Lili Baltazar, the "queen of greens" at ABC Rhubarb Farms, started offering mushrooms at her stand a few years ago, filling in a gaping mushroom hole at the Pasadena market and giving mushroom vendors at other markets something to ponder. At first the selection she offered was pretty familiar: small and large shitakes, creminis, white buttons, and oyster mushrooms. Then last year she put out a basket of a deep brown and almost purple fungus that we almost didn't recognize. They're back again this summer and will be here until fall.
Wood Ear mushrooms aren't usually available fresh, even at your local Asian grocer. That's because once harvested you must either use them quickly or set them up for drying. Their shelf life while fresh is brief, but the texture is their major claim to fame. Even when cooked they have a pleasing and snappy crunchiness, providing a textural counterpoint to softer foods. The more common pairing is with tofu. But we've found it sublime diced in risottos or julienned with broccoli stalks and soft noodles. Their flavor is subtle to non-existent, imparting only a hint of earthiness to dishes.
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The mushrooms don't have any stems or gills like other edible fungi. Rather, they have an almost fan-like growing habit (hence the "ear") around a central growth nexus. The top side of the fungus is smooth and dark while the underside is velvety and almost grey. Choose for specimens that are dry on both sides and use within a few days of purchase to capitalize on that unique texture.