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After centuries of mistrust and confusion, the wild mushroom has finally entered the mainstream of the American kitchen.

Here in Wine Country, seasonal chefs routinely showcase chanterelles and matsutakes on their winter menus, while Healdsburg holds an annual Wild Mushroom Weekend each February.

"We're really lucky in Sonoma County," said Elissa Rubin-Mahon, an expert mushroomer who led a recent foraging class for Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg. "It's one of the best places to mushroom on the planet."

Yes, there are mushrooms out there that can make you sick, or worse. Mushroom poisoning deaths are often linked to Amanita Phalloides, the commonly found Death Cap. But by following the rules, you can build your skills without risking your life, liver or digestive tract.

Those obsessed with the fungus find it's worthwhile to learn about where they grow and what they look like, along with the methods for bringing out their earthy, complex flavors in kitchen.

"You can enhance the flavor, but you don't want to overwhelm the flavor," Rubin-Mahon said, while cooking up a fungi feast after the forage. "Chanterelles and hedgehogs are good for soup. . . . Matsutake smells like horseradish and cinnamon, so it goes great with fish."

Hordes of wild-mushroom hunters are drawn to the North Coast each winter in search of the mysterious, underground mycelium and the strange, fruiting bodies it sends up to the surface, like gifts from the gods.

"It sends out a couple, just to check out what the weather is like," said Healdsburg chef Ari Rosen of Scopa and Campo Fina restaurants, an avid forager who grew up in Ukiah. "This year, we had some rain in October, and it was just enough to get the porcinis started on the coast."

However, the heavy rains and deep chill in December put a damper on the winter crop, including the chanterelles and hedgehogs.

"Chanterelles grow really slow," he said. "If it rains and gets cold, we don't get good mushrooms."

However, Rosen said that coastal foragers are finding a bumper crop of matsutake, a dense, woody mushroom revered by the Japanese, along with the yellowfoot and blackfoot.

During the recent Relish forage at Hoot Owl Creek Ranch above the Alexander Valley, a group of two dozen foragers carried baskets as they spread out over the oak-studded hills to search for telltale mounds on the earth.

"We want to find mushrooms, edible or not," Rubin-Mahon told the group. "Look up in the trees. Lion's mane can grow in a bowl of the tree, and oyster mushrooms can grow on dead wood."

Less than a minute passed before someone spied a small, gray mushroom that Rubin-Mahon identified as a possible inky cap. Then another person found a bright orange mushroom, possibly a witch's hat.

Although none of the mushrooms gathered that day were deemed safe to eat, two mushrooms provided a lesson in what not to eat: the coppery-capped Death Cap, Amanita Phalloides, and its edible cousin, Amanita Vaginata.

"I've found the Death Cap with edible Amanita," said Rubin-Mahon, adding that just to be safe, she never eats anything in the Amanita family.

"You should focus on beginner mushrooms that are easy to ID and flavorful," she said. "In this region, there are a dozen choices of edible mushrooms."

Back in the kitchen, Rubin-Mahon demonstrated how to clean and cook a few wild mushrooms routinely stocked by grocery stores. Hedgehogs have teeth underneath the cap, making them tricky.

"Spread them out on paper towels and let them dry out, then clean the teeth," she said. "Bang the cap, scrape down the stem, agitate them in a bowl of water, and strain quickly."

Yellowfeet are hollow in the center. To clean, split in half, agitate quickly in water, then lift out as the dirt sinks to the bottom.

Rubin-Mahon sauteed both of these mushrooms in butter, serving them with corn-flour blinis. As a sweet and savory side dish for a roasted pork shoulder, she sauteed Black Trumpet mushrooms and mixed them with kale, wild rice, dried cranberries and pine nuts.

For dessert, the foragers enjoyed a decadent, Dried Cherry Bread Pudding made with candy caps that Rubin-Mahon had gathered and dried herself.

The candy cap has a strong maple-syrup aroma and grows along the coast.

"It can be easily mistaken," she warned. "Other mushrooms look similar, but don't have the smell."

The following recipes are from forager and chef Elissa Rubin-Mahon.

Wild Rice with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Pine Nuts, Caramelized Onions, Dried Cranberries and Kale

Makes 8 servings

For rice:

1 cup raw wild rice

? teaspoon salt

1? cups water

For onions:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup onions, chopped

For the rest:

1 bunch kale

1 tablespoon olive oil

? pound Black Trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus), cleaned and torn

1 pinch Kosher salt

1/3 cup dried cranberries

1/3 cup toasted pine nuts

? teaspoon red pepper flakes

For rice: Bring the water and salt to a rolling boil in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the rice, stir to cover. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes. Check the level of water and continue to cook until all of the water has absorbed. Cover the rice and allow to cool in the pan. May be prepared up to one day in advance.

For onions: Add oil to a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and a small amount of salt and cover. Reduce the heat to medium-low and saute until the onions become transparent, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid and reduce the heat to low and continue to saute, stirring occasionally until the onions are reduced in volume and are a golden color. Remove from the heat and set aside. May be done up to one day in advance.

For the rest: Rinse the kale and remove the central rib from each leaf and cut into ?-inch ribbons; set aside.

Place a small amount of oil into a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the black trumpet mushrooms and a small amount of salt and saute over high heat until most of the juice has reabosrbed into the mushrooms.

Add the kale and cook until the kale is mostly tender. Add the caramelized onions, wild rice, dried cranberries and pepper flakes and cook until the rice is hot and the kale is tender. Toss the pinenuts into the stir-fry and serve immediately.

Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder with Garlic and Herbs

Makes 8 to 10 servings

4 pounds boneless pork shoulder roast

Herb-garlic rub (recipe below)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 yellow onion, diced

1 cup dry white wine

1 cup rich chicken stock

6 sprigs fresh thyme

Peel from ? medium lemon

10 cloves garlic, whole

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.

Wipe shoulder roast with a damp paper towel and rub all surfaces with the Herb-Garlic rub. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Place a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. When hot, add vegetable oil and brown the roast on all sides. Remove the pork from the Dutch oven and pour off most of the fat. Saute the diced onions in the remaining fat over medium-low heat until translucent, about 10 minutes.

Add the wine, stock, thyme and lemon peel to the onions and garlic in the pot. Top with the browned pork. Return the Dutch oven to the stove and bring the liquid to a simmer.

Remove from the burner and place the Dutch oven in the lower third of a 275 degree oven. Roast for two hours, then flip the roast in the cooking liquid. Add the garlic cloves. Cover and cook for two to three hours more, until the pork shoulder is very tender when pierced with a fork. Let pork cool, uncovered. When cool, refrigerate covered overnight.

Skim the fat that has coagulated on the surface of the liquid. Transfer the pork to a platter or carving board. Discard the thyme branches. Reduce the jus on the stovetop on high heat to thicken.

To serve, slice or shred pork. Top with some of the jus and serve the excess jus in a sauce pitcher.

Herb-Garlic Rub

Makes 1/3 cup

1 tablespoons fennel seed

1? tablespoons minced garlic, sauteed in a little olive oil until fragrant

2 teaspoons black peppercorns

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

1 teaspoon sea salt

Olive oil to make a paste

Grind fennel seed and pepper in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Mix with remaining ingredients.

You can use either brioche or challah bread for this recipe.

Candy Cap and Dried Cherry Bread Pudding

Makes 9 to 12 servings

2 tablespoons dark rum

1/3 cup dried Candy Cap mushrooms, broken into small pieces

? cup light brown sugar, packed

2 extra large eggs + 3 egg yolks, beaten until thoroughly combined

2 teaspoons vanilla

3 cups Half & Half, scaled

? cup dried, tart cherries

5-6 cups brioche or challah bread, cubed

Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste

Cinnamon, to taste

Maple Rum Whipped Cream (recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center. Butter a 2-quart baking dish.

Combine rum with mushrooms and set aside to hydrate for at least 30 minutes. Strain mushrooms, reserving candy-cap-infused rum for future use.

Mix the sugar, eggs and vanilla together, slowly add the scalded Half & Half, while whisking continuously until thoroughly combined. Add the cherries, mushrooms, bread cubes and freshly grated nutmeg. Fold to combine. Allow mixture to stand for 30 minutes so that the custard is absorbed thoroughly into the bread cubes and the flavor of the candy caps is released.

Place the pudding mixture into the buttered, 2-quart dish and sprinkle the top lightly with cinnamon. Place the baking dish inside a roasting pan. Place in oven and make a bain-marie by carefully pouring hot water into the roasting pan to surround the baking dish, stopping at ?-inch deep. Bake for 40-45 minutes. The center will be firm, but the texture tender. To serve, slice into evenly-sized portions. Top with whipped cream.

Maple Rum Whipped Cream

Makes ? pint

? pint heavy cream

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon rum

2 teaspoons sugar

Whip cream with sugar, syrup and rum.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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