'Shrooming may have a different connotation for some of my "vintage" readers. We're not getting THAT wild today, but I am going to share a little of my newest obsession with you: gathering wild mushrooms. You need to know this about me: I obsessively love mushrooms. I once enjoyed a 6-course meal at Martini House, a landmark Napa Valley restaurant, that was entirely made of mushrooms. Yep, even dessert. 'Twas a tiny demitasse of frothy mushroom "cocoa" with an equally petite, sweet mushroom cookie atop. Such an interesting and delicious meal that it remains on my top 10 list.
Every Spring, as a foodie, I've looked for morel mushrooms with limited success but otherwise, I haven't historically foraged. I've begun to educate myself about the edible fungi in my area and find that I keep an eye to the ground wherever I go. Check out what I've discovered. I'm hopeful it inspires you to give mushroom hunting a try.
Because a case of mistaken identity could be very harmful, I'm sharing three unique sorts that are fool-proof for new foragers. Each is so unusual, that even their "look-alikes" don't really look much like them. They are Morels, Chicken of the Woods and Puffballs. A word of caution: if you aren't absolutely sure that you've identified any mushroom correctly, you should NOT eat it. Better safe than sorry.
Morel mushrooms are typically found in the springtime and have a distinctive honeycomb appearance (left). One of the most sough-after mushrooms in the world, they are prized by gourmet cooks, mushroom enthusiasts and chefs.
They come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors anywhere from blonde to dark grey. What they all have in common are their honey comb-like exteriors and a hollow, whitish interior. Morels are so popular because they are incredibly delish. They have a meaty texture and a nutty, earthy flavor profile. They are hard to find, pretty expensive and well, they are exotic and sexy-looking on a plate.
Again, spring is your best bet and you'll want to look in fields, orchards and pastures or in an area that sustained fire damage the fall before. When you find them, cut the mushroom with an inch or less of stem (which you can also eat). Don't squish them as you gather. I like to use a basket so there's plenty of air circulation. After harvesting them, they keep about a week in the 'fridge. Like all wild mushrooms, morels must be cooked to be enjoyed. I like them best fried in a bit of salted butter.
Chicken of the Woods (right) is found globally and often called a "sulphur shelf." It is commonly thought to taste like chicken and is typically found in summer and fall. A large mushroom with bright orange coloring, it tends to lighten in color near the edges and overall gets lighter with age. An important characteristic to note when identifying this beauty is that it has NO GILLS and only pores. You are looking for young and succulent mushrooms. Avoid the largest and palest as they become woody and aren't good. C.O.W. mushrooms can be found on dead and living trees alike. This is a great culinary fungi. It can be diced and added to soup, baked, fried or used as a substitute for chicken. I enjoy these sautéed in wine and fresh thyme.
Puffballs! These jumbo bad-boys are everywhere right now and are generally a fall find. The one pictured is actually a bit smaller that the usual and was found a few days ago in the woods near my house. This is likely the most easily identified mushroom around. It looks like a volleyball sitting on the ground. White and round, you simply pick it up to harvest it. To know definitively that you have a puff, slice it open. There should be no gills. You'll see what looks like white marshmallow inside. Slice it and prepare it as you would any button mushroom. Sautéed and served with grilled beef is a win. I made this one with bucatini (hollow spaghetti), butter, mozzarella, garlic, salt and pepper. It was excellent. These beauties also freezes well, which is fortunate because of their size. Slice it up and stick it in a freezer bag to enjoy later. It should be noted that puffballs past their prime begin to turn yellowish and powdery on the inside. If you cut yours open and discover this, pitch it. It won't be good.
If you happen to live in Indy and walk the Moon trail north of Broad Ripple, there are tons of them (like more than 20) and they are gargantuan. As you head north, approaching the Blind School, look down toward your left and you'll see them a few yards off the trail. I was wearing sandals when I noticed them or I would've grabbed them all. If you harvest them, I'd better see a picture. Bon Appétit!
Elizabeth Morse cooks professionally, is an Advanced Master Gardener and lover of all things local.