce sections, chanterelles being the queen of the autumn offerings. They can be expensive, but are so fragrant and flavorful that you can use fewer of them in a recipe than domestic mushrooms. If you substitute domestics, use about half again as much.
Russian Jews love mushrooms and have lots of opportunities to collect them in their fir forests threaded with birch, elm and maple, much like the woods of our Pacific Northwest. This is the simplest and perhaps most delicious of Georgian recipes for mushrooms. Serve as a side dish for any meat or as part as a vegetarian feast. Since mushrooms are very low in fat, carbs, cholesterol and fat, you can feel less guilty when adding cream!
Griby so Smyetonoy — Mushrooms in Cream
1 lb. firm, dry chanterelles, brushed free all over of sticks and debris with a soft pastry brush; do not wash. Trim the bottom of the stems of all dirt
3 Tbs. butter
2 tsp. chopped garlic
1 tsp. chopped fresh tarragon or rosemary leaves
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 to 1 tsp. kosher or sea salt
Pepper, to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream or crème fraiche or sour cream
Pull the mushrooms apart like string cheese, starting at the bottom of the stems, creating long pieces, large or small, as you like. Melt the butter over medium heat until foaming. Add the mushrooms and sauté about 10 min. Add the herbs, salt, pepper and lemon juice and cook slowly, stirring occasionally for five more minutes. Add the cream and heat gently. If using sour cream do not boil but check the seasoning, heat through, and serve in a heated dish, sprinkled with more chopped herbs or parsley if you want. If using cream or crème fraiche, bring the mushrooms to a simmer and let the flavors blend for five more minutes. Serve as above.
Yield: Serves four as a side dish
Chanterelles are the perfect foil for a simple soufflé, so go ahead and try it! This one is baked in individual five-, six- or eight-ounce straight-sided dishes and includes toasted chopped walnuts, almost guaranteeing a great rise! All Eastern European cuisines include a mushroom soufflé (or a similar dish), having “stolen” the delectable idea from the French.
Wild Mushroom Walnut Soufflés
Make the sauce first:
1/2 cup flour
4 Tbs. butter
1 cup milk (any type)
1 tsp. salt
Pinch white pepper
Pinch ground nutmeg or mace
2 Tbs. cream or evaporated milk
2 Tbs. chopped chives or parsley
1/4 cup cream cheese or fresh chevre or 1/3 cup Parmesan, grated
Put the flour, butter and cold milk into a pan and whisk over medium-low heat until a thick sauce is formed. Add the seasonings, let bubble for three minutes, then take off the heat and add the cream or evaporated milk and the herbs and the cheese. Remove from the heat and set aside. You can make the sauce a day ahead and re-heat it gently to proceed.
Then sauté the mushrooms and toast the walnuts:
3/4 cup walnuts, chopped fine and toasted at 350º for 5 minutes
2 Tbs. butter
3/4 lb. chanterelles, cleaned as in the previous recipe and chopped into 1/8-inch pieces
1 shallot, very finely chopped
3 Tbs. sherry or white wine (fruity or dry types are fine)
Squeeze lemon juice
1/2 tsp. salt
White pepper to taste
Melt the butter and let it foam, then add the shallots and mushrooms. Sauté for five minutes over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper, stir and cook for two to three minutes, then add the wine. Let cook until the liquid evaporates, about three minutes. Mix with the walnuts and set aside until cool.
Then put together the soufflés:
Heat the oven to 425º
2 to 3 Tbs. butter
6 Tbs. grated parmesan
5 eggs, separated
1 extra egg white
Butter little ramekins (straight-sided dishes) and dust the insides with the parmesan. Mix together the mushroom mixture and the walnuts, the mix together with the sauce in a big bowl. Taste for seasoning — it should be a little bit salty. Mix in the egg yolks. Beat the egg whites with a little salt until stiff and glossy, but not dry and breaking up. Add 1/3 of the whites to the sauce mixture and fold in gently to lighten it. Don’t be rough or the whites will lose the air you have just incorporated. Fold in the rest of the whites, gently. Spoon equal amounts into the ramekins and gently smooth the tops. Run your thumb around the top edge to be sure no batter is sticking to the rim.
Put the soufflés into a 9”x 13” pan. If you’re not ready to cook them and immediately take to the table, refrigerate them for up to four hours. When ready to cook, reduce the oven heat to 400º, put the pan on the middle rack in the middle of the oven, close the door gently and bake for 13 minutes (for smaller ramekins) to 18 minutes (for larger ramekins). Do not peek before 13 minutes!
Have small plates ready to put the hot soufflé dishes on to take to the table. When the soufflés are puffed up tall and are browned on top, take to the table and enjoy with a dry Riesling, a Pinot Grigio, a Pinot Noir or a good Chianti.
Yield: serves 6 to 8