The Lobster mushroom -- it's a fungalian horror story just in time for Halloween, complete with body snatcher metamorphosis, disfigurement and a cheery seasonal orange glow.
Imagine the short-stemmed Russula (Russula brevipes) or peppery milk cap (Lactarius piperatus), two edible mushrooms that flourish on the forest floor in deciduous woodlands. Both are funnel-shaped and white-fleshed from skin to core, the Russula with a bland earthiness and the milk cap with a sometimes overwhelming fiery heat that can make them completely inedible. All goes well until Hypomyces lactifluorum finds them, a parasitic fungus that renders them sterile, coating them slowly with a lobster-esque orange (hence the name) and mutating their once delicate trumpets into hard and fleshy monsters, twisted and contorted and often hunched over and mottled with pimple-like blemishes.
Lucky for us the parasite also makes its hosts much more palatable, adding a pungent seafood flavor to both and dulling the domineering spiciness of the milk cap. You can find these tasty parasite-mushroom hybrids throughout the Pacific Northwest and the northern parts of our state from late July through the fall. Clearwater Farms carries Lobster mushroom harvests from California and should have them for the next three to four weeks, weather permitting.
"These are currently from the coastal areas up north," said Clearwater's Karl Oldnettle, who mans the booth every Sunday at the Hollywood market. "We probably won't see harvests from the inland areas for a couple of weeks. Depends on what kind of weather they see."
It's impossible to visually tell which mushroom the hypomyces has parasitized -- the transformation process is harsh and completely disfigures the original mushroom. The flavor tells all. While both hosts will have a briney, seafood flavor and aroma, only the milk cap hosts will keep a residual and mild peppery heat.
The Lobster mushroom's flesh is very dense and firm and maintains a crunchy texture even when cooked, making it a great textural addition to a braise. That flesh also dries well, concentrating its flavors and making a great vegan flavor substitute for a "lobster" soup. The fungal coating on the outside is smooth and dry to the touch. Avoid slimy or slick-skinned mushrooms. As for shape and size, there is no right or wrong, though "the uglier, the better" seems to be the adage of choice for more intensely-flavored specimens.
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