Traveling has been a great part of life for my hubby Norm and me, and when presented with the opportunity to attend a wedding in the Ukraine, we immediately made airline reservations.
February 2004 found us in Odessa at the Hotel Kempinski.
The hotel sits at the edge of the Black Sea and came complete with armed bodyguards dressed in black, machine guns slung over their shoulders, patrolling inside the hotel and out, 24 hours a day. Crime at that time ran rampant in the cities — very unsettling.
The day following the wedding, we were off to the cold and windy “Communist marketplace" in the town's center. The vendors were bundled in woolen clothing, selling handmade cheese, sausages, dried salted fish, root vegetables and meats steaming still from that morning's kill directly behind the meat section of the marketplace.
Quickly leaving that section, my eyes turned in the direction of several very plump, pink-cheeked ladies wearing strings of dried oyster and porcini mushrooms hanging from their necks down to their shoes. I was told they cost 25 cents a strand.
I did an immediate calculation. I could layer 25 to 30 strands among our clothing in our suitcases. I envisioned pots of mushroom soup, mushroom-filled pierogies (Polish ravioli) and mushrooms with steak. I was ecstatic.
"Do you know how to prepare these mushrooms?" asked Victoria, our Ukrainian companion.
"Of course," I answered, "I cook with them all of the time.”
"But not these mushrooms,” Victoria said. "These are wild mushrooms, and first you must put them in a pot of water with a whole onion, and let them sit overnight."
"No problem,” I quipped.
"And then,” Victoria continued on, “if the onion has turned black, you must throw the whole pot of mushrooms out, for they are poisonous.”
My jaw dropped. I moved quickly, returning my precious "find" to the smiling mushroom lady, who, with a wave of her hand, must have thought I was just another clueless American.
I read later that 2,000-plus Ukrainians die each year from eating poisonous mushrooms. So much for the white onion trick!
Two members of our dinner club, Donna and David Horne, veterinarians and owners of the Westside Santa Cruz Companion Animal Hospital, are members of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz. Donna originates from the Czech Republic, where "shrooming" — often called foraging or silent hunting — was second nature to her.
Donna recently returned from a visit to Mendocino County with the club, boasting hedgehogs and black trumpets as part of her mushroom bounty.
Mushrooms, often placed in the vegetable category, are in fact fungi. I have found these fungi are often sliced too thin, overcooked and overly seasoned, not allowing them to take on the flavor of the foods they are prepared with, or overpowering their own earthy, nutty and even fruity flavors.
Storing in a brown paper bag will increase their shelf life in the refrigerator to 10 days. Never wash mushrooms in water; simply brush them lightly before use.
The accompanying recipe is a delicious nontraditional lasagna.
- Colly Gruczelak, a Ben Lomond resident, loves people and loves to cook. Contact her at email@example.com.
Servings: 8 to 10
2 tablespoons unsalted butter.
2 tablespoons olive oil.
1/3 cup minced shallots.
2 pounds mushrooms, thickly sliced, such as chanterelles, black trumpets, stemmed shitakes and oysters
½ cup dry white wine
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley
12 ounces fresh lasagna sheets (available in Santa Cruz at Whole Foods or Mike's Pasta, 475-8341)
1 pound Taleggio cheese (available at Ben Lomond and Whole Foods markets), cut into ½-inch cubes
Heat oven to 350.
Over high heat, sauté butter, olive oil, shallots and mushrooms until lightly browned, 16 to 18 minutes, with salt and pepper to taste.
Add wine. Boil 1 minute.
Add 2 cups cream. Simmer until slightly reduced.
Add parsley and set aside.
Meanwhile, in simmering water, cook pasta until al dente. Drain and cool in ice-cold water; drain again and pat dry.
In a buttered 9-by-13-inch baking dish, arrange one-quarter of the lasagna sheets. Top with one-third of the mushroom mixture and one-quarter of the cheese. Repeat this twice more, ending with a final layer of pasta.
Brush top with 2 tablespoons heavy cream and remaining cheese.
Cover loosely with buttered parchment. Bake 15 minutes.
Uncover. Bake 15 minutes more or until top is golden in spots.
Rest uncovered for 15 minutes before serving.
Smachneho! (Bon appétit.)