Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Wild Mushrooms for Dinner: Giant Puffball Pizza

We are not among the lucky few who often find giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) in the area, usually finding the little pear-shaped ones on wood (Lycoperdon pyriforme), the gem studded ones on the ground (Lycoperdon perlatum), or the medium sized skull shaped ones on the ground (Calvatia craniiformis). When I spotted this giant puffball, I thought it was a forgotten volleyball, it was about 8" wide. Robert grabbed it and brought it home for dinner, thinking we might try a pizza or maybe a lasagna.

Poison Pigskin Puffball, NOT EDIBLE!
It is imperative that edible puffballs are completely white when sliced open. If you see any hint of color, it means it is too old, the spores have begun to mature and it is no longer edible. At an even more mature stage, kids will kick puffballs around to see them "puff" out their spores in a big cloud. The poison pigskin puffball is usually deep purple or black when sliced open and while it won't kill you it will make you quite sick. Some very immature Amanita eggs can look like buried puffballs, but once sliced open, you will see the outline of the mushroom and realize it is an Amanita. 

Amanita Egg, NOT EDIBLE!

This puffball was firm and white, like a brick of extra firm tofu. Just like tofu, puffballs can be bland, but can also soak up whatever flavor you give to them. I gently sprayed some 1" thick slices with olive oil spray and grilled them up on the George Forman grill, and they smelled wonderfully nutty. Those slices then became the "crust" for a really simple pizza with some red sauce and cheese. Other grilled slices went into a lasagna as the "noodles", and smaller bits were coated with a light batter and deep fried. Sometimes the outer skin can be a bit tough or dirty and it can be cut off before the interior is sliced up. A giant puffball can provide a lot of food for a single mushroom!

Giant Puffball, about 8" wide
Small Pear shaped Puffballs on a log, each is only about 1" wide

Monday, October 15, 2018

Wild Cranberry Turnovers

Wild cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) can be found in a few places in Connecticut, but are far more common in the dunes along Cape Cod. On our visit there a few weekends ago, we packed our wild blueberry rake and a bucket to collect a gallon or so to bring home for our freezer and for some fresh cranberry sauce and other treats. They are the same berry found in the grocery store around Thanksgiving, with some imperfections and lots of size and color variation, but found for free out in the wild. They are a small trailing sub-shrub, interconnected underground. The leaves seem comically small in relation to the berries, but cranberries are mostly hollow and light with a few, small scattered seeds inside. They readily float in water and can be cleaned and the bad ones and debris like twigs and leaves are picked away easily using a big bowl and a few changes of clean water.

This time I made some mini turnovers with apples from the local orchard and the wild cranberries, the filling gently simmered together with a touch of sugar and apple cider. The cranberries gel into a thick sauce when cooled, and I spooned the mixture onto puff pastry squares and sealed them with egg wash, and baked them until puffed and crispy. They were tart and very tasty for breakfast!

Here you can see the cranberries cut in half and how they are mostly hollow

To collect wild cranberries or wild blueberries in large quantities in a shorter amount of time, we use a huckleberry rake we purchased from a gentleman in Maine. He makes them from aluminum and it is quite light and rust resistant. The tines allow the berries to be popped right off into the holding reservoir and leave behind the branches and leaves without damaging them. We have had the rake for several years and can recommend it heartily.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Wild Mushrooms for Dinner: Hedgehog Hand Pies with Acorn Crust

Our autumn mushrooms include hedgehogs, in the genus Hydnum. On the underside of the caps these are small teeth, or spines instead of gills or pores. They are cousins of chanterelles in taste, and cook up wonderfully once browned with a bit of butter. We generally refer to the smaller ones with a small central depression in the cap as the bellybutton hedgehogs, Hydnum umbilicatum.The larger ones, up to 10" caps with an offset stem, we call Hydnum redandum. Off course, rumor has it that DNA isn't going to let us get away with it that easily and that there are many, many species lurking around in the mix. The golden hedgehogs that we find in the fall in mixed woods in southern New England all tend to be quite tasty, however. There are some more pale varieties, and some that tend to be a bit bitter, but the buttery-golden ones are good for the plate.

For the ones we collected this past weekend, we decided to go really wild and make a savory hand pie with an acorn pie crust, and added to the filling diced butternut squash, new red potatoes, freshly dug ramps bulbs, thyme, a thick vegetable gravy, and the foraged hedgehogs. The filling was mostly cooked and chilled beforehand, and the rolled acorn crust filled right before cooking. The pie crust was made with ground acorn flour from white oak acorns that we leached, ground, and toasted last year and had kept in the freezer. I dug the ramps bulbs yesterday from a large patch, taking only what I needed and replanting the mature seed heads into the holes I made by removing the fat bulbs. We are both intuitive cooks, so I don't have a recipe, I just cooked with what I thought would taste good!

Acorn flour

Ramps bulbs

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Wild Mushrooms for Dinner: Maitake Chili-Stuffed Potatoes

Hen (Grifola frondosa) season is in full swing after a small weather delay in southern New England. Our dehydrators are going day and night, filled with jerky, leaving me with lots of leftover "bits" to cook with. Here I made some meatless chili, with ground hen, poblano and sweet peppers, smoked chilies, onions and garlic, spices, and a bit of tomato sauce, and stuffed it into some baked potatoes with some melted cheese.

Hen-of-the-woods are known by several different names depending on your location, we like to call them maitake, the traditional name used by the Japanese which means "the dancing mushroom", because you may dance with joy if you find one. In the midwest they call them sheepshead or ram's head mushrooms. Some Italians call them signorina. They are a type of mild saprobe, rotting the roots of sick or dead hardwoods, 95% of the time it's a red oak in our area of southern New England. They can be cultivated, and if you find small maitake for sale in your local grocery store, they are likely cultivated.

Maitake are one of the safer and easier polypores for beginners to identify and have a definite season from the last week or so in August through November, based on the weather becoming cooler. This has been a very warm autumn, so they have been very late, not showing up in our area until the third week of September. Maitake have many small fronds attached to a main stem or core. Each petal or frond has small pores on the pale, white or cream colored underside. The color of the fronds can vary from a light grey to dark grey and many shades of brown, and other environmental factors matter, like how much sunlight or rain the mushroom has been exposed to. They can be tricky to spot at first, but look like a small chicken resting at the base of a tree, or a small pile of leaves. We use a knife to cut them away from the main stem and trim away any debris. If there is evidence of maggot tunnels, we remove more mushroom stem. If there is a lot of debris embedded in the flesh, we don't bother to take the mushroom home; maitake are so abundant we can afford to be choosy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Wild Mushrooms for Dinner: Chicken Mushroom Paprikas

Here we have a chicken mushroom paprikas, a traditional Hungarian dish with a tomato base, lots of paprika, onions, garlic, and some sweet peppers. Robert made some fresh nokedli dumplings and served it all with some lacto-fermented pickles on the side for a sour zing.

Very young yellow chicken

Chicken mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) are often on our dinner menu, one of the most versatile wild mushrooms to cook with. They can be found in the spring, summer, and autumn. It's not so much that they taste like chicken, but their firm texture can mimic chicken perfectly, if it is collected at the right stage. Don't be fooled and collect it if it is too dry and old--then you will be eating sawdust, and no amount of cooking can tenderize it. You want the fronds to be thick and oozing juices when you cut them, you want the colors to be bright. Excess chicken stores well if sauteed first then frozen in containers or vacuum packed. It doesn't dry then re-hydrate well, again there is the sawdust factor unless you plan on powdering it as a seasoning. There are two species of chicken mushroom in our area, the yellow chicken, Laetiporus sulphureus, and the white chicken, Laetiporus cincinnatus. The yellow chicken is a heartwood rotter, so you will often find it anywhere on the trunk of a standing or dead and fallen tree. It is bright orange on the top of the fronds, and the pore surface in the underside is bright yellow when fresh. The white chicken is a butt wood rotter, so it will be found at the base of a dying tree, or even out in the yard away from a tree but still attached to the roots or hidden wood. The top of the fronds are a peachy color while the pore surface on the underside of the fronds is white. Most people claim the flavor and texture of the white chicken is superior the the yellow chicken, and it does seem to be more tender. Both should be collected when young and fresh.

Some white chickens cut from a stump

Friday, September 28, 2018

Preserving Your Wild Mushroom Harvests through Freezing, Canning, and Salt-Brining

Lots of hens to preserve

When the wild mushrooms fruit in abundance, the picking can be pretty intense in southern New England. Some years the weather conditions cooperate and we get warm temperatures and abundant rain which translates into flushes of black trumpets and enough Boletes to fill shopping bags and car trunks with mounds of fungi (2014, 2018); other years we have heat waves, drought, and gypsy moth caterpillar attacks that leave us crying through the summer (2016, 2017). To keep our tummies full and taste buds satisfied in lean years, we collect what we can in the good years and preserve it in several ways to tide us over in the leaner years, and often share our excesses through potlucks and holiday dinners with friends using out-of-season foraged foods that have been stored safely. We don't have a massive home or pantry, but make due with some shelves and small chest freezers for our wild edibles. We also have made some purchases of a few specialized pieces of equipment to make preservation easier, and can heartily recommend the Excalibur dehydrator, and a Foodsaver vacuum sealer with plastic bags and optional jar sealing attachment.

Cooking and Freezing

When it comes to freezing mushrooms, we feel it is best to cook them first for a couple of reasons. First, it greatly reduces the volume of the mushrooms when you cook them, taking up much less freezer space. We try to cook them in the least amount of neutral oil needed, just until they have given up their juices and have become dry in the pan. That way, they can portioned into plastic bags, vacuum packed in plastic bags, or placed in hard containers with the least amount of liquid. If you want smaller portions for smaller recipes, portion the mushrooms out into smaller containers or into an ice cube trays, then pop out the mushroom "cubes" and then bag those up in plastic with most of the air removed. The second reason for cooking the mushrooms before freezing is that it prevents the formation of ice crystals in the raw mushrooms. The ice crystals will burst open the cell walls of the mushrooms, resulting in mushy, wet, flabby mushrooms once thawed out for use in recipes, a rather unappetizing texture.

Meadow mushrooms, good to cook and freeze for recipes

Many of the gilled wild mushrooms we collect are very good candidates for the cooking and freezing method of preservation. We keep winecaps, meadow mushrooms and other edible Agaricus, oysters, and honey mushrooms in the freezer, ready to thaw and add to dishes. Chanterelles are another wild mushroom that fare better with the cook and freeze method since they don't re-hydrate well from dried. Some of the tougher polypores like the chicken mushroom or Berkley's polypore should never be dehydrated, but cooked and frozen for later use. Even a tender polypore that we can dehydrate successfully, the hen, works well cooked and frozen as whole fronds, shredded into strips, or finely chopped in the food processor like ground meat. 

Wild Rice and Hen soup, keeps well in the freezer in large plastic containers

Other wild mushroom items we keep in the freezer are already prepped dishes. These include things like Thai curries made with coconut milk and curry paste that include cooked wild mushrooms. When we want to eat this dish, we just need to that out the curry sauce, heat it up, add some fresh vegetables, and serve over cooked jasmine rice. Pot pie bases with wild mushrooms keep well in the freezer, with the cooked wild mushrooms--usually hens--carrots, celery, peas, herbs, and the thick gravy. When we need it for dinner, I remove it from the freezer, thaw it, add a fresh top crust, and bake it all together. Mushrooms soups can be frozen in single or larger family sized portions. Patties or "burgers" made with ground mushrooms with egg or breadcrumbs as binders can be par-baked and frozen; I find it is best if they are frozen individually on a sheet pan first, then stacked with a small piece of parchment between each patty inside of a bag to prevent sticking. To reheat, just thaw and microwave, or heat in the oven or in a skillet.

Pickling, Canning, Marinating, and Salt-Brining

Two long term methods of keeping your mushrooms preserved would be pickling or canning. We personally haven't done very much of either of these. To stay safe and avoid botulism, it is strongly
recommended to not can wild mushrooms at all and the method suggested for button mushrooms is actually pressure canning. It is important to add enough acid to bring the brine to a pH level of 4.6 or lower to stay safe. Use paper pH test strips or a digital pH tester to check the acidity levels. Marinating mushrooms in a flavorful dressing for short term storage in your refrigerator can produce a great snack for a pickle tray or garnish a mixed drink. We like to use small button honeys or Agaricus for something like this, and make a sweet and sour marinade that tastes similar to a cocktail onion, and soak the mushrooms for 3 days to a week or so. Using a good Italian dressing is another option for marinated mushrooms as well.

Salt Brined Lactifluus mushrooms

Salt brining mushrooms for long term preservation is a technique that Robert was familiar with from Hungary, one that his family used. We use it for a few edible Lactifluus species we like to collect, L. volemus, L. hygrophooides, and L. corrugis. This method would also work with Russulas, honeys, Agaricus, Leccinum, hens, or any other firm-fleshed mushroom that can withstand an initial boil. First, the mushrooms are cleaned of debris, then cut into manageable pieces. They are then boiled for about 10-15 minutes then cooled. We then place them in a single layer in a jar and sprinkle with a heavy layer of sea salt. Another layer of mushrooms is added and another layer of salt, until the jar is filled or you run our mushrooms. After a day or so, the mushrooms will let out some liquid, but you will have to add some fresh water, enough to cover the mushrooms so that none are exposed to the air. The mushrooms can then be kept in a covered jar or crock in a cool place for a year or two, if you don't eat them first! They will be incredibly salty, so to use them in a dish, you need to de-salt them first. We do this by taking out what we need for a recipe and soaking it in a few changes of fresh water for 2 days in the refrigerator. The mushrooms will be quite good and have excellent texture, which is why it is important to start with firmer mushrooms to begin with.

Chowder made with Salt-Brined Lactifluus mushrooms, after soaking to remove the salt

Preserving your wild mushrooms can provide you with tastes of your harvests for many months after your foraging, and the more ways you know to keep your bounty fresh and safe, the more options you have for the best tasting food.


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Preserving Your Wild Mushroom Harvests through Dehydration/Drying

Lots of Black Trumpets!

When the wild mushrooms fruit in abundance, the picking can be pretty intense in southern New England. Some years the weather conditions cooperate and we get warm temperatures and abundant rain which translates into flushes of black trumpets and enough Boletes to fill shopping bags and car trunks with mounds of fungi (2014, 2018); other years we have heat waves, drought, and gypsy moth caterpillar attacks that leave us crying through the summer (2016, 2017). To keep our tummies full and taste buds satisfied in lean years, we collect what we can in the good years and preserve it in several ways to tide us over in the leaner years, and often share our excesses through potlucks and holiday dinners with friends using out-of-season foraged foods that have been stored safely. We don't have a massive home or pantry, but make due with some shelves and small chest freezers for our wild edibles. We also have made some purchases of a few specialized pieces of equipment to make preservation easier, and can heartily recommend the Excalibur dehydrator, and a Foodsaver vacuum sealer with plastic bags and optional jar sealing attachment.


Dehydration and drying is the process of using low heat and sometimes air movement (a fan) to remove excess moisture from the mushrooms. This will prevent them from spoiling and extend their shelf life almost indefinitely. Drying mushrooms also reduces their volume greatly, and they will take up a lot less space in your pantry. We use a dehydrator with a thermostat and fan, but an oven on the lowest heat setting can be used, as well as a lower tech methods of air drying on screens in the sun, drying on the dashboard in your car on a sunny day, and strung up on a line in your attic or another dry room. We use our Excalibur dryer set between 120°F and 145°F to dry most mushrooms until crispy, often rotating the trays after a few hours to ensure even drying. Once dried, we keep them in large glass jars, sometimes with small silica packs to keep moisture away. Vacuum sealing is jars with a metal lid is another option, but vacuum packing in bags is not recommended--sometimes the dried mushrooms can puncture the bags.

Dried mushrooms are re-hydrated or reconstituted by adding boiling water to the mushrooms, cooking the mushrooms in a hot, liquid filled recipe like a soup, or by soaking in a liquid.In this video, we simply added some dried wood ear mushrooms to room temperature water and it took less than 30 minutes to plump up. Robert did a bit of time-lapse photography and sped it up so it could be viewed like a brief video.

Dried Bicolor Boletes can be made into a very flavorful powder to add to soups, cooked grains, or to dust on meats

Dehydration and drying wild mushrooms are great ways to save many species, but not all mushroom re-hydrate well for cooking whole. Good candidates for mushrooms to dry and re-hydrate for use in cooking are morels, black trumpets, lobster mushrooms, shiitake, wood ears, thinly sliced Boletes-bicolors, "edulis" porcini types, Suillus, other sweet Boletes, and hens. Some of the Suillus known as slippery jacks actually improve with dehydration, being deemed too slug-like if used fresh. If you are looking to dry mushrooms and powder them as a seasoning or spice, then add chanterelles and chicken mushroom to the list--they are far too tough to re-hydrate well whole for a recipe, but if dried and powdered, they can add lots of flavor to soups and cooked rice or grain dishes, along with all of the other mentioned mushrooms.

Jerky made from hens

One year we found ourselves practically overwhelmed by hens (Grifola frondosa), with more being brought home every day, and our freezer space running low and our dehydrator already full. In desperation, we had to come up with a new way to prepare in large quantities for long term storage, which is how we came up with Hen Jerky. The jerky is quite flavorful, salty and a touch spicy, and the recipe can be customized to any taste. We make it and pack it tightly in large mouth quart glass jars, then vacuum seal the glass jars with a vacuum sealer with the jar sealer attachment. Our recipe for hen jerky has been used successfully for other mushrooms as well, including honey mushroom caps, oyster mushrooms, king oyster mushrooms, and pureed shiitake mushrooms.

Pasta made from dehydrated and powdered black trumpets

When dehydrating or drying your wild mushroom bounties, keep in mind your future plans for their uses and the textures of the mushrooms. Some polypores will become too woody upon drying (chicken mushrooms), while some mushrooms re-hydrate very nicely (morels, boletes, wood ears) for use in recipes. Keep your dried mushrooms in sealed jars in a dry place, and they will last for years if needed. Dried mushrooms have the ability to add a touch of umami, a satisfying meaty taste, to many dishes in which they are added when cooking. They enhance vegetarian meals from broths to grains and main dishes, as well as add variety to wild game and regular commercial meats. Dehydrated mushrooms can be a pantry staple for any household, especially for those who enjoy using the flavors of wild edibles as fun additions to their daily cooking.

Sliced mushrooms ready for the dehydrator

Monday, September 24, 2018

Wild Mushrooms: Best Texture and Taste Through Correct Handling

Miso-Soy Glazed Maitake over Forbidden Rice Pilaf

Wild mushrooms can be an excellent meat substitute in many meals for meat eaters and vegetarian alike for a few reasons. Their ability to satisfy hunger due to their protein content and fiber levels (beta glucans and chitins) can often "trick" even the pickiest eaters into feeling  full after a meal. Mushrooms, especially wild mushrooms, have a high level of umami--which is described as the fifth taste that humans can detect along with salty, sweet, bitter, and sour; umami is often described as a "meaty, roasty, or brothy" flavor. Mushrooms get their umami from a complex mix of glutamic acid, purine bases, nucleotides, and the breakdown of fatty acids and monoterpenes. Cooked correctly, mushrooms will have excellent and satisfying flavors for many people, and their textures can be enhanced far beyond the pale, slimy soups and canned sliced mushrooms of our childhood!

Mushroom Basket

Bad mushroom!
The best way to start is at the beginning: pick your mushrooms in a smart manner! Whether you prefer to pull or cut, field clean your correctly identified edible fungi before placing them in their basket. Remove the dirty bottoms, remove any visible bugs or critters, brush away any dirt or debris. If you have small wax bags or small paper sacks, they can be useful to keep your finds organized by species, and then easy to transfer to the refrigerator later. DON'T use plastic, your fungi need to breathe and will degrade quickly if kept in plastic bags. Respect your fungi--don't collect old, maggoty, slimy, or rotten mushrooms! Remember that it was free food to begin with, there is no reason to collect less than pristine mushrooms for your plate. It amazes me how many people see holes in their wild mushrooms and they shrug it off and rationalize it thinking it's worms and "extra protein", when the reality is that the holes are formed by maggots of fungus flies that eat the mushroom flesh as they burrow, pooping the whole time. Do you really want to eat that?

Now that you have a bunch of beautifully clean, correctly identified, safe edible mushrooms, what are the best ways to cook them? (Keep in mind that how to cook and taste is strictly objective and everyone has strong opinions about how it should be done, and these are our opinions based on our experiences.)

Golden Chanterelles, ready to tear and cook

Prep your mushrooms: If your mushrooms are still a bit dirty, try to brush them clean with a pastry brush or a paper towel. If they are a firm mushroom, you can dunk them briefly in water and give them a spin in the salad spinner, or spray them with the spray attachment on your sink. Contrary to popular belief, they don't actually absorb that much water with a brief wash. We DO NOT ever recommend extended soaking in salty water--if your mushrooms contain so many bugs and sand that you think they need a salt water soak, they aren't worth eating in our opinion. For firm mushrooms like Boletes, chickens, morels, dryad's saddle, and white button mushrooms, we prefer to chop them with a knife. For mushrooms that are more tender like chanterelles, oysters, black trumpets, and hens, we prefer to tear them into pieces, but they can also be chopped if you prefer.

Coprinus comatus, cooked over the campfire

To test a mushroom for flavor for the first time, we recommend a simple saute in a neutral oil (we like sunflower or grape seed oil) over medium heat. Using butter or olive oil is not recommended--butter contains milk solids that can burn, and olive oil has a low smoke point and too much of it's own flavor that overpower the mushrooms. Remember, we need to cook the mushroom enough to break down the chitins to make it digestible, and we want some flavor from caramelization. Mushrooms contain a large amount of water, so they will give off a bit of juice in the pan, allow it to evaporate. Add as little oil as possible to prevent the mushrooms from sticking, and don't over-crowd the pan. Stir to prevent sticking, but allow the mushrooms to get browned. At the end of cooking, after about 10-15 minutes, add a touch of salt.

Thai Coconut Chicken Mushroom Soup
When using wild mushrooms in recipes, you don't need very specific, specialized recipes for each individual species of wild mushroom! Think more about the textures or flavor of a wild mushroom, and swap it out in an already known recipe to begin with, then once you have become comfortable with wild mushrooms, you will soon be creating your own recipes. When we first started cooking with the chicken mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus), we agreed that it was their texture that mimicked chicken more than their flavor, but we still used it in similar ways to regular chicken in recipes. Now we are more likely to use chicken mushroom for its own attributes rather than a straight substitute for meat. Consider the tenderness of oyster mushrooms when thinking of recipes, consider the crunch of Lactifluus when you think of recipes, consider the texture of Hericium when it's time for dinner. You can turn the wonderful diversity of wild mushrooms with their colors, textures, and  flavors into an array of dishes that the basic white button mushroom could never accomplish!

Spice Rubbed, Oven Roasted Oyster Musrooms

Black Velvet Bolete Palmiers

Winecap Musroom Risotto Filled Grilled Ramps Leaves

Hen and Kasha Loaf with Hen Gravy