Surprising Jewish Women’s Traditions: Forest Foraging and Gathering Chestnuts

“The Poisonous Mushroom” is a famous story from the eponymous children’s book “Der Giftpilz”, published in 1938 by Julius Streicher, the editor of the widely read weekly newspaper “Der Sturmer” which was devoted to arousing hatred against the Jews in Nazi Germany.  A mother tells the story to her children as they gather mushrooms in the woods.  Equating Jews with poisonous mushrooms, she explains that just as one must be able to recognize poisonous mushrooms from the good mushrooms which resemble them, so too must one be able to differentiate between Jews and non-Jews in society, even though Jews may look the same or act normally.   The worthy mother praises her children for already knowing that it is the Jews who are “poisonous” but despairs that not everyone in society recognizes them for what they are and relates that just one Jew in a village can poison the whole town, the whole region, the whole country!  The remaining stories in the book are cautionary tales, instructing children in fear and hatred of Jews, whose God is money, whose intentions are criminal and lascivious, and whose louse-infested beards and filthy, protruding ears hide sub-human minds that know only cheating and swindling.   The idea of Jews as “poisonous mushrooms” killing Germany from its insides became a powerful propaganda message of the Nazis before and during the Holocaust. 

During a much, much earlier era, the ingesting of poisonous mushrooms seems to have had some place in early people’s ability to decipher the ways of their gods, often emerging as a conduit by which creation and “explanation” myths could be understood.  Some current anthropological research theorizes that certain mushrooms were perhaps conceived by early Mycenaean and Mesopotamian cultures as holy, offering female and male priests who ingested them a path to meeting the gods in their own element as they performed the continual re-creation of the world in conjugal encounters between the earth and the sky or between the forces of chaos, water and earth.  As these myths became more firmly founded culturally, the mushroom-cult element receded, but the same myth formulations show up in pre-Genesis writings, where the world is created by the gods out of chaos as a controlling measure against the endless “pre-world” waters.  In many of these cultic myths, one or the other of the pre-Hebraic gods also creates man from clay, and woman is added later, sometimes to “torture” and control man! 

But let’s move on to some more delightful Jewish uses of the wild, foraged mushroom–in the cooking pot!  With such a long relationship to edible fungi, Jews have created, adopted and passed along hundreds of recipes for mushrooms, largely from the European theater.  Here are a couple for you to enjoy during this fall foraging season, whether you brave the drippy forest search or not!  Wild mushrooms are available now in most larger produce sections as they come into season, chanterelles being the queen of the autumn offerings.  They can be expensive but are so fragrant and flavorful that you can use less of them in a recipe than domestic mushrooms.  If you substitute domestics, use about half again as much.

Russian Jewish women love mushrooms and have lots of opportunities to collect them in their fir forests threaded with birch, elm and maple, much like the woods of my Pacific Northwest, and like many parts of the northern, Midwestern and Eastern areas of the United States.  This is the simplest and perhaps the most delicious of Georgian recipes for mushrooms.   Serve as a side dish or as part as a vegetarian feast.

Mushrooms in Cream (Griby so Smyetonoy)                           

Yield:  serves four as a side dish

1 lb firm, dry chanterelles, brushed free all over of sticks and debris with a soft pastry brush; do not wash.  Trim the bottom of the stems of all dirt

3 T butter

2 t chopped garlic

1 t chopped fresh tarragon or rosemary leaves

1 t lemon juice

½ to 1 t kosher or sea salt

pepper to taste

½ c heavy cream or crème fraiche or sour cream

Pull the mushrooms apart like string cheese, starting at the bottom of the stems, creating long pieces, large or small, as you like.  Melt the butter over medium heat till foaming, add the mushrooms and sauté about 10 min.  Add the herbs, salt, pepper and lemon juice and cook slowly, stirring occasionally for five more minutes.   Add the cream and heat gently; if using sour cream do NOT boil but check the seasoning, heat through and serve in a heated dish, sprinkled with more chopped herbs or parsley if you want.  If using cream or crème fraiche, bring the mushrooms to a simmer and let the flavors blend for five more minutes.  Serve as above.

Chanterelles are the perfect foil for a simple soufflé, so go ahead and try it.  This one is baked in individual 5, 6 or 8 oz straight-sided dishes and includes toasted chopped walnuts, almost guaranteeing a great rise!  All Eastern European cuisines include a mushroom soufflé (or a similar dish), having “stolen” the delectable idea from the French. 

Wild Mushroom Walnut Soufflés                                         

Yield:  serves 6 to 8

Make the sauce first:

½ c flour

4 T butter

1 c milk (any type)

1 t salt 

pinch white pepper

pinch ground nutmeg or mace

2 T cream or evaporated milk

2 T chopped chives or parsley

¼ c cream cheese or fresh chevre or 1/3 c Parmesan, grated

Put the flour, butter and cold milk into a pan and whisk over medium-low heat until a thick sauce is formed.  Add the seasonings, let bubble for 3 minutes, take off the heat and add the cream or evaporated milk and the herbs and the cheese.  Remove from the heat and set aside.  You can make the sauce a day ahead and re-heat it gently to proceed.

Then sauté the mushrooms and toast the walnuts: 

¾ c walnuts, chopped fine and toasted at 350` for 5 min

2 T butter

¾ lb chanterelles or other foraged or domestic mushrooms, cleaned as in the previous recipe and chopped into ¼ ” pieces    

1 shallot, very finely chopped

3 T sherry or white wine (fruity or dry types are fine)

squeeze lemon juice

½ t salt

white pepper to taste

Melt the butter and let it foam, then add the shallots and mushrooms.  Sauté for five minutes over med heat.  Season with salt and pepper, stir and cook for 2 to 3 min, then add the wine.  Let cook till the liquid evaporates, about 3 min.  Mix with the walnuts and set aside till cool. 

Then put together the soufflés:

Heat the oven to 425`

2 to 3 T butter

6 T grated Parmesan

5 eggs, separated

1 extra egg white

Butter the little ramekins (straight-sided dishes) and dust the insides with the Parmesan.   Mix together the mushroom mixture and the walnuts, the mix together with the sauce in a big bowl.  Taste for seasoning—should be a little bit salty.  Mix in the egg yolks.  Beat the egg whites with a little salt till stiff and glossy but not dry and breaking up.  Add 1/3 of the whites to the sauce mixture and fold in gently to lighten it—don’t be rough or the whites will lose the air you have just incorporated.  Fold in the rest of the whites, gently.  Spoon equal amounts into the ramekins and gently smooth the tops.  Run your thumb around the top edge to be sure no batter is sticking to the rim. 

Put the soufflés into a 9”x 13” pan.  If you’re not ready to cook them and IMMEDIATELY take to the table, refrigerate them for up to 4 hours.  When ready to cook, reduce the oven heat to 400`, put the pan on the middle rack in the middle of the oven close the door gently and bake for 13 min (for smaller ramekins) to 18 min (for larger ramekins).  DO NOT PEEK BEFORE 13 MIN!! 

Have small plates ready to put the hot soufflé dishes on to take to the table.  When the soufflés are puffed up tall and are browned on top, take to the table and enjoy with a dry Riesling, a pinot grigio, a pinot noir or a good Chianti.        



The thought of chestnuts pretty instantly brings up images of open fires, yule logs and holiday gatherings in a decidedly European Christian environment. 

But who knew that long before the Roman emperors were overwhelming the western world, Jews were roasting the sweet nuts! Chestnuts, pretty much as we know them today, come from China (the genus name Castanea comes from Kastanum, now an Asian part of Turkey) and were brought to the Middle East by nomadic tribes and were certainly part of the early Hebrews’ diet, gathered mostly by the women of the tribes.  In Genesis, the Bible sites Jacob putting peeled chestnut twigs into his animals’ water troughs to keep their offspring healthy, and it is surmised that, when following the ancient laws of kashrut, early Jewish women used chestnut milk to substitute for the milk of their goats.

North America has a different species of native chestnut that was very common when the first European settlers came and there are many traditional Euro-American recipes using chestnuts in breads, stews and sweets. The native was broadly used until a blight wiped out most of the trees in the late 19th century and although there are now some chestnut orchardists growing and selling the native type, most of the chestnuts used in the U. S. come from China or Turkey. 

Chestnuts are absolutely delicious, sweet and slightly earthy with a satisfying starchy-creamy consistency.  They are not easy to peel, but buying some now when they are in season and roasting or boiling and peeling them is a fun and delicious project.  For use in recipes they are available peeled and frozen, canned or dried, which when re-hydrated have a more sumptuous and intense flavor.

Here is a method for peeling chestnuts and a couple of recipes to try.  You can also use chestnuts instead of almonds or hazelnuts when tossing nuts with vegetables, or add them to any stew at the last minute. 

To Peel Fresh Chestnuts:

Choose very firm chestnuts that do not rattle in their shells or compress when pressed.  With a small sharp knife, slash an “X” into both flat sides of the shell.  You may then either roast or boil them to remove the outer shell and an inedible husk that clings to the nutmeat; in order to remove the both shells, the nuts must be hot when you peel them.  Roast at 350` for about 20 min in a covered pan, or boil for about 15 min.  Keep the remaining chestnuts covered while you’re peeling or you’ll have little luck in removing the inner shell (I am definitely speaking from experience!). 

Here is a recipe that evokes the scents and ingredients from our Middle Eastern heritage:

Lamb Stew with Chestnuts and Pomegranates     

Serves 6

1 lb chestnuts, roasted and shelled

2 onions diced

¼ c light cooking oil (olive is also fine)

1 ½ lbs boneless lamb, cut into ½ inch cubes

½ t turmeric, ground

¼ t crushed saffron threads

½ t cinnamon, ground

1 c walnuts, minced fine or ground roughly

½ t dried mint, crushed

1 c pomegranate juice

2 T tomato paste

3 T fresh lemon juice

1 ½ c chicken stock

1 t honey

1 t salt

1 clove garlic. minced

1 t ground black pepper

Fresh mint sprigs for garnish

Heat the oil in a heavy casserole over medium heat and sauté the onion for 10 minutes, adding the garlic after 5 min.  Raise the heat to medium high and add the meat, turmeric, salt and pepper and brown the meat on all sides.  Stir in the saffron, cinnamon, mint, walnuts, tomato paste and chicken stock.  Bring to a boil reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 1 ½ hours.  Add lemon juice, pomegranate juice and chestnuts.  Stir well then cover and simmer for 10 more minutes.  Serve with saffron rice. 

This dish is also traditionally made with the addition of prunes , raisins, dried or fresh apricots or grapes and is even more delicious. 

Chestnuts Glazed in Honey and Cream    

Serves 8 as a side dish

This is a dish I created for a recent decadent dinner.  I served this preparation with  smoked portabella mushrooms and red cabbage jam.  Enjoy its sensual richness. 

1 lb chestnuts, peeled (about 14 oz without shells)

1 1/4 c whipping cream

¼ c honey

¼ t sea salt

¼ t vanilla

Put ½ c cream in a large sauté pan and place over med-high heat. Bring to a boil and let reduce till it is about half its original volume, add 2 T honey and the salt, stir to dissolve add bring back to a boil.  Stir in the chestnuts, reduce the heat to medium and cook until the cream caramelizes, glazes the chestnuts and begins to turn a deep mahogany brown.  Remove the nuts to a bowl and add the remaining cream, honey and vanilla stirring to dissolve.  Once again reduce the cream by half, add the chestnuts back to the pan and continue to cook over medium-low heat, stirring and turning over in the glaze till the chestnuts are completely coated and are a shiny golden brown.  Serve warm, about 4 or 5 chestnuts per person.