Today’s post was going to be about cooking and culture, but sometimes the universe intervenes and hands you something completely different. Yesterday, while out walking along the bike path, I found and harvested two different species of wild edible mushroom. Before I go any further, a warning: DO NOT EAT WILD MUSHROOMS UNLESS YOU HAVE BEEN TRAINED BY AN EXPERT!!! I can’t stress this enough, so I’ll say it again. DO NOT EAT WILD MUSHROOMS UNLESS YOU HAVE BEEN TRAINED BY AN EXPERT.
I have been studying mushrooms for over ten years now and training with a group called Mushroom Hunters USA, which is led by professional mycologists. We do mushroom surveys, in which we hike through a section of forest picking every mushroom we find, then bringing them back for study. The mycologists explain which are dangerous, which are edible, which are interesting for other reasons, e.g., used as a dye for wool, and which are just fun to look at. After a decade, I’m now confident enough to harvest just six foolproof species – that’s mushrooms that don’t look like anything else and are very safe to eat, and even those have a few caveats. So it’s rare indeed that I find two different edible species on the same day. In this case, I found oyster mushrooms and dryad’s saddle (also known as pheasant’s back), both growing on maple tree stumps.
I love foraging wild species, particularly things most people consider weeds. Quelites, also known as lamb’s quarters, are as delicious to me as spinach. Garlic mustard, an invasive species, is a fine addition to my skillet. Wild garlic and onions as well as wild sorrel are tasty additions to any salad. These all fall under the category of usufruct, one of my favorite words. Say it with me: you-suh-fruct. It means the legal right to use something found on someone else’s property or belonging to someone else. In other words, one man’s weed or infestation is my treasure. I have frequently offered edible mushrooms to the owners of the property on which I found them (including the oysters yesterday, which happened to be right behind a friend’s backyard). No one has ever wanted them.
Finding an edible mushroom gives me the same thrill as hooking a fish or tasting a surprisingly good wine (very surprising – I’m not at all fond of wine). And cooking with them is even better. It’s a moment of spontaneity, an opportunity to do something creative and new. This was the first time I’d found dryad’s saddles fresh enough to use, so today I cooked them for the first time using a recipe I found online. Warning: I set off the smoke detector frying them up. All worth it. The edges were tender and delicious, the inner parts a little tough. Next time, I’ll reserve the flesh close to the stem for stock.
This moment of unexpected spark happens all the time in my writing. I’ll come across something – an article on a comet swung out of its long ellliptical journey by Jupiter or a conversation with the caretaker of a Masonic museum or an NPR discussion of the history of marshmallow fluff – and that random discovery becomes a found ingredient, something I may throw into the writing pot, today or tomorrow or ten years from now. Every day is an opportunity for discovery and spontaneous inspiration.
I usually end my posts with a recipe, but this time I’ll leave you with instructions on wild mushroom foraging.
- Train with an expert. There are many, many books out there, but nothing beats first hand experience. Look up your local mycological club or chapter of Mushroom Lovers USA and sign up for a tour or a mushroom survey. Ask LOTS of questions. Eat only what a trained mycologist gives you.
- Now get the books anyway. It’s good to have backup when you’re trying to positively identify a mushroom. Most of the mushrooms you find won’t be edible at all, but it’s interesting to learn more about them. I recommend starting with Mushrooming Without Fear bu Alexander Schwab. Their first rule, never pick a mushroom with gills, is a good one, and I only break it for oysters, which are pretty foolproof. After that, find guides to mushrooms in your local area. You’ll find different mushrooms, and at different times of the year, in different regions. I have two or three guides specific to New England.
- Learn the distinguishing features, as well as the lookalikes. Morels have a hollow stipe (stem), false morels do not. Chicken mushrooms that grow on pine trees make some people ill, so I steer clear of those. Jack o’lantern mushrooms are a mildly toxic lookalike to chanterelles, but they glow in the dark (hence the name). Chanterelles have a distinctive apricot smell, and dryad’s saddle smells like watermelon rind. Pay attention to the tree you found the mushroom on or near. There are 20,000 species of mushroom, but only 400 species of tree, and many mushrooms only fruit in the presence of certain trees, e.g., chanterelles with oaks or maples, morels with pines. Oysters are a notable exception. They will eat ANYTHING: sawdust, compost, manure, even oil spills. But you’ll never find them on a healthy tree because they only eat dead matter. And that’s another clue, where they fruit: on dead wood, in the ground, on living trees. It’s a good idea to take a picture of the location where you found the mushroom.
- The first time you think you’ve found an edible mushroom, take it to an expert to confirm the identification. If you can’t bring it in person, get a spore print, take pictures, and email them in. There are many mushrooming groups on Facebook that will help with identification as well, but it’s better if you can speak to someone you trust.
- ALWAYS COOK YOUR MUSHROOMS. Many edible mushrooms are toxic when raw, such as the delectable morel mushroom. And mushroom expert Paul Stamets says that mushrooms have no nutritional value unless they are cooked. (Fun fact: if you leave a mushroom in the sun for an hour, it will produce your day’s supply of vitamin D, the only vegan source, in fact.)
- NEVER CONSUME WILD MUSHROOMS WITH ALCOHOL. Wild mushrooms tend to absorb more toxins from their environment, which can interact badly with alcohol.
- The first time you eat a wild mushroom, eat just a small amount. Some people have reactions to wild mushrooms, even after taking all the precautions.
If you like the idea of fresh mushrooms and varieties other than buttons, portobellos, and shiitakes, but you aren’t willing to risk wild foraging, you can also grow mushrooms from kits at home. There are several providers, but my favorite is Fungi Perfecti. Around here, you can often buy them at farmers’ markets. It is amazing fun to watch them fruit, and many kits will fruit several times, after which you can add the spent medium to your compost, and you may get even more. Enjoy!