THE raccoon faced me across an expanse of wild ``honey'' mushrooms in the woods near my New England home. The mushrooms were extremely abundant that fall, in the late 1960s. The expanse was several yards across. While I was rapidly cutting the mushrooms and filling my basket, the raccoon was furiously picking them and eating his way toward me. I snatched up the last one when we were only inches apart. It was serious business.
Not only are the armillariella mellea mushrooms prized by man and raccoon alike. But I had just come across a recipe for piroshki, a small pastry filled with a wild mushroom duxelle, in the New York Times. Its source was Wanda Czarnecki of Reading, Pa., wife of Joseph Czarnecki Jr. The Czarneckis were highly regarded for their family restaurant featuring wild mushrooms and their expertise in mycology, the study of the complicated families of fungi.
Too bad for the raccoon. The piroshki -- made with a sour-cream pastry dough, the filling with minced mushrooms and onions saut'eed in butter, and baked in the oven -- were memorable.
The Czarneckis had vastly more to share with the culinary public, of course. And now, 20 years later, their son Jack Czarnecki and his wife, Heidi, who took over the restaurant and absorbed the parents' expertise on matters mushroom, have published ``Joe's Book of Mushroom Cookery'' (Atheneum, $20.95).
It's the whole story: the wild mushroom recipes from the restaurant which was founded back in 1916 by Joe Jr.'s father, the techniques of preserving one's findings by drying or precooking and freezing, how to substitute domestic mushrooms for wild or dry for fresh, an explanation of the bouquet and cooking qualities of the different varieties, how to complement or offset mushrooms flavors with spices, and so forth.
Jack explains, for example, that the chef has a choice of two methods for saut'eing mushrooms -- slow and fast. In the slower traditional method, over low to medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, 2 cups of sliced fresh mushrooms will cook down to about 3/4 cup: The result will be a softer mushroom with a more concentrated flavor.
The second and more modern method is to saut'e the mushrooms over high heat for about 2 minutes or less: The result will be a crunchier mushroom with a slightly greater volume, because the oil used for saut'eing partly seals in the mushroom's water content, but the flavor will be less intense. Czarnecki prefers butter as a cooking medium for low-heat saut'eing because it complements mushroom flavors; but for high-heat saut'eing, a mixture of vegetable oil and butter in equal parts works best.
What flavorings go with mushrooms? Not lemon juice, except to keep raw mushrooms from oxidizing if served uncooked. And generally not wine, which like lemon juice is too acidic. But sweet peppers, walnuts, and pine nuts; onions and garlic in modest amounts; thyme and sage for mushrooms with lamb . . . and especially savory, or marjoram, added at the last minute or two of cooking for either wild or domestic mushrooms -- these enhance without overpowering the mushroom's delicate yet earthy tastes.
The book has stern advice about staying within the limits of one's knowledge about mushrooms -- and suggestions about how to expand one's knowledge safely. Neophytes can learn about wild mushroom identification through the activities of the North American Mycological Society (4245 Redinger Road, Portsmouth, Ohio 45662) or any of its local affiliates, which hold forays and seminars. The Czarneckis list the appropriate texts to study. While some varieties are rather easily recognized by the amateur, the serious study of wild mushrooms is a matter for microscopes and spore identification.
The nonexpert mushroom user, however, has a growing store of dried and canned -- and even fresh -- mushrooms available: morels, cepes, chanterelles from America and Europe, and shiitake from Japan. Along with the commercial fresh mushrooms, these offer a substantial base for mushroom cookery.
If there is any secret to cooking with mushrooms, it is in the release of the unique flavors of the species. Raw, one mushroom tastes pretty much like any other. But cooked -- and particularly if the flavor is enhanced by drying and concentrated in the liquid used to rehydrate the mushrooms -- the tastes and aromas of each species become pronounced.
``I like dealing with dried mushrooms best because I'm working with l00 percent mushroom and mushroom flavor,'' Jack says. ``Fresh mushrooms are 90 to 95 percent water. Dried mushrooms are really best in sauces -- with meats like chicken or venison -- when you want an especially intense flavor. I like to serve wild fresh mushrooms with duck, pheasant, and veal.''
Jack and Heidi have added their own dimension to the Czarnecki tradition. Jack studied the food industry at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and the University of California at Davis.
Heidi's bonding with mushrooms began during hunts with her grandfather in her native West Germany, and she has expanded the restaurant's (mushroomless) dessert menu most capably and calorically.
Their book is at once a family recipe collection with European roots, a modern interpretation of mushroom cookery in the California style, and the most definitive cookery text to date for the several thousand serious mushroom students in America and their colleagues abroad.
Here are some recipes from ``Joe's Book of Mushroom Cookery.''
The following dish goes best with game birds. It can also be used to stuff small birds like quail. Just be sure to close the open end of the bird. Wild Rice with Chanterelles and Apricots 1 cup raw wild rice Water to cover 3 cups water 1 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup chopped onions 3 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 cups fresh chanterelles, sliced, or 1/2 cup canned chanterelles, drained, sliced 2 tablespoons chopped dried apricots 1/2 teaspoon salt
Wash rice, cover with water; soak 30 minutes. Drain off water, rinse in cold water.
Bring water, salt, and butter to boil in a saucepan. Add rice. Cover and cook until rice grains are just tender, about 30 minutes. Pour off excess water. Keep warm.
When onions are about half-cooked, saut'e in 2 tablespoons of butter until just transparent. Add chanterelles and apricots; continue to saut'e another 2 minutes.
Add salt and remaining butter and stir-fry 1 minute. Stir in wild rice; blend until rice is warmed and well mixed with mushrooms and apricots.
Serve with duck, quail, or any game dish. Serves 4.
Mushroom soups should emphasize mushroom flavors and not become too complicated. The following is a hearty soup, but it maintains a rich mushroom character. Joe's Wild Mushroom Soup 2 ounces dried cepes 1 1/2 quarts water 3 medium-sized onions, chopped 1 pound beef or veal bones 2 tablespoons sifted flour 2 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons cr`eme fr^aiche
In a large pot, bring mushrooms to a boil in water, then let simmer for half an hour. Strain liquid through cheesecloth to remove dirt; wash mushrooms.
Pur'ee onions in a food processor and add to cooking pan. To mushroom liquid in pot, add mushrooms, sliced, and meat bones; bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 1 hour, covered.
Prepare a roux by combining flour with butter and heating until it forms a golden-brown paste.
Strain liquid from pot; add to pan with roux, stirring, until thickened. (Liquid remaining in the stock pot should be about 2 to 3 cups. Reserve for another use.) Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, and top each portion with 1/2 tablespoon of cr`eme fra^iche. Serves 4.