There's a Fungus Among Us

It all started with a taste test. Julie Ridlon, a private professional chef in St. Louis was working as the Co-Program Chair of the St. Louis Culinary Society. She was teaching an educational class at the Forest Park Community College on the difference between mushrooms cultivated directly from a farm versus mushrooms purchased at the supermarket. Ridlon was blown away by the incredible taste of the organic mushrooms and contacted the supplier, Nicola Macpherson of Ozark Forest Mushrooms, located in the Missouri Ozarks Big Springs region. There was no going back. The two hit it off famously and Ridlon became a regular guest at the Macpherson's family farm. As a result, Ridlon developed a profound interest in the mechanics of farm raised produce. In the course of her extensive research, Ridlon decided it was time to open a Missouri chapter of the nationally recognized Chef's Collaborative which involves chefs from around the country who band together to address concerns about their communities, ecology and public health.

The Missouri affiliate, entitled the Three Rivers Chef's Collaborative has organized a series of dinners to be held in St. Louis restaurants to benefit the organization. The dinners feature a three to four-course meal prepared from local ingredients by local chefs with an opportunity to meet with the farmers who raised the food for that evening's meal. We attended the first dinner held at Cafe Provençal in Kirkwood that was prepared by the incomparable Eddie Neill assisted by John Shreiner, featuring delectable mushrooms from Ozark Forest. Over 50 people attended the dinner including Paul Krautmann of Bellew's Creek Farm, Karen Buckey, owner of The Natural Way, and Maxine Stone, the current president of the Missouri Mycological Society, which was founded nearly twenty years ago.

The meal began with hors d'oeuvres and drinks at the bar. Big bowls of perfectly formed Nicoise olives, delicious proscioutto wrapped in puff pastry and a wonderful tapenade made from Kalamata olives and anchovies whetted our appetite. It is important to note that the Herbs de Provence infused bread was supplied by the St. Louis Artisan Bakery, Companion Breads.

The first course began our descent into mushroom land. We were served a glorious Mushroom Napoleon comprised of lightly sautéed Shiitake, Portabella and Oyster mushrooms along with leeks and shallots sandwiched between two golden ovals of crispy puff pastry, sitting atop a roasted tomato coulis accented by splashes of divine basil pesto and lightly sautéed Pom Pom mushrooms, which have the consistency and flavor of lobster. The combination of tastes and textures equally displayed both the expertise of the chefs and the full-bodied, earthy flavor of the mushrooms.

A salad was served next, comprised of crisp frisee lettuce, lightly steamed and very sweet asparagus, fresh tomatoes and gently cooked Shiitake mushrooms tossed in a wonderfully fragrant and woodsy Truffle Vinaigrette. After this refreshing salad, we were all treated to a presentation by the star of the evening's meal, Nicola Macpherson who shared the history of her family's farm, information about the specific mushrooms we were gorging ourselves on that evening, the manner in which the mushrooms are harvested as well some information regarding the medicinal benefits of mushrooms. Shiitake in particular are becoming increasingly well known for their antiviral, anti-cancer and cholesterol-reducing properties. For centuries the Japanese have incorporated mushrooms, especially Shiitake, into their dietary regimes for both their inimitable gastronomic value (i.e. great taste) and their ability to reduce cancerous tumors and lower serum cholesterol (less filling). According to Macpherson, the Japanese adage "A Shiitake a day keeps the doctor away" yields the best of both worlds.

Our main course was the ultimate in gourmet comfort food. We were served a magnificent half of a roasted free-range chicken basted in a red wine, sage and Shiitake sauce coupled with succulent pearl onions, velvety Portabella mushrooms, sweet baby carrots, perfectly cooked new potatoes and crunchy Haricot Vert. I spoke with Chef Shreiner about the use of the organic produce and farm raised chickens and he said that the quality and taste was far superior than anything else available on the market. "The vegetables have a cleaner, more pure taste," he said, and as for the free-range chicken used that evening, "it has a much more intense flavor, its juicer, easier to work with and the color from roasting is far richer than using conventional chickens."

As if that wasn't enough... then came dessert. Or should I say desserts? We were presented with an oversize plate elaborately laid out with a ramekin of Cinnamon Creme Brulee, a Profiterole bursting with freshly made ice-cream drizzled with warm chocolate sauce resting on a pool of delightfully rich Creme Anglaise and finally a piece of Apple Almond Tart that boasted a perfect balance between crunchy, tart apples and sweet, creamy almond paste.

The next dinner for the Three Rivers Chef's Collaborative will be on Monday June 26th and hosted by Hot Locust Cafe (314.231.3666) featuring chef Margaret Kelly with incredible ingredients from Brett Palmier and Keith Biver of Biver Farms. For more information on becoming involved with the Three Rivers Chef's Collaborative, you can contact Julie Ridlon at 636.274.7236. To contact Nicola Macpherson at Ozark Forest Mushrooms call 314.531.9935 or e-mail her at NICOLA@OZARKFOREST.COM.

The evening was a triumphant success for the Three Rivers Chef's Collaborative including all the participating farmers and chefs, Cafe Provençal, Ozark Forest Mushrooms and last but not least those of us who were well fed on exquisite food and incredible mushrooms, well educated on mushroom farming and the organic process, in addition to being able to spend a glorious evening among a terrific group of people who not only really care about the kind of food they eat, but how that process affects the community as well as the ecology of the planet.