Monday, September 5, 2011

Fall Fungus Foraging (and Fairytales)

Battle cry of the week: “Hey, I know what that is – you can eat that!”

I've always been timidly fascinated by mushroom hunting – it's always seemed just out of reach. It's always played a bit like a Red Riding Hood fairytale in my head; skipping through the forest with a basket under my arm, with danger lurking ominously around every turn in the form of the wrong mushroom. It should be as simple as one of those fairytale tests where you have to choose the simple thing and not the pile of jewels, but, sadly, the moral (morel?) of this story is not as clearly pre-defined. My father tells stories of going out mushroom hunting with his Polish grandparents as a kid in New Jersey, but has never felt confident enough to identify anything from that. It's too bad - it feels like losing some piece of my heritage, especially because his grandfather died before I was born and his grandmother wasn't able to communicate much the few times I did meet her as a little kid. They almost feel like as much of a fairytale as the mushrooms they gathered, or the fabled orchard they kept in the middle of Jersey City. As far as mushrooms go, I guess the invitation I was hoping for was to see it happen – to have some guidance from someone in person rather than just a book.

This week, it began with a puffball. You know the ones. You've probably spent fall romps hoping to find the mature ones that burst out a smoky puff of spores when you jump on them. We were on a walk around the neighborhood with the dog and friend that tends to show up with edible gifts (always a good friend to have) when he was the first to whoop into the battle cry at the sight of young puffballs on the field across the street from the house. We twisted them out of the ground and brought them home to confirm them on the internet.

The internet has done fabulous things for empowering folks to try out what have classically been specializations that border on gnostic. While a good mushroom hunting guide is still invaluable, being able to cross reference with others from varied locations with lots of pictures is great for confirmation. You can even reverse-search from images to help you get started. To be sure, there's a limited number of mushrooms you want to collect and eat without consulting an expert mushroom hunter, as there are many edible varieties of mushroom that have poisonous lookalikes. However, there are several common tasty varieties that you can confidently confirm without delicate identification work. Puffballs happen to be among them.

Our specimens happened to be from one of a few common varieties that grow on lawns. In fact, we're still not quite clear whether they are Purple-spored Puffballs (Calvatia cyathiformis) or Skull-shaped Puffballs (Calvatia craniformis), which can be impossible to tell apart until fully mature and beyond eating (one has purple spores, the other, brown, but both are white on the inside at the stage you eat them). Luckily, the difference is largely irrelevant for the purpose of eating, as they're equally tasty and safe, and, while it can be difficult to tell them apart while young, they have no dangerous doppelgangers. Here's what you need to know to identify the young puffball on your lawn for eating:
  1. It has a globish shape, possibly lumpy.
  2. It is creamy white, possibly with some crackly brown on top.
  3. When you flip it over, you will not see any of the gills usually on the underside of the cap of mushrooms.

  4. If it meets these criteria, it's worth cutting open for the last:
  5. When you cut it open, the interior flesh is uniformly smooth white.
This last criteria is essential to determining its edibility. If you see what looks like a cap and stem developing inside, get rid of it, as you may have found the closest thing to a dangerous puffball lookalike: a young Amanitas mushroom, commonly known as a “Death Cap” or “Destroying Angel,” which can kill you if you eat them. Thankfully, the developing cap inside is pretty hard to miss (see picture, right). If you don't see any cap developing inside, but it's not uniformly white, usually with gray-brown patches, you have probably found a more mature puffball. This means you can't, or more likely don't want to eat it, but it does mean that where you found it is a good place to watch for them and you can throw it back in the hopes of growing more.

I brought this new-found confidence on a hike yesterday on one of my favorite spots, a local section of the Metacomet-Monadnock trail. It's the height of mushroom season right now, and the many varieties of fungus seemed to jump out, and not in a fairytale-werewolf sort of way. I spent most of the walk looking down, observing the many different mushrooms along the path, occasionally stopping to snap a picture with my phone's camera to look up later. Along the way, I found the other edible fungus I was sure I could identify: Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), a bright orange and yellow ruffle growing out of the side of a dead tree trunk. I also found another variety of puffball, the Pear-shaped Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme) I had read up on while trying to type the ones from the lawn, but had ruled out because it only grew on wood.

Puffballs have a much softer texture than the common supermarket mushroom varieties, somewhere between white bread and marshmallow. The first day we found the edible puffballs, we ate them savory french toast-style, cut into thick slices, dipped in egg, milk and herbs, then pan-fried. We spread a little tasty yeasty goo and sprinkled fresh thyme on some of them, which added to the deep savory flavor. After the hike, we cut up the few little puffballs into bite-sizes pieces along with the Chicken of the Woods, which is far on the firmer side of the texture spectrum, and fried them in butter with fresh garlic and thyme. I have yet to come across a mushroom variety that is not delicious sauteed in butter with garlic and thyme. However, this is far from the only thing to do with them; the most creative mushroom preparation I've heard involves giant puffballs, which regularly grow to the size of a soccer ball and larger. Some folks take thick cross-cuts of them, put them on an oiled baking sheet, and top them like a pizza. It takes mushroom-lovers' pizza to a new level.

This promises to be a fall for looking down. From the photos we shot on our hike, we probably found at least one more edible variety: the honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea). While it grows widely on the east coast, it's also a popular eastern European variety, and one that Dad used to harvest with his grandparents, whom we never really got to meet, despite their being key figures in Dad's growing up. It's a circuitous path to knowing them, but finding the same treats in the woods they did, being let in on that quasi-gnostic foraging knowledge feels like getting to know them in some way, even if we couldn't learn it from them. This is part of what's so powerful about family recipes: they make a far more visceral connection to the past than simply hearing stories. In eating what they ate, you feel you have an understanding of them that you can, quite literally, internalize. It makes for a more powerful connection than seeing a picture or hearing a story, and saves the past as a tangible reality rather than what amounts to a fairytale.

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