Fungal Abundance – Introducing There’s Food in Them There Hills

July 29, 2010 at 9:08 am

Editor’s Note: Sometimes (most of the times) you shop for your food, sometimes you find your food.  Our world abounds with edible products, from weeds, I mean greens. like purslane and lamb’s quarters to berries and especially exotic and interesting fungi.  In our first installment of “There’s Food in Them There Hills” our Forager, Eric May finds some of those mushrooms around his Michigan home.

Fungal Abundance

Foraging for Mushrooms in Western Michigan

The whirring of annual cicadas fills the air and monarchs flitter about the garden. The table is piled with voluptuous peaches and tomatoes. It’s the time of the season we around here call “deep summer”. It’s the time when the land is expressing itself in ripe displays of abundance. Edible mushrooms are popping up in spectacular numbers. Mushrooms are actually the fruiting sexual organs of unseemly vast and complex organisms that primarily exist as networks of silky webbing called mycelium which are embedded in decaying organic matter. Fungus for much of its lifespan is invisible to our immediate sight. The mushrooming season started somewhat slowly this year with an unseasonably hot spring which was not suitable conditions for a fruitful morel harvest. In central Illinois I found flushes of blown out and rotting morels in mid-May. There was almost nothing to speak of growing here in Saugatuck, Michigan. I would find sporadic and isolated oyster mushrooms through June as well as a few non-edible, but ethnobiologically significant species such as reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and Amanita muscaria. Last summer, being on the cool and damp side, yielded an earlier season for chicken-of-the-woods and large flushes of oysters. This summer has been hot and of recent, quite damp. So finally, early last week, the woods blossomed in a brilliant display of fungal fecundity.

I have been mushrooming for only about two years. My good friend and fellow cook, Mikey Henderberg has been at it for awhile and my inner nerdy science kid was definitely intrigued by the far out curiosity of the specimens he’d haul in from the woods. It wasn’t until I tasted my first batch of deeply savory and earthy sautéed hen of the woods mushrooms that it actually occurred to me that I could go out and find my own free gourmet shrooms. Its really the perfect hobby for me, a crossroads of my interests in culinary exotica, poking around the woods, and my aforementioned fascination with biological taxonomy. I am incredibly fortunate to spend my summers in Western Michigan on 120 acres of pristine virgin mixed forests and sand dunes. Collecting wild mushrooms is unfortunately illegal in Cook County and surrounding counties, so I’d be out of luck if I didn’t migrate north in the summertime.

As for this year’s mid-summer cast of characters: its always the chicken of the woods, aka sulfur shelf (Lactiporus sulphureus) that first piques our interest in scouring the woods for other things. In general, we play it fairly safe when gathering mushrooms for culinary purposes, avoiding cap and stem mushrooms with gills, which comprise the majority of mushroom species including most of the seriously poisonous ones. We stick primarily to polypore funguses, which release their spores from pores rather than gills. Many of these mushrooms grow in easy-to-identify shelf- like clusters on dead or dying wood. “Chicken” is the perfect beginner’s edible mushroom forage as it is dead easy to identify with its neon yellow and orange coloration and otherworldly polyp- like appearance. They grow on dead hard wood, typically already felled trees. They can be common on cut logs or stumps and can be found in suburban lawns and even in city parks. This mushroom has an intense, umami rich flavor but a texture that is rather dry, especially as it matures. Young specimens are knobby and yellow, the orange color develops as they age. These young tender mushrooms are most desirable for eating. In older specimens you can trim away the more tender outer growth and save the woody interior for stock. Like most wild mushrooms, I like to prepare them simply by sautéeing them in butter with coarse salt and fresh ground pepper, eaten on toast. The dry flesh of the chicken mushroom benefits from a splash of cream, wine, or liquor in the pan. We also throw them in soup stocks or thinly sliced in miso soup. Vegan friends of mine love a chicken-of-the-woods noodle soup. We have had pretty good luck this season so far.with this mushroom. Another co-worker, Erin, who knows the greater area around here and its woods quite well hauled in a bounty of probably about ten pounds of tender young growth earlier in the week.

Boletes are cap and stem mushrooms that release their spores from sponge-like pores from the underside of their caps. There are very few, if any, reported findings of poisonous boletes in the Eastern states, which makes them a safe bet for foraging to eat. It is a diverse and expansive family of mushrooms, the most famous of which is the king bolete, also known as the porcini or cep, one of the most esteemed and expensive culinary mushrooms. I have found only one king bolete so far in my foraging career up in Northern Wisconsin. But this year around here a wide variety of boletes have been popping up and I’ve been collecting them and cooking them up. I have found numerous chestnut boletes (Gyroporus castaneus) which have a buff colored cap that flips from convex to concave as it ages. I’ve found that boletes are quite delicate mushrooms that are also enjoyed by the many critters of the woods. So, while I’ve found them in ubiquitous numbers, many times they are nibbled upon or past their edibility prime. These chestnut boletes, in particular, take on a bitter, medicinal taste in older, drier, and concave specimens. The very young little guys have deep flavor that goes a long way, I have prepared them mixed with more mild species. I also have found red capped boletes (Boletus rubellus), which have a pronounced color as to their namesake. The undercap has an olive green to yellow color that bruises blue with even a faint touch. They are quite psychedelic looking after having been handled and sliced up. These mushrooms are quite delicious with a sweet flavor that yields a minerally aftertaste. Again, I saute these and eat them simply. When trying new mushrooms, I skip butter and use a more neutral light olive oil. Once I become more acquainted with their flavors I may eat them with a fried egg, in an omelet, or tossed with pasta. I tend to pair wild mushrooms with mild ingredients to let their flavors shine. Stronger mushrooms can stand up to the tang of  finely grated hard cheeses. A few days ago I made an astonishing discovery deep in the woods of a freakish new-to-me specie of bolete, the old man of the woods (Strobilomyces floccopus). These guys stand on tall stems and have a very dark, shaggy, almost primordial look to them. I recognized them from my field guide immediately and knew that they were edible. Like other boletes, they cook up somewhat on the wet side. Their grey flesh bruises almost black and when sliced up and cooked they take on an inky appearance. Their flavor is actually of the more subtle in my adventures cooking various new boletes. 

As much as I love cooking and eating mushrooms, the thrill is in the discovery- finding diversely eccentric fungal fruits which may provide a rarified eating experience back in the kitchen. Its looking like a great season already, Mikey just pulled in basketful of fresh oysters. As the season matures, I will report my findings. I anxiously await seafoody lion’s mane mushrooms and my favorite of all, deeply savory and wonderfully textured hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.

Eric May is a Chicago-based artist and the head chef of Ox-Bow School of Art and Artist’s Residency in Saugatuck, Michigan. He directs a nonprofit gallery in Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood called Roots & Culture.


One Comment

  1. Wendy Aeschlimann says:


    Informative, thought-provoking piece. I hope to hear more about your foraging efforts!

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