It looks like something that might have washed up at low tide: a bulbous and ornate collection of cream-colored ruffles, folds and ridges, about the size of a basketball. Only problem is, we’re in the forest, not by the shore.
The western cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis radicata) is a type of fungus that resembles a tropical coral from the azure sea. It can be large—a 50-pound specimen was reported a few years back, although 3 or 4 pounds is typical.
Every fall, generally later in the season after the rains have gathered force, I hunt the cauliflower mushroom in older timber, where a carpet of green moss brightens the forest floor and the tree branches are festooned with lichen. Such woodlands can almost seem like the bottom of the ocean, and when the search is successful—which is not always the case—I’ll find the freaky coral-like fungus sprouting from the base of a thick conifer, usually well off-trail and away from the throngs of hikers or mountain bikers who might inadvertently pick the mushroom in its youth out of curiosity.
Here in Washington, cauliflower mushrooms prefer the mounds of duff that surround stout Douglas firs like the flowing hem of a skirt. Once you’ve found one of the mushrooms, make a beeline for the other biggest trees in the forest; there is usually more than one mushroom in the area. I use a knife to slice off the cauliflower from its footing at the base of the tree, leaving the root-like mycelium undisturbed. Next year, I’ll come back to the same spot.
Cauliflower mushrooms have a firm texture that can withstand a serious bout of cooking without losing that al dente quality. Because of this durability, I’ll slowly cook them with pot roasts and other braised dishes. They soak up the pan juices while infusing the meal with their own distinctive flavor, a sort of earthy nuttiness that evokes their deep woodland haunts. I particularly like to use cauliflower mushrooms in broths and sauces such as beurre blanc, and in keeping with their affinity for strange sea life, the mushrooms make great accompaniments to fish and shellfish.
It’s hard to miss the large cauliflower mushroom which resembles coral and is often found in areas with older timber; with its firm texture, it holds up well in braised dishes.
Halibut with Cauliflower Mushroom & Root Vegetables
2 servings halibut fillet
1/2 pound cauliflower mushroom, cut into pieces
4 tablespoons butter, plus extra
1 shallot, diced
1/4 cup white wine
2 cups chicken stock
root vegetable medley, enough to cover inside of small roasting pan
salt and pepper
parsley for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel and cut root vegetables (such as celery root, purple yam, parsnip and carrot) into equal shapes, about twice the size of matchsticks. Brush on olive oil and roast in a small pan for a minimum of 30 minutes, tossing and seasoning with salt and pepper at least once.
As vegetables roast, heat a saucepan on medium-high and melt 2 tablespoons butter. Sauté diced shallot for a minute or two and add mushrooms, and more butter or oil as needed. Once the mushrooms have reduced in size and started to brown on the edges, deglaze with wine. Next add 1/2 cup chicken stock and cook down, adding more stock as the broth reduces and starts to thicken, repeating until the broth is soupy and flavorful, 15 minutes or so. Squeeze in juice from lemon, and stir in remaining 2 tablespoons butter.
When mushroom broth and root vegetables are nearly done, grease a nonstick pan with olive oil, heat on medium-high, and pan-fry halibut until the fish is golden on the outside and opaque yet flaky tender inside. Season with salt and pepper as you cook and add a little butter. Spoon mushrooms and broth into bowls, cover with root vegetables and top with fish. Sprinkle with a pinch of chopped parsley.