There’s Still Food Up in Them There Hills (and Close to Home Too)
Editor’s Note: Eric May covers the wild beat. In this second installment of There’s Food Up in Them There Hills, Eric finds plenty of mushrooms all across the Midwest, although he laments what can be had very close to home. Read Eric’s previous foraging report here.
Mushroom Foraging: Late Summer/ Fall Wrap up
Greetings, the intrepid forager joins you once again to share tales of scouring the woods in search of edible mushrooms. It has been quite a great season for mushrooming, definitely a hotter summer than last year, likewise yielding different bounties. This is an aspect of the sport that I have come to really appreciate, that the diversity of the harvest is not only seasonal, but also annual. I have traveled around the Midwest a fair amount since we last checked in, so the range of my findings is also apropo to the different lands in which I foraged.
We last left off in Southwest Michigan, specifically the Saugatuck area, where I spend my summers. The most surprising discovery of early August was my first ever finding of a beefsteak mushroom- a polypore, which grows on tree trunks in a shelf-like formation. It is dead easy to identify, crimson colored with a sticky, wet look. The specimen I found was about the size of my hand. The tactile and visual quality of this fungus could not stay more true to the descriptor of its name. As I cut the mushroom from the tree trunk, it immediately expressed blood-like fluid. A cross section of its flesh revealed a cellular structure defined by a network of lighter colored membrane that very closely resembled the marbling of a nice steak. I imagined that the mushroom would taste of its namesake, as do other appropriately named edibles like the chicken of the woods. I prepared it as I usually do with a new-to-me mushroom, sliced and simply sautéed in butter. As it cooked the flesh and juices mimicked that of liver as it cooks. The flavor, however, was completely unexpected- it had a vegetal crunch and a pronounced acidic note that was more citrus than the presumed mineral meat flavor. I would love to work with this mushroom again since I was somewhat taken aback by its flavor profile the first time. I imagine that it would be quite good roasted and added to a salad.
The entire season proved to be quite prolific for chicken of the woods. We had such an abundance of them in our cooler that I stopped collecting them and would instead admire their beauty as- is in the landscape. There was a particularly fruitful late summer flush during the first week of September that I caught just at the right time. They had reached a large enough size to collect, yet were still incredibly tender. These young specimens were less shelf-like with a knobby look and a sulfuric yellow hue. The handful of these mushrooms that I collected was rich and supple to the bite, unlike any I have ever prepared. They really had a pronounced eggy flavor, which I found humorous. I also collected a few young hen-of-the-woods (aka maitake) clusters that day, my longtime favorite of the late season edibles. I must admit that the chicken had such a wonderful thing going on that they overshadowed the hen. I prepared a “his ‘n hers” pizza that I topped with half hen and half chicken. The chicken went first.
I left Western Michigan for the season and my next travels pointed northward to the Upper Peninsula. It had been unseasonably hot before I arrived and it rained while I was there, so it seems as though I may have missed a good flush. The mycological diversity up ‘dere was stunning though; I saw enormous shelf funguses of otherworldly appearance. Edible-wise, I did okay, enough for a dinner and omelets the next morning. I found plenty of oysters, but only a handful that were fresh for eating. There were loads of boletes, though many of them were of the bitter variety, which look much like king bolete and always prove to disappoint. I saw evidence of huge clusters of lion’s mane mushrooms (aka bear’s head or waterfall), but found only a few immature specimens from which I harvested lightly. I find these mushrooms in Saugatuck in early October and also grow them on my own. They are an overlooked and simply delicious mushroom that has a very delicate texture and a flavor reminiscent of crab. I’ve never seen them at farmer’s markets even though they are relatively easy to grow. Perhaps it’s their bizarre look, a kind of micro- Arctic landscape of cascading ivory colored icicles. I also found a single hedgehog tooth mushroom that is a relative of the lion’s mane, which grows on the ground rather than decaying wood. It has more of a toadstool-like structure with a stem and an irregularly shaped cap, which has a spiny stalactite- like texture. It had a similar seafoody taste to the lion’s mane though with a much firmer and meatier texture, quite divine. I really hope to come across this mushroom again some day.
I am now back in Cook County with our restrictive laws prohibiting the collection of mushrooms. It’s too bad, since October can be great mushrooming, especially for maitake. I was lucky enough to find a smallish cluster growing on an oak tree on a friend’s land south of the city. That is where they dwell, growing right at the base of the oldest of oaks, tucked in the folds of roots peaking out from the soil. I know they’re out there, getting nibbled by the critters or shriveling away, pounds upon pounds of gourmet ‘shrooms, contraband unable to be brought home and enjoyed in our kitchens. It’s back up to Michigan for me this weekend!