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Falling for Fungi

dinning feature

Written by
Katie Vincent

With the return of the rain, the bounteous fruiting bodies of our most mysterious taxonomical kingdom emerge ripe for the plucking—for those with keen eyes and seasoned smarts. And while a select few mushrooms are available year-round in supermarkets, most of these are cultivated on farms and lack the sacred seasonality and wildness of their cousins.

Speaking of seasonality, mushrooms—especially chanterelles—are one of the highest natural sources of vitamin D. How appropriate that in our moist and overcast homeland, these treasures of liquid sunshine appear just as the earth begins her annual tilt from the sun?

Harvesting fungi fresh from the forest allows for a greater diversity in your diet, often higher levels of vitamins and trace minerals, and the opportunity to connect with your natural surroundings in a primal yet soul-feeding way.

Still, mushroom hunting is no walk in the park. Proper identification can be very difficult and involves the most subtle of details—sometimes even for seasoned professionals. Marian Maxwell, former president of the Puget Sound Mycological Society, always recommends first-timers start out with a local guide. 

“Don’t just learn from a guidebook,” she says. “And definitely not the Internet. The difference between some of the most coveted mushrooms and their toxic look-alikes can be so subtle, and sometimes one will even present like the other in ways a book tells you they wouldn’t. Find an experienced guide who has studied extensively in your area.”

The same goes for purchasing foraged mushrooms at a farmers’ market or online, on the rare occasion one or more fungi in a harvest basket could have been misidentified. To be safe, always be sure that you’re sourcing mushrooms from trusted, competent suppliers with plenty of experience. 

All warnings aside, there is no reason to be paranoid. Simply be aware and educated. It all comes down to Maxwell’s golden rule: “If you aren’t 100 percent sure, don’t eat it.”

Three Easy-to-Identify Fall Mushrooms

 

Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus)

Host: Found only on the ground. If seen on or near a log or living tree, it is likely one of two toxic look-alikes: False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) or Western Jack O’Lantern (Omphalotus illudens). 

Appearance: Cap is bright orange to yellow orange; often concave and wavy when mature. Gills are actually blunt, thick ridges that are well spaced, shallow and same color as cap or paler. Gills stretch down the stipe, which is the same color as the cap, or paler and not hollow.

Flesh: White or with yellow tinge

Nutrition: 212 IUs of vitamin D per 100 g (the highest of any evaluated mushroom) as well as B vitamins, potassium, iron, selenium, manganese and many other trace minerals

Culinary: Good in soups, stews, and egg and meat dishes

Medicinal: None proved, other than nutritional benefits

 

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

Host: Dead logs or stumps, especially hardwoods like oak, maple, walnut. If on conifers, might be H. abietis, also edible.

Appearance: 
• Clump with solid base and many small spines hanging like tentacles
• Spines one to three inches long when mature
• White or yellowish color (if pinkish, might be H. abietis)
• Flesh and spores white

Flesh: White or with yellow tinge
Nutrition: 57 IU vitamin D per 100 g serving as well as B vitamins, potassium, iron, calcium and some trace minerals

Culinary: Delicate flavor akin to seafood, so don’t overpower it. Marian Maxwell recommends a simple stir-fry.

Medicinal: Scientists at Tohoku University in Japan are investigating Lion’s Mane for renewing nerve transmissions in the brain in cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

 

Shaggy Parasol (Chlorophyllum oliveri)

Host: Found only on the ground

Appearance: 
• Cap medium- to large-sized with stipe at least half inch thick; young cap begins smooth and brown; cap matures to shaggy scales on pale background with top/center still smooth and brown
• Flesh stains orange to reddish when cut.
• Gills white in all stages and free from stalk
• Obvious double-edged ring on stipe; stipe has no scales and a swollen base or large bulb.
• White spores. Its toxic look-alike, the Green-Spored Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites), drops green spores.

Flesh: White or with yellow tinge

Nutrition: Not yet evaluated

Culinary: Try it baked, sautéed, barbecued or even stuffed.

Medicinal: Not yet evaluated

Processing & Cooking

Mushrooms are best enjoyed directly after harvest, but enjoying soups and stews from your foraging forays all winter is just as rewarding. Because they are highly perishable, often not lasting over one to three days, your fungi need to be “processed” or prepared quickly for storage. Each species prefers a unique method of preservation, so be sure to do your research beforehand and to allow time in your day of foraging to process your findings.

When it comes to cooking, anything goes. Casseroles, soups, stir-fries, sauces . . . even infused spirits if you’re daring. No matter your culinary adventure, just be sure to cook them very well. Mushrooms contain chitin (KAI-tin), which is the same substance that makes up crustaceans and many insect exoskeletons. Raw mushrooms can be very hard on human digestive systems!

For recipe ideas, check out seasonal cookbooks such as Jennifer Hahn’s Pacific Feast or Connie Green’s The Wild Table. 

More Seasonal Autumn Mushrooms

These are harder to identify; beginners should purchase or orage with an experienced guide.

  • White Matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare)
  • Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus)
  • Wood Blewit (Clitocybe nuda)
  • Western Cauliflower Mushroom (Sparassis crispa)
  • King Bolete/Porcini (Boletus edulis)

 

Identification resources:
The Puget Sound Mycological Society offers a free mushroom identification service during the spring (starting in late April) and fall (starting in mid-September) at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, Mondays from 4 to 7 p.m.

Classes and workshops:
Puget Sound Mycological Society
Alderleaf Wilderness College
Langdon Cook

To purchase mushrooms:
Foraged & Found Edibles
Fungi Perfecti

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