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Chef Paul on Foraging and Finding the Mammoth Mushroom

Chef Paul Callahan has been foraging for mushrooms for several years but was still shocked at the size of a polypore mushroom he found in Brentwood this fall.

Callahan, the executive chef at Vino e Vivo, was taking his young son and daughter for a walk by a beaver pond where he’d previously seen the fungus.

“There was a stone wall next to a couple of pine trees, and I happened to look over and see it,” he said. He left the mushroom there that first day. He knew from his past experience that the polypore was good for soups, broths and sautéing “I knew it needed some more time to be ready for me to pick but when I went out to check on it, it had just blown up, it was huge.”

Normally, a mushroom that size might not be good to eat, having become bitter. But when he sampled a piece, it was still good. He brought it into the kitchen at Vino e Vivo and created a mushroom tempura small plate with a black garlic tzatziki and tomatoes. “It was just about the texture of the mushroom and the shape. It lent itself to being used in a tempura,” he said.

Callahan started foraging with some chef friends about six years ago as a way to find different ingredients for kitchen that he couldn’t just order. He talked with people to learn how to properly, and safely, forage, and started making it a regular practice.

“A lot of the other mushrooms can be cultivated indoors, and some can’t be, some you have to find in the wild,” he explained. “There’s a sister strain called the black staining polypore that is really good to use in pasta; it’s like the squid ink of the mushroom world and colors the pasta in the same way.”

Another favorite is the shrimp of the woods and lobster mushrooms, which are very unique. “Lobster mushrooms are mushrooms that have been parasitized by a fungus which basically transforms them into a new mushroom that is edible and tastes like lobster,” he said.

Foraging for mushrooms takes time to learn and know what to look for when in the woods. “It depends on which trees are nearby. If you’re looking for a certain type of mushroom, you can look for a certain type of tree,” he said. “For example, hen of the woods grow by Oak trees.”

And it’s not all about mushroom when Chef Paul heads into the woods. He also looks for ramps, wild garlic, and even wild blueberries. But finding certain elusive mushrooms is a thrill. “There’s nothing like finding a flush of mushrooms in one area, like a black trumpet because you can’t really see them until you start looking,” he said. “But if you’re interested in foraging, you do have to be careful about what you pick and start by going with someone who is experienced.”

Adding foraged mushrooms to dishes he creates is just another way that Callahan finds to help his guests broaden their palate. The flavor of mushrooms from the store doesn’t even compared to the wild ones, he said. “The wild ones, the good ones, are earthy, dirty and have a lot better texture and meaty flavor,” he said. “They’re much more flavorful and have a really nice aroma.”

At Vino e Vivo, where pairing wine and food is a specialty, mushrooms are a natural addition to the menu. “Wine and mushrooms go hand in hand,” he said. “Chicken of the woods would be a light wine, chantarelles would go like, maybe with a rose, while morels or hen of the woods would pair well with a red wine.”

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