Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mushrooms aplenty

Late summer and fall represent the best time of the year for mushrooms. Generally distrusted and overlooked by most people, mushrooms are fascinating, and certain ones are delicious. I take a gastronomic approach to mycology - I know some non-edible fungi and I key them out if I find an interesting one - but I avidly search for the edible ones. A required book (for anyone, really) should be David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified. While not a field guide in the general sense of a small, portable book, it is a wonderfully complete, well-written and at times hilarious book that really does a great job in teaching a reader about all things mushroom. I learned almost all my mushrooming from that book and still consult it on an incredibly regular basis. What other field guide includes recipes?

Pictured is a batch of my two favorite mushrooms on earth: Chantarelles and Black Trumpets, which are occasionally, amusingly, referred to as Trumpets of Death. Both, interestingly, smell like apricots when fresh and after cooking, have a very distinct but delicate flavor. A fresh cream sauce for pasta is unbelievable with these. While I was doing thesis research in Maine, I found these both to be abundant in the midcoast area, while in southern New England I have found both, but never in great numbers. In the past week, hitting a few spots in northern RI, I managed to get enough trumpets for a sauce and just 4 chantarelles.

Trumpets can be maddeningly hard to find - they are small and blend in oh-so-well with leaf litter. Oftentimes, when I find an appropriate area I just stare at the ground and eventually they will either show up or I get distracted by a bug. The latter scenario occurs most commonly. I commonly find them on hills and in washes, and generally in early August until September.

In contrast to the hard-to-find and tiny mushrooms, there are a few quite common giants that are also good eating.

This is a rather small example of a species that you could call a number of names. If you are Japanese, you may prefer "Maitake", an old yankee: "Hen of the Woods",  Italian: "Signorina" or if you are a nerd, perhaps: "Grifola frondosa". This wonderful mushroom grows at the base of oak trees and is remarkable simply to find. I usually look up at the trees and check around the ones that show some dead branches - the fungus is reported to associate with sick trees and this generally proves true. I have never found a truly giant specimen, some are reported to be over 50 pounds, but I have come across a couple that were nearly 20 pounds. An hour of walking around your local park will almost certainly get you one of two of these - unless someone else got there first!

Recipes for this species abound - and if you search for the varying names, you get varying recipes - and it is really appropriate for any dish that you could use mushrooms or is perfect on its own simply sauteed with butter, salt and pepper. 

Keep an eye out for these now on oaks just about anywhere between August and November, I have seen them on Blackstone Boulevard in Providence, as well as deep in the New Hampshire woods.

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