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