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The call of the wild mushrooms

Sunday, October 17, 1999

By Marilyn McDevitt Rubin, Post-Gazette columnist

Chef Thomas Chulick agreed to take us on a hunt for wild mushrooms. We were Nancy Hanst, Gene Deskins and me. We consider ourselves food people, which means that breakfast, lunch and dinner are the high points of each day. Gene is the gardener; Nancy and I are cooks.

To connect with Thomas, we drove to Johnstown, where he lives and knows the terrain.

It has to be said at the start that there is no state prettier than Pennsylvania. Even in a year where the absence of rain has been critical, the hills and valleys look lush, and the shallow meandering rivers sparkled in the sunshine.

That Saturday, as the fog lifted, we could only exclaim over the landscape revealed. By the end of the day, we knew that we would have a reason to come back, and we were glad of that. Thomas and his wife, Denise Thompson, have plans to open a restaurant in Johnstown. It's our intention to be patrons.

Thomas introduced us to his wife and business partner. We would have found her in any case, drawn as were to the kitchen of their home by the spicy scent of cooking apple butter. We recognized Denise. She was one of us. The talk was immediately about food and specifically about lunch, the menu printed neatly and posted like a map for the afternoon: blue cheese soufflé, grilled five-spice plum-glazed duck breasts, mesclun salad, vegetables from their garden, grilled Mediterranean-style, home-grown Concord grape tart.

To work up our appetites, we went off with Thomas to Stackhouse Park, a 277-acre wooded preserve with access only two blocks from his home. Almost immediately we were under a canopy of trees and finding mushrooms similar to those we had just seen on his kitchen table. He had named them all: Giant Puff Balls, looking like domestic mushrooms only bigger and rounder; Popinki or Honey Mushrooms, like a shiitake and just as prized; Oyster Mushrooms, which if we wanted (and we did) he would make into a soup to go with lunch; and, the most gorgeous of all, the brilliantly orange Chicken Mushrooms, which if I saw it in the woods without an expert at my side I would turn from and run. We looked up the various mushrooms in what Thomas calls his "Bible."

"If it isn't pictured in 'The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms,' I don't keep it," says Thomas stating his ridged position on mushroom hunting. "If it doesn't smell good and doesn't have the right color -- no blues, no purples -- out it goes. What I prefer are edible mushrooms that the book designates as 'choice.' Since wild mushrooms are available in small numbers, I use them only for home cooking."

As we started out on our hunt, Thomas gave his famous mushroom call.

"Come to me, mushrooms," he said, spreading his arms wide.

They did.

We found Puff Balls, smooth capped and gem-studded, a spectacular Bear Head Tooth and, under a dead beech tree, a whole community of Honey Mushrooms. Nancy took the Honeys home and next morning served them up with creamy scrambled eggs. "They were like the best shiitakes you've ever tasted," she said.

It takes a certain courage to eat wild mushrooms, what with all the stories of agonizing deaths to which one is exposed. The first time I ate a wild mushroom was a few years ago in Prague. A friend of my daughter's served them. I ate them resignedly. Several hours later when I could celebrate still being alive, I loved them, so fresh-tasting and with such a firm and springy texture.

On the trail in Stackhouse Park we met a father and son on a stroll. They saw what we were up to.

"What is it they say?" asked the father. "There are old mushroom lovers and bold mushroom lovers, but no old bold mushroom lovers."

"Not to say that it doesn't happen, but I've never known anyone who even got so much as sick from eating wild mushrooms," said Thomas.

Thomas speaks with authority. Born, raised and educated in this area, he is an experienced hunter/gatherer. To add to his credentials, he has a social sciences degree from Penn State University and an associate degree in culinary arts from Westmoreland Community College. Before opening his own catering business, he worked at the Rolling Rock Club. All his skills were demonstrated at the lovely lunch we enjoyed with him and his wife. The couple work together on planning menus and, on occasion, both do the cooking. They call their catering business Thomas & Thompson: 814-536-1588.

Chef Thomas will be at Sand Hill Berries, Mount Pleasant, for its annual Open House on Oct. 30 and 31. Three different boxed lunches prepared by him will be available for purchase. To be added to the Open House invitation list: 724-547-4760.

Thomas Chulick's Wild Mushroom Ravioli Filling

2 cups chopped onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound wild mushrooms, chopped
1 tablespoon each chopped fresh basil, dill and oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
4 cloves roasted garlic
1/2 cup sherry
3/4 cup grated and cooked carrots, about 2
2 cups dry bread crumbs
1 cup grated Parmesan 2 eggs
Salt and black pepper, to taste

In butter, sauté onion until softened. Add mushrooms, herbs and garlic; continue to sauté a few minutes. Add wine; reduce slightly. Cool. Meanwhile combine carrots, crumbs, cheese and eggs; add to mushroom mixture and mix well. Mixture may also be used as a spread for bruschetta.

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