Searching WNC Forests for Edible Mushrooms

Asheville Citizen-Times, July 26th, 2010


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BARNARDSVILLE — Surrounded by the beauty of the Western North Carolina mountains, Alan Muskat still keeps his eyes on the ground. He's got to make sure he doesn't trample his dinner.

For the past 15 years, Muskat's been foraging the forest for fungus. It's a great dedication to the tasty toadstool that's earned him the moniker, the Mushroom Man.

“It's really a Zen, meditative practice,” Muskat said of mushroom hunting while on the prowl near Barnardsville last week. “You cannot go in with expectations.”

He scours the soil for his own meals — he prefers wild mushrooms sautéed with a little garlic — and sells hundreds of pounds of this found food to area restaurants each year.

Muskat also guides mushroom hunting expeditions, even taking his lessons to the small screen with appearances on such TV shows as the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.

Muskat is combining his joint love of mushrooms and education on Aug. 4 in partnership with The Market Place Restaurant on Wall Street. The Woodfin resident will helm a mushroom hunt in the morning and celebrate the forest's bounty with a four-course meal at the downtown eatery in the evening. Market Place owner and chef William Dissen is making a wild mushroom spring roll, lobster mushroom bisque, grilled venison with painted bolete mushroom ragout and chaga coffee crème brulee for dessert.

“Mushrooms are really the oysters of the forest floor,” Dissen said. And now is a good time to start harvesting mushrooms in this area. The season is now through the fall, with the peak hitting in September for most of the harvestable 5,000 mushroom varieties in WNC, Muskat said.

'Earthy undertone'

Although each mushroom has a different flavor, the ingredient is also great at “taking on the different flavors you are trying to do with a dish,” Dissen said.

No matter what you cook them with, “there is an earthy undertone,” he noted. Dissen cooks with wild mushrooms for the regular menu, as well, including mushroom ravioli.

“It's really a great spot for mushrooms,” he said about the local harvest, noting four or five people come by the restaurant's kitchen each week this time of year, slinging boxes of freshly picked mushrooms.

Dissen has journeyed with Muskat and experienced the rush of pushing over moss to unearth 5 pounds of mushrooms.

“He's really changed how I hike,” Dissen said. “You just have to keep your eyes out.”

What's safe?

Muskat certainly seeks mushrooms with the severity of a hawk's gaze, but his enthusiasm for the discovery softens this seriousness. When he spots a jelly fungus, known as witch's butter, lounging on a log from the road Tuesday, he leaped out as soon as he stopped the car.

It's one of the reasons he recently traded in a roomy ride for a sleek convertible: Muskat can spot the mushroom from the road and bound to retrieve it without knocking his noggin.

“It's the Garden of Eden,” he said of the edible treasures available in nature.

Muskat first became interested in mushrooms after he decided to be self-sufficient and live off the land in the mid-'90s.

“I'm self-taught, but it's so much easier to learn from a human being,” Muskat said. It's also safer: Some edible mushrooms have lookalike poisonous versions.

For Muskat to identify a mushroom, he uses almost all senses: He looks for texture, smell and how it responds to scratching or cutting the surface. It's nuanced work, and there are barely any hard-and-fast rules that can be summarized simply.

photos by John Fletcher


Chanterelles: The smooth chanterelle is the most common in the area and is known for its golden color, wavy top and lack of gills. It has a trumpetlike shape.

Lobster mushrooms: Found almost always under hemlock trees, this mushroom takes its name from the sea creature because of its reddish outside and white inside.

Chicken of the woods: This mushroom is known for its meaty, tastes-like-chicken flavor. It's known as a “sulfur shelf” and is bright yellow underneath. It can fruit anytime from June to September.



• Bring with you a lined basket and paper sandwich bag or wax paper to keep different collections of unknown species.

• The best time to go hunting is in the morning about five days after a good rain.

• As a general rule, stick to mature forests and steer clear of areas like cemeteries, a well-manicured lawn or near coal-fired generating plants where mushrooms could soak up toxins.

• Go back to places you've found mushrooms before. Take detailed notes when you do find them for that purpose.



• The first time you are eating a new edible species, save one whole specimen aside just in case you have bad reaction. Cook some, but eat only a tablespoon. Any bad response — like nausea and an upset stomach — will usually happen within two hours.

• Cook wild mushrooms well: When a guide book says a variety is edible, it's talking about the cooked version of it.

• Keep mushrooms in a paper bag or in a basket with a damp towel in it in the refrigerator. Firm ones can keep for up to two weeks; the softer ones for only a few days.

• For long-term storage, either sauté or freeze (as with chanterelles) or dry them (as with chicken of the woods).

Source: Wild Mushrooms: A Taste of Enchantment, by Alan Muskat


Wild mushroom & prosciutto lasagna

1 box lasagna; cooked al dente, cooled in water, tossed in oil
3 pounds mushrooms (i.e., portabella, white, shiitake, etc.) small diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 bunch basil, finely chopped
1 bunch oregano, finely chopped
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups melted butter
1 ½ cups white wine
1 lb. prosciutto, thinly sliced
1 lb. shredded mozzarella
8 ounces grated parmesan cheese
4 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil, to sauté

Sauté diced mushrooms in oil until golden. Add minced shallot and garlic and cook until aromatic. Deglaze with white wine and reduce to dry glaze. Add salt, pepper, and herbs. Set aside. While cooking mushrooms, cook pasta in heavily salted water until “al dente.” Rinse in cold water, drain and toss in olive oil to coat. Reserve. Melt butter in sauce pot. Remove from heat and stir in flour. Put back on heat to warm and add milk and cream. Stir continuously until it reaches thick sauce consistency. Season with salt and pepper and strain through sieve. Keep warm. Butter 13” x 9” baking dish. Line first layer with lasagna noodles. Layer first with mushroom mixture, then with cream sauce (béchamel), then shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, then line with prosciutto and a little salt and pepper. Continue method to create a casserole effect. Top with béchamel, shredded cheese and parmesan. Bake at 350-375 degrees until top is golden brown, about 35-40 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes. Slice and serve with crusty bread and freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Chanterelle Vinaigrette

Yield: 1 quart

½ cup shallots, minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 1/2 cups chanterelle mushrooms, diced
1 cup mushroom stock
½ cup champagne vinegar
2 tablespoon whole grain mustard
4 tablespoons herb mix (basil, thyme, etc.)
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste

Cook chanterelles in 1 tablespoon oil until tender, add shallots and garlic and cook until liquid has evaporated (sec). Add stock and reduce temperature by half. Add vinegar and bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in remaining oil to emulsify. Remove from the heat and whisk in mustard and herbs to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

recipes by William Dissen