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’Shroomin’: Temper virus angst with fungi fun

’Shroomin’: Temper virus angst with fungi fun

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My love for mushrooms spawned over the course of football season during my senior year of high school.

My father and mother operated two pizza parlors in Alabama called Pasquale’s. That’s where everyone would go after the game for pizza and something called a Stromboli steak sandwich.

My Sicilian mother never cooked with mushrooms, so when a friend ordered a large Pasquale’s pizza with mushrooms for our table, I was suspect. While I normally ate one post-game slice to fill my stomach, there was no way I would eat mushroom anything.

When the food arrived, my resolve was firmed up by the sight of canned mushrooms marring the canvas of that pizza. I don’t remember all of the details, but on a dare, I took a bite. Ick! It was just as horrible as I’d imagined.

The next week, I convinced my boyfriend to try another pizza chain after the big game. We placed our order for a good ol’ pepperoni and waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. It was nearly closing time before the server placed a pizza in front of us. But where was the pepperoni? And what were all those little gray bits on top?

To my horror, the server explained that our pizza had been accidentally given to someone else. Because they were on the verge of closing, this was it: Either we accepted this mushroom pizza, (gratis, of course) or we left hungry. I picked up a slice and took a tentative bite. Then I took another. The big surprise was that I was so darn hungry, it tasted wonderful. I couldn’t get enough of that mushroom pizza.

The next week, we were back, and our standard pepperoni now shared billing with mushrooms as a topping. And just like that, my love for mushrooms began to grow.

I ended up marrying a man who was a hard-core mushroom lover. His favorite meal of all time was a homemade pizza he and his buddies made and covered in fresh morels. So, as a young cook, I found myself tossing a package of button mushrooms into the grocery cart on a regular basis.

I taught myself to whip up stroganoffs, stir-fries, stews – anything into which I could load a carton of mushrooms and make him happy. I started stuffing them and roasting them as a side dish.

Then, I was introduced to portabella, oyster, porcinis and others. The wilder they got, the more in love I fell. Mushroom soups made with two or three varieties really thrilled me.

While that man and I are no longer married, I sometimes cook something mushroomy for him on special occasions. Last Christmas, my current better-half and I gifted him with a bundle of dried morels. He made pizza, of course, and pronounced it pretty tasty.

The man and I spawned a couple of daughters, the oldest of whom is a microbiologist. Because her field involves the study of microscopic things, she has a natural interest in fungi. That interest has broadened to include macroscopic fungi, too.

As an amateur mycologist and inheritor of her father’s love of mushrooms, she often spends her weekends traipsing through forests in search of edible varieties. On a recent outing in her neighborhood, she snagged a full bag of red chanterelles – “Cantharellus cinnabarinus” – which made an outrageously delicious pasta dish.

When visiting her in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I like to accompany her on these hunts. Armed with a sweet Italian-made mushroom knife, guidebook and bags for storage, we weave our way through local nature preserves and wooded areas to see what we can find. It fills me with peace to move through nature this way, immersed in the environment and attentive to what’s underfoot.

The last time we went, I found a nice-sized Old Man of the Woods. When the weather cools, we will forage for Chicken of the Woods.

But, while my daughter is knowledgeable and experienced enough to recognize a good many safe-to-eat mushrooms, she relies upon a local group of expert mycologists to help confirm the identities of her finds. If you are foraging, a good guidebook and authoritative resources are IMPERATIVE. Never eat any mushroom unless you are 100 percent certain of its identity.

For anyone seriously interested in mycology, South Carolina is not only home to more than 3,000 varieties of mushrooms but also one of the leading mushroom authorities. At Mushroom Mountain in Easley, ecotourists come from far and wide to learn about cultivation, foraging and new developments in fungi research. Mycologist Tradd Cotter conducts groundbreaking research in his laboratory, exploring ways that mushrooms can be used environmentally, medicinally and nutritionally.

His certification class in mushroom identification and safety is a legal must for budding professionals who wish to sell to restaurants. A variety of workshops are offered regularly, online and in-person. Check the website for details about the newly established “Mushroom University” as well as how to buy kits for growing your own.

If learning to forage isn’t your thing, you can still deepen your mushroom experience by buying what’s locally grown. Shitakes and oyster mushrooms from Rebecca Farms of Pamplico are a staple at various farmers markets. The Maypop Farm stand at the City Market in Downtown Florence often carries them, as do various markets in the Lowcountry and Upstate.

Or enjoy a day trip to Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, where the monks cultivate oysters as a way of earning some income. (Check online for hours of operation.) Stop by the gift shop on the gorgeous grounds or order online.

Because of the pandemic, fresh oysters are not available at this time, but you can buy their dried mix of oyster and shitake mushrooms. Even reconstituted, these mushrooms are divine. Their website also has some wonderful recipes for showing off the flavor of their mushrooms to full advantage; I recently used them to make a fantastic hot and sour soup.

Once you purchase your Mepkin mushrooms, enjoy some contemplative time meandering the lush, ethereal grounds – highly recommended for anyone needing a pandemic break.

Libby Wiersema writes about dining, food trends and the state’s culinary history for Discover South Carolina as well as other print and online media. Contact her at libbyscarolinaspoon@gmail.com.

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