From Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, 1962.
The Cult of the Mycophagists
In no field will the forager find greater rewards than in the field of edible fungi, or Mushrooms. Some of the most delicious food known to man is produced by these peculiar growths. A real gourmet will know that the different species of mushroom are cooked in different ways and used for different purposes, and that all the edible species have a place in a refined cuisine, but so standardized and limited has the average taste become that we tend to judge all mushrooms by how closely the taste resembles that of the cultivated mushroom, which is only one variety of Agaricus. This is as ridiculous as the case of an expatriate Englishman I know who judges all vegetables by how near their taste approaches that of Brussels sprouts.
Not that I have anything against the Agaricus, either cultivated or wild. I take every one I can find. It is truly a delicious mushroom, but it furnishes only one of the many taste thrills which can be had from this class of plants. Let us approach each new edible fungus as a new food, and let it stand or fall on its own merits. Let's not be guilty of condemning a mushroom for its difference from the cultivated variety without judging whether that difference is good or bad.
The gathering, cooking and eating of the edible fungi is a very specialized area in the field of wild food plants, and I make no pretense of having mastered it. I regularly gather and eat more than a dozen varieties of mushrooms, but this is only a beginning, for hundreds of edible species are known to exist. The American Indians seldom ate mushrooms, perhaps because of their awareness of the danger of poisoning that exists when this class of plants is used indiscriminately. This may have been the wisest course for a people who did not have access to the complete and authoritative information that is now available on this subject, but their caution caused them to miss out on some very good eating.
Of course an uninstructed amateur who starts gathering and eating mushrooms before he can distinguish one species from another is likely to poison himself. A rash fool can find a way to kill himself anywhere, but that is no reason why sensible, prudent people shouldn't enjoy delicious and wholesome wild mushrooms. Like other wild plants, the fungi require some study before one starts using them for food. This doesn't mean that you must become an expert mycologist and know the secret name of every fungus in the field. As soon as you can certainly recognize only one edible species, you are ready to start enjoying the rewards of this interesting and fruitful hobby. Once started, I am confident that you will go on increasing your knowledge in this field.
One word of warning: don't listen when well-meaning amateurs start telling you of some short-cut test that will surely distinguish the poisonous from the edible species. All these tests are worthless and exceedingly dangerous. A silver spoon against the flesh of a mushroom tells you exactly nothing. Even the much-vaunted method of watching to see which fungi the wild mice have nibbled is completely unreliable. I have seen deadly Amanitas so eaten by insects as to look exactly as if they had been nibbled by mice. Besides, even if a fungus has been eaten by mice, how do you know that the mouse didn't die? There is only one reliable rule to follow when gathering wild mushrooms, and that is: Never gather for food any fungus that has not been positively identified as an edible species.
It you are going to study the edible fungi in books, you should make an effort to learn their Latin names, for the common names are apt to vary from area to area, and are notoriously unreliable. This is not so great a task as you might think, and is sometimes real fun. The rewards come when you discover such names as Lactarius deliciosus, and Morchella esculenta. Don't you just love to roll such succulent names over your tongue? The names are nearly as tasty as the delicious mushrooms which bear them. On the other hand, a name like Russula emetica is suggestive enough to make one study its bearer further before considering it as food. All this is fun, but it is not, of course, a reliable method of separating the good mushrooms from the bad. As an example, the unappetizing name, Fistulina hepatica, is borne by the delicious Beefsteak Mushroom.
There are so many very good manuals on the recognition of edible mushrooms that it would be presumptious for a person of my small experience to attempt writing another one. Also, space does not permit me to give the illustrations and minute descriptions that would be necessary if I intended this chapter to be used by the uninstructed to positively identify the edible fungi. Still, one couldn't present a book on wild foods that ignored these fine wild food plants. My purpose in including this section is to call the attention of the amateur to a rich source of wild food plants, and to give some instruction on the preparation of this delicious food, which can be had for the taking. For the few edible species mentioned, I have purposely kept my descriptions meager, for I do not recommend that any unaided amateur try to use this text alone to identify an unfamiliar mushroom.
For the beginner, there is a wide choice of excellent books on this subject, some of the better ones marvelously illustrated and costing a king's ransom. A simpler and cheaper, but completely reliable, guide to the wild mushrooms most commonly gathered and eaten is the Department of Agriculture Circular # 143, a little booklet by Vera K. Charles, titled. Some Common Mushrooms and How to Know Them, which can be obtained from the Superintendent of Documents in Washington, D.C., for thirty-five cents. I heartily recommend that every amateur who wishes to delve into this interesting subject send for this bulletin.
There are a few species of edible fungi so distinctive in form, or with such characteristic recognition features, as to be easily identified with little possibility of error. We list a few of these before going into the subject of mushroom cookery.
The Puffballs are of two genera, the Lycoperdons and the Calvatias, each with several species. All of the puffballs with white flesh are good to eat and some of them are very superior. They are found throughout the temperate zone, and in some localities they become very abundant after heavy fall rains. Puffballs are good French-fried, en casserole, as fritters, or added to vegetable and meat dishes. The best way to preserve a surplus is to peel, slice and saute them a few minutes, then pack them into jars and freeze.
These are the Morchellas, of several species, including the esculenta, mentioned above. None of them are poisonous, but some are of better quality than others; let your taste be your guide. They are found throughout the temperate regions but are sometimes scattered and rare. Look for them in rich, open woods and other half-shade spots, and especially in burnt-over lands, where they are sometimes found in abundance. This is one of the very choicest of the edible fungi, and is best cooked stuffed and baked, or sauteed and served on toast, with a sauce made of its own rich juice. To freeze a surplus, follow the directions given for puffballs.
These are the Clavaria of several species, all of them safe enough to eat, but some species too bitter to be palatable. They are strange-looking plants, either bushy with many simple, or forking or sometimes fused branches, closely resembling some forms of coral, or with small club-shaped bodies. There are white, yellow, brown and reddish varieties. They are found over most of the United States and Canada. The large, freely forking kinds are sometimes discovered in great abundance on leafmold or decaying wood. They are best prepared as Mushroom Soup or en casserole.
The small yellow, club-shaped, Clavaria pulchra (another beautiful name) is sometimes plentiful in spruce and fir woods in the northern part of our range. They have a delicate and nutty flavor when eaten raw, and should be served in Raw Mushroom Salad or in Mushroom Soup.
These excellent mushrooms belong to the genus Pleurotis and there are three good species, all forming clumps on dead, dying or injured trees throughout the temperate regions. The ostreatus has white spores and the sabidus has pink ones, but otherwise these two species are almost indistinguishable, and both are commonly called Oyster Mushrooms. They are usually found in crowded, overlapping clumps, with large white, gray or light-brown caps, from three to nine inches across, with the short, thick stem attached to the inner margin. The Elm Mushroom, which I find more often on dying poplars than on elms, differs from the former chiefly in having long, curved stems, attached somewhat to one side of center of the many overlapping caps. I have gathered a half-bushel basket of these fine mushrooms from a single standing dead tree. Only the tender parts of the older caps should be used, though the younger ones can be used entire. These tender sections are excellent sauteed slowly in salad oil, French-fried or in Mushroom Soup. A surplus should be sauteed and frozen as with puffballs.
The genus Coprinus furnishes three commonly eaten and very good mushrooms, the Shaggy-Mane (C. comatus), the Inky (C. atramentarius) and the Early Inky or C. micaceus. All of these mushrooms have black spores and, when old and inedible, the whole plant turns to a black inky mass. They are found throughout the temperate regions, the shaggy-mane and inky growing in rich, manured fields, meadows, lawns and about rubbish heaps, and the early inky springing up about the bases of old stumps and dead trees, or, occasionally, in lawns. These three little mushrooms are easily recognized and delicious to eat. The best way to serve them is sauteed in butter with a rich sauce made of the abundant and flavorful juice that cooks out of them. Don't let the black color of this juice repel you; it's one of nature's best sauces. These little mushrooms are also very good en casserole.
This is the hearty mushroom with the unappetizing name (Fistulina hepatica). It forms short-stemmed, or stemless, brackets on dead stumps and logs of hardwood trees, each bracket looking like a large opened fan, or, as some seem to think, like a lobed liver, hence the specific name. Do not confuse this with the woody kinds of bracket fungi; the Beefsteak is fleshy and juicy, dark red above and yellowish or buff below. It is found throughout our range but is rare in some sections and abundant in others. The beefsteak mushroom is the nearest thing to a piece of meat that is produced by the plant world. It has an acid juice which some people find offensive, but, if it is sliced and soaked in salt water for an hour, the offensive quality disappears. The slices can then be broiled, stewed, or the best way of all, cooked in a Mushroom Shish Kabob.
The Sulphur Mushroom is another of the bracket variety, and grows in large masses, with the brackets commonly fused at the base, on old hardwood stumps or dead trees. The overlapping brackets range in color from sulphur-yellow to orange; they are fan-shaped, and the under surface is full of minute pores. It tends to be somewhat tough, and should be thinly sliced and stewed, or sauteed in oil for a half-hour or more. The sauteed slices can either be eaten, as is, or be chopped and made into some delicious Mushroom Fritters.
This little mushroom is found in lawns, meadows and other open, grassy places throughout the temperate regions. It gets its common name from its habit of growing in circles or rings, which sometimes contain more than a hundred individual mushrooms. These rings gradually expand in size each year and are often interrupted and sometimes entirely obscured. Look for these little dainties where the grass grows greenest. They have a white, solid stem, one to two inches high, and a cap of about the same diameter, convex or widely expanded, with a small hump in the center dull white, pink or light brown in color. They decay very slowly, becoming dry during sunny weather and freshening up again when it rains; thus they can be picked over a comparatively long period. They are slightly leathery in texture, but the flavor is hard to beat. They should be stewed or sauteed in oil. A surplus can be strung on a stout thread and dried, or sauteed and frozen.
This is the mushroom with the luscious name, Lactarius deliciosus, and, when thoroughly cooked, lives up to its name. Unfortunately, it is found only in the northern part of our range. Look for it under spruce and fir trees. It has a stout stem, one to two inches high, and a cap two to five inches broad, with a depression in its center. The stem is spotted yellowish-orange, and the top has orange, yellow and greenish tones, sometimes in concentric zones of color. When bruised it exudes a thick, milky, orange-colored juice with a pleasant, aromatic odor. The fact that this juice turns greenish on cooking, or even after a short exposure to air, may scare some off, but if it is baked or boiled for an hour or more, it is one of the finest of the edible fungi.
This is one of the most interesting of all the edible fungi. I had long read about this curious combination of two fungi, and then one fall day, when I was walking up a trail through some dry woods in Pennsylvania, I saw several places where the leaves and needles were slightly lifted from the ground. Under one I glimpsed an orange-red color. I began lifting the raised leaves and discovered a half-dozen brilliantly colored funnel-shaped mushrooms, several of them four inches high and about the same size in diameter. They are considerably heavier for their size than most mushrooms. The botanists tell us that this is the Lactarius piperatus with a parasitic fungus, the Hypomyces, growing all over it and forming the bright red coat. All I know is that when I took my haul home, sliced it thinly crosswise and cooked it slowly in a little peanut oil and water for about an hour, it was one of the most substantial and delicious mushroom dishes I had ever eaten. This hearty dish makes an excellent substitute for meat, and, when enough is found, can be served as the main course in a wild food meal.
These also are funnel- or vase-shaped mushrooms of several species. The Cantharellus cibarius is a dull egg-yellow color and from two to five inches in height. The gills on the outside of the often irregular or one-sided funnel are forked and connected with small veins, giving the appearance of a network. This mushroom is found in dry, coniferous forests, sometimes in great abundance. Cut in very thin slices across the gills and stew or saute slowly in oil. These are good dried, and one can sometimes buy dried chanterelles in markets that cater to immigrants. The fresh mushroom can also be sauteed and frozen.
The Cantharellus aurantiacus is very like the above, except that it has a dull-orange or brownish funnel and yellow gills. It is used like the other chanterelles.
The Cantharellus umbonatus, which is commonly called the Grayling, is a smaller species, often little over an inch in diameter. For some reason, it only grows in carpets of haircap moss. In cool, damp woods, where this moss abounds, these little mushrooms can sometimes be gathered by the quart. They do not easily decay and can be collected until snow covers them. They are slightly tough, but, when cooked long enough, the flavor is excellent.
This is the well-known Agaricus with two familiar species, the campestries and the arvensis. This is the mushroom. Varieties of arvensis are the mushrooms that are cultivated and sold in the markets. The wild ones are not so white as the cultivated varieties, and are usually not so fleshy, but they are just as delicious. The general shape and recognition features of this mushroom can be learned by studying those in the markets. Remember that the Agaricus does not have a scaly bulb or membranelike cup at the base. It does have gills that are white in the button stage, but these quickly turn pink as they are exposed and finally turn purplish brown. The Agaricus can be cooked according to almost any mushroom recipe you can find. They are excellent in Raw Mushroom Salad, broiled on Mushroom Shish Kabobs, sauteed, in soup or in nearly every other way that one can eat mushrooms. Preserve a surplus by drying or by sauteing, then freezing.
HOW TO SAUTE MUSHROOMS
In many recipes for the use of various edible fungi, the first step is to saute the mushrooms. The success of the final dish is greatly dependent on this step's being done the right way. Meadow mushrooms, rnorels, shaggy-manes, inkies and puffballs should all be sauteed in butter, about 2 tablespoonfuls to the 1/2 pound of mushrooms. Use a heavy skillet over medium heat, and a broad spatula for turning them so as not to break any apart. These are all tender mushrooms and should never be overcooked. When they are brown about the edges, take them out and keep them warm until ready to use. They should never be black and rubbery.
The oyster, fairy ring, chanterelle, beefsteak, sulphur, orange milk and many other wild mushrooms are tougher than those mentioned above and need longer cooking. They should be sauteed slowly in peanut or other good cooking oil for 1/2 hour or more, keeping the skillet covered except when turning the mushrooms.
Seasonings should be added with a light hand, for you want the subtle flavors of the various mushrooms to dominate the finished dish. They should be lightly salted, and the addition of a little freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of ginger will improve most mushroom dishes. Monosodium glutamate, added in the latter stages of cooking, will help to bring out the flavor.
If your recipe calls for onions, saute these first until they are clear and yellow, then remove them and keep them warm while you saute the mushrooms in the same oil or butter. Be absolutely certain that you remove every shred of onion before adding the mushrooms, as a tiny piece of scorched onion will impart a bitter taste to the whole dish.
Most of the wild mushrooms, whether the tender or the tough varieties, will give off copious quantities of juice as they are being cooked, so the sauteing soon resembles boiling or stewing. This juice is rich in flavor and should never he thrown out. Use it in the recipe or thicken with flour and serve as a sauce.
Unless otherwise specified, most kinds of wild mushrooms can be used in the recipes below, providing they have been sauteed properly for the variety used. However, each new species will make the recipe into a new dish with a different flavor. Thus a few recipes will furnish many different and delicious dishes merely by changing the kind of mushrooms used, and you will find each seems better than the ones you tried before.
Sauteed mushrooms need no further cooking to make them eminently edible. Saute 1/2 pound of mushrooms according to above directions, then remove from the pan and keep them warm. To the leftover oil and juice in the pan, add 1 tablespoons of flour, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, a little black pepper and a tiny pinch of ginger. Stir and cook until smooth and thick, then add 4 tablespoons of cooking sherry and 1/2 cup of light cream. Keep the heat low, and simmer (do not boil) stirring constantly until it thickens. Heap the cooked mushrooms on slices of toast and pour the thickened sauce over them, then dust the top very lightly with paprika.
Saute 1 pound of mushrooms according to directions for the variety you have collected, drain and save the juice. Chop the mushrooms fine. Let the juice cool, then mix it with 2 beaten eggs. Sift together 1-1/2 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1 teaspoon of monosodium glutamate, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a little freshly ground black pepper. Add the egg-juice mixture and the chopped mushrooms, and mix well. Drop by spoonfuls in shallow cooking oil heated to 375°. Fry until nicely browned; this will take about 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve piping hot.
This is one of the finest soups ever made by man, and yet, when cheap chicken parts and wild mushrooms are used, it costs next to nothing to make. This is the way to give your family or guests a royal treat with no strain on your pocketbook. Now that the choicer pieces of chicken are being sold in packages at good prices, the backs, necks and wings are going for a song. These parts actually make better soup than do the meatier pieces.
Put 6 or 8 chicken backs in a kettle, add 1/2 cup of fresh celery leaves and 1 onion cut in chunks. Boil for two hours, cooking down until only 1 quart of broth is left. Strain, then pick the meat from the chicken and set aside.
Next, saute 1 pound of mushrooms, cut in small, thin slices, according to the directions given above, remove the slices from the skillet and keep warm. To the oil and juices left in the skillet add 2 tablespoons of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt and a pinch of ginger. Stir and blend over low heat until a smooth paste is formed, and it has lost all raw taste. With the heat turned a bit higher, slowly add the chicken broth, stirring until it is smooth and slightly thickened. Add sauteed mushrooms and chicken meat to soup and simmer gently as you stir in 4 tablespoons of sherry wine and 1/2 cup of light cream. Don't let it boil after adding the cream. Stir in a teaspoon of monosodium glutamate, then serve in hot bowls and dust the top lightly with freshly ground black pepper.
Here is another moneysaving, epicurean dish for those who live where they can dig their own clams. Add 1 pint of water to 1 quart of clams and steam until the shells have all opened. Pour the broth into a saucepan, being careful not to include any settled sand, add a few celery leaves and 1 onion cut in chunks and simmer for 5 minutes, then strain.
Saute 1/2 pound of mushrooms in the manner the variety requires and add, juice and all, to the clam broth. Mince the clams finely and add them to the soup. Season with 1 cup of top milk, a generous hunk of butter, a little black pepper and a very little salt. Never boil after the ingredients are combined, but serve very hot, in scalded cups, with a small, round, buttered cracker floating on each serving.
Both the above soups are real show-off recipes that will enhance your reputation as a gastronomic artist.
No good cook ever has a set recipe for casserole dishes, but varies them from time to time by artistically adding a bit of this and some of that. Here is one way to prepare mushrooms for cooking in a casserole. Saute 1 pound of shaggy-manes, inkies, corals, puffballs or pasture mushrooms in butter for only a few minutes, then cool until only slightly warm. Stir in 1 beaten egg, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, a little black pepper and enough crushed corn flakes to take up the juice. Turn into a casserole, dot the top with butter and bake in a 375° oven for 30 minutes. If insufficient juice cooks out of the mushrooms, add a little rich milk to the pan before mixing in the corn flakes. Sometimes I use bread crumbs instead of corn flakes and, again, I might add raw ground beef or cooked chicken to this recipe. Let your taste and your good cooking sense be your guide.
Who ever heard of eating mushrooms raw? Let me assure you that the meadow mushrooms, the puffballs and the little club-shaped corals are all delicious raw when served in this salad. You will need 1 pound of mushrooms, 1 large celery heart or 2 small ones and 4 hard-cooked eggs. Don't chop any of these, but cut them into hearty, bite-size pieces. Rub a deep bowl with a cut clove of garlic and place the above ingredients in it. Add 1 finely minced sweet red pepper and 2 minced scallions, tops and all. Season to taste with salt and black pepper and toss in a dressing made of 4 parts cold-pressed olive oil to 1 part wine vinegar. Toss for several minutes, then set in the refrigerator for 1 hour or less to ripen and blend. Serve on lettuce leaves.
Meadow mushrooms are good stuffed, and I have even seen fairy rings with each little cap piled high with stuffing, but the best stuffing mushroom of them all is the morel. Saute 8 or 10 large morel caps in butter until about half done, then remove and keep them warm. Next, saute 1 finely minced onion, and the stems and rejected caps of the morels. When they look done add 1/4 pound of ground beef, 1 teaspoon of salt and a dash of monosodium glutamate. Let this cook for only about a minute, then turn the heat off and add 1/2 cup of cooking sherry. Now stir in enough dry bread crumbs to make a fluffy mixture and carefully stuff the morel caps without breaking them apart. Set them in a casserole and bake for 30 minutes in a medium oven. Serve hot.
Cut beefsteak mushrooms crosswise into 1/2-inch slices. Soak for one hour in salted water, then drain, dry and saute in peanut oil for twenty minutes. Remove the slices, turn off the heat and add l pinch of basil, 1 teaspoon of dried parsley, 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar and a dash of tabasco sauce to the leftover juice and oil. Use skewers of a length that will fit into your broiler and load them, first with a piece of mushroom, then with a very small whole onion, then another piece of mushroom, then a little tomato, another piece of mushroom, then another onion and so on until the skewer is filled. Pour the juice-oil-vinegar in a shallow dish and turn the skewer in it so that the mushrooms and vegetables are all evenly coated with this sauce. Lay the skewers across a bake pan and place under the broiler, keeping them about six inches from the flame. Baste with the sauce several times while it is broiling. Serve with large chunks of warmed French bread spread with garlic butter.
If you find too few mushrooms for any of the above dishes, you can still make a fancy sauce of the few you have that will perk up most any meal. Saute 1 large finely minced onion in butter until it is yellow and clear. Remove the onion and keep warm. Add a little more butter to the skillet, thinly slice your meager supply of mushrooms and saute to a light brown. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a dash of tabasco. Add 1 pinch of basil, 1 tablespoon of minced chives and 1/2 tablespoon of finely minced fresh parsley leaves. Return the onion to the skillet, then slowly stir in 1 cup of sour cream. Heat through thoroughly but do not boil. This sauce really does something for fish, fowl or meat.
I hope I have at least given you a glimpse at the possibilities of the fascinating hobby that is shared by the members of the cult of the mycophagists. If your interest has been aroused, you will have no trouble locating many fuller sources of information about the edible fungi than is contained within the covers of this book. Maybe we will meet some day out in the fields hunting wild mushrooms. Meanwhile, let me wish you good hunting and good eating. I must go now, for supper has been announced, and I know we are having Sauteed Shaggy-Manes on Toast, covered with a creamy black sauce made of their own rich juices.