Among Us—The Fungus
by Maria Reidelbach
Like many of my fondest food associations, my love of wild mushrooms began with my mother, who showed me at the age of five how to find edible mushrooms in the woods. It was puffballs we sought and I remember her excitement at spotting each one, and how much fun it turned out to be to search for them—an Easter egg hunt, with a beautiful, edible prize at the end. In my memory, the ones we found were about the size of a tennis ball, pristine white and smooth. Although as a little kid I loved Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, I didn’t like the way the puffballs smelled in the saute pan—the aroma was too wild for me then.
After I left home I didn’t hunt for mushrooms again, until sharing a summer house with friends just down the street from where I live now in Accord about 20 years ago. Getting out in the woods regularly, after almost 20 city-bound years, was exhilarating. A group of us took a year-round rental near Ellenville. Most of us were artists and kids, and we naturally gravitated toward observing and collecting during our rambles. Soon the old farmhouse hosted collections of animal bones and bird nests, as well as more ephemeral traysful of specimens of fungus—wild in their colors, shapes, and smells.
It was the smells that enticed us. There are some wild mushrooms whose scent is so delicious, it can leave you weak-kneed. But then there was the sobering knowledge that some could be dangerous, even deadly. We wanted to learn what we could eat and what we couldn’t. It turns out that there are some simple rules about mushroom hunting that, if always kept, would keep us from getting sick from eating the wrong thing. I’ll list them at the end of this column. I’ll also be sticking mostly to common names for mushrooms here, but I’ll put the botanical names in parenthesis to enable you to easily look them up on the Internet and in books.
July is a great month for lawn, garden, and woods mushrooms. The fantastic and easily identifiable golden chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) can sometimes be found in great abundance. They are beautiful, apricot-colored, blossom-shaped masses of deliciousness. They can be cooked in many ways: in pasta sauce, grilled, sauteed, and served with chicken or seafood. There is one toxic look-alike, the jack-o-lantern fungus (Omphalotus olearius), but with its clearly differentiated cap and stem, after examining photographs, you will easily be able to tell the difference.
Another wonderful mushroom is the fragrant black trumpet (Craterellus fallax). Because they blend in with leaf litter on the forest floor they are a little harder to spot, but luckily, they grow in groups, and once you’ve found a patch you can just keep picking. There are no toxic look-alikes for this one. They’re delicious cooked many ways, and they dry beautifully and keep forever.
Chicken mushroom (Laetiporus) is an amazing, sometimes enormous shelf fungus that grows on dead wood and will appear even during drought (not a problem this year, yet). There are two types, one is brilliant orange and yellow below, the other is orange and white below. It’s easily identified, with no toxic look-alikes. The part that’s eaten are the tender, moist edges of the fan, the younger the mushroom, the more of it is edible.
And then there are those puffballs (mostly Calvatia). There are a number of different kinds, some as big as soccer balls others small as a grape, and many tend to grow on lawns. Again, easily identifiable—as long as they are stark white inside, with no internal structures, they’re safe to eat. These guys are good dipped in egg and panko crumbs and fried (what isn’t?), but are also fun to use other ways.
These four mushrooms are a very good start to what some people consider an extreme hobby, but what us mushroom geeks think of as a treasure hunt.
Now those rules:
• Get at least one good guide to mushrooms—there are many out there. I prefer Gary Lincoff’s Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms, and he’s also got a new book out with a wonderful introduction—Mushroom Hunter.
• Don’t eat anything you haven’t identified in at least three sources (use the Internet, links below) and have ruled out toxic look-alikes.
• The first time you eat a variety, just eat a mouthful or two, and save some of it, uncooked, just in case. Wild mushrooms contain many complex compounds; besides the possibility of a misidentification, it just might not agree with your stomach.
• Don’t eat any gilled mushrooms until you become more experienced. Those are the types that contain the really deadly varieties.
• Always cook mushrooms—most of them contain compounds that are indigestible raw.
Wow! So I gathered some burdock stems, peeled them like a carrot, cooked them quickly in a pot of boiling water, and they were just fantastic! As delicious as artichoke heart. The one thing to watch for is that you want to get young, tender stems—they do get tough beyond about eight inches or so.
Join the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association — they’re a great group, membership is inexpensive, and you have access to expert hunters who are happy to help you learn. Plus they’ve got an active Facebook page where people post photos of all their finds.
The Mushroom Expert: Michael Kuo’s web site.
Professor Tom Volk’s web site.
Fungi Perfecti: Paul Stamet’s company that has everything a mushroom lover could want, from how to grow to truffle oil.
Maria Reidelbach is an artist and author and has been president of the New York Mycological Society since 2007. She is currently on a mission to bring wonder and magic to the Rondout Valley, one Local Giant at a time—see more of the project at valley-of-the-giants.com.