Mushrooms, always the white button variety, were a raw snack food as I grew up. I never thought of mushrooms as a flavorful addition to foods beyond pizza, let alone as the major component of a meal. And I never, ever, thought of foraging for them.
For Rebecca Wanovich, Highridge Circle, foraging for wild mushrooms and learning how to identify the various types has become a fascinating hobby. “I’ve always had an interest in learning about [mushrooms] but never had the opportunity or the time until this past year,” Wanovich recalls.
An Upper St. Clair native, Wanovich grew up on a “city farm” located on land owned by her grandfather, William Young, behind what is now Trader Joe’s. Young was an architect who designed most of the houses along Cedar Boulevard from Gilkeson Road to just past Bird Park.
Back then, Wanovich and her family did some foraging on the farm, but for blackberries. As for her newfound time spent hunting mushrooms, she says, “I just love walking in the woods. I have my mushroom book and my knife, and off I go.”
One of her more interesting finds—a moth inside a mushroom—was at Linn Run State Park in Somerset during a mushroom hunting “foray” with the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club (WPMC). “I thought it looked like a moldy bug,” she recalls. Mushrooms do grow out of decomposing things, even dead bugs; still it was an exciting, rather unusual find.
Catching Wanovich’s enthusiasm, I joined the WPMC foray in Bird Park last June. The dictionary defines foray as “a quick raid, usually for the purpose of taking plunder.” When mushroom lovers use the term—and there are clubs like WPMC all over the country—they’re talking about a group going into the forest for a day or perhaps even overnight to hunt for mushrooms, collect them for scientific study or simply to enjoy their beauty and diversity.
For newbies, mushrooms are fungi, not vegetables, and are more complicated than one might think, with four main parts: the cap; the gills, tubes, spines and ridges under the cap; the stalk the mushroom stands on; and the mycelium, or the root system that pushes the mushroom up for spore dispersal (and foraging). Finding a mushroom is one thing; knowing what you’ve found is the bigger challenge.
Greeting everyone at the Bird Park foray was Cecily Franklin, WPMC president, who had several egg cartons in hand. Turns out mushroom hunters use egg cartons to collect smaller mushrooms, putting each find in a separate compartment to await identification. That task then goes to “identifiers,” who have correctly identified at least 150 different mushrooms, or to “mycologists,” who have correctly identified at least 500.
Up the slope at the park pavilion, mycologist La Monte Yarroll was examining some of the day’s early finds. Nearby was a large microscope hooked up to a portable battery—a tool used in identifying mushrooms. A little farther on, Victoria Khersonsky, Lindendale Drive, and her daughters, Nadia, 3, and twins Katya and Anya, 12, were participating in the foray, pursuing what has become a family hobby over the past year.
“We’ve identified a ton of mushrooms. We’ve taken pictures of everything. It’s a lot of fun,” says Anya. “We look for mushrooms and ask Mom what they are—we try to keep learning,” adds Katya.
“I tell them to take pictures of the top and bottom, and we identify the mushroom together,” explains Victoria. “I do a spore print; we look at the gills, pores, color.” All of those are techniques used to identify mushrooms.
The twins like to look for mushrooms when they walk to Jefferson Middle School.
As the morning progressed, club members began to find their quarry. Cries of “Look what I found!” and “See that over there!” floated through the trees.
Wanovich found mushrooms on a birch tree. “They’re bitter, but I heard that they are highly nutritious,” she said of consumable mushrooms, adding she has read about drying and grinding them to a powder to put in smoothies.
Many mushrooms are nutritious, but, “Get over edible,” advised identifier Dick Dougall. “Only about five percent are the really good ones worth collecting. About one percent are really poisonous and will kill you.” The rest are, “very hard, like chewing on bark, or very bitter.”
Clearly, it’s important to know what you have collected before you eat it—that’s where the identifiers and mycologists can help. Some of the edible varieties club members found that day in Bird Park were Turkey Tail, a mushroom with a colorful fall-like palette of stripes that has been used in medicinal teas for centuries; Coral, an exotic looking mushroom that can be sautéed, pickled or used in stews, and Chicken-of-the-Wood, a vibrant yellow mushroom that tastes like chicken or lobster and is used in recipes like risotto. And they also found a hallucinogenic mushroom. Yes, really. A magic mushroom. (That one wasn’t harvested.)
With every find, WPMC members shared the thrill of the hunt, fueled by the possibility of finding a rare mushroom and the chance to learn from experts. It’s great fun.
As much as I enjoyed the foray, it’s the culinary aspects of mushrooms that most interest me. There are hundreds of delicious preparations. Follow the tips and the chart below, which includes many varieties readily available in grocery stores, for inspiration, or try the recipes below.
- Keep mushrooms in the refrigerator in paper bags.
- Brush off mushrooms with a soft brush or cloth.
- Wash at the last minute, as they can become mushy after being exposed to water.
- Dried wild mushrooms can be expensive, but 3 ounces dried equals 1 pound of fresh.
- Some mushrooms, especially porcini, have a high water content. Blanch them quickly; then squeeze out water to suit the preparation.
- Some mushrooms, especially the dried ones, have very brittle stems. Pop the stems off, dry them a bit more in the oven, then grind them in a spice grinder. Use the powder to pep up soups, sauces, stews and smoothies.
- Some varieties, such as Chicken of the Woods, tend to be dry. Marinate them first, for extra flavor and softening. Otherwise, sauté them longer than you would other varieties.
- Dried mushrooms have to be plumped in warm water, drained and squeezed dry. Use the liquid minus any grit at the bottom of the bowl in soups, sauces and stews.
|White Button – this is your standard,goes-with-almost-anything mushroom||almost any spice or herb||almost any wine, Madeira or sherry||roasted vegetables: fennel, eggplant, leeks, squashes||fried with Panko crumbs (after blanching and squeezing water out); stuffed; crab, eggs, poultry, cheese|
|Morel||chervil, chives, garlic, tarragon, rosemary, parsley||red, white, rosé wine, balsamics; dijon mustard||asparagus, lemon, onions, peas, potatoes, pepper, tomatoes||beef, lamb, chicken|
|Porcini||caraway seeds, cayenne,
chervil, chives, oregano
marjoram, mint, dill, nutmeg
|any stock||tomato products, lemon, onions, shallots
|pasta, ham, pancetta, sausages|
|Shitake, oyster, enoki||cilantro, hot Chinese peppers, cilantro, coriander, mint, Thai basil||poultry and miso soups, sherry||cabbage, eggplant
, parsley, shallots, baby bok choi, tofu, lotus root, scallions
|fish, game, poultry (esp. duck), meaty fish also: grill shitake and oyster with soy sauce, anchovies, enoki in wraps|
|Chicken of the Woods, chanterelle, hen of the woods||tarragon, basil, dill, fennel||any cream or yoghurt, white or rosé wine||mild vegetables and accompaniments||fish, poultry, crab, eggs, cheese; fried with Panko crumbs|
|Mixed, dried wild mushrooms||almost any sharp herb or spice||poultry, beef or lamb stock||tomato products||beef, lamb, poultry|
Portobello – meaty and juicy, these hold up well to demanding preps such as grilling, roasting, or sliced thickly and marinated for sandwich toppings. They take sharp additions such as balsamics, tarragon, garlic, mustard and hot peppers. Almonds, pistachios and pineabble are an interesting pairing.
Cremini – Basically baby portobellos, but without the decided meatiness and high water content, these add an earthy flavor to any of the white button preparations. They also hold up better in frying whole.
8 small-medium wraps of choice, preferably thin, or crêpes
1 small package of enoki mushrooms, separated, root ends cut off
4 fresh shitake mushrooms, stem removed, sliced very thinly
½ C. carrots shaved with a peeler
1 C. extra firm tofu, very small dice, optional
1 C. cooked duck in small strips, optional, instead of tofu
4 scallions, sliced thinly on a diagonal
8 ounces snow peas, sliced thinly on a diagonal
2 ounces radishes, preferably daikon, sliced into matchsticks
8 ounces bean sprouts
6 ounces Thai basil leaves
4 ounces mint leaves
1 thinly sliced, red or green chili, seeded with membrane removed, optional
1 clove garlic, minced
½ T. sesame oil
juice of 1 lime, or to taste
3 T. brown sugar
1 T. white sugar
1 T. rice vinegar
1 T., packed, fresh grated ginger, or 1 t. dry
½ t. five spice powder
¼ t. freshly grated nutmeg
1 t. prepared Asian hot sauce, or chili flakes to taste
- Put all the filling ingredients in a bowl, mixing to evenly distribute them.
- Mix the sauce in a bowl, adding half to the ingredients, saving the rest for dipping.
- Divide the above evenly among the wraps.
- Serve immediately.
GRILLED MUSHROOMS ON SOURDOUGH
8 thick slices fresh sourdough
1 pound fresh, cleaned, medium thick sliced wild mushrooms, or equivalent dried
salt to taste
½ t. freshly ground black pepper
¼ C. fresh, shredded sage leaves, or to taste
1 pound asiago, fontina, swiss or gruyère cheese, or a combination of those, grated
Small bunch of arugula leaves or other sharp greens.
- Sauté the mushrooms in plenty of butter with the salt, pepper and sage until golden. Set aside.
- Add more butter to the pan and lightly brown the bread, or toast it in a toaster.
- Layer the mushrooms evenly over four slices of the bread.
- Layer the cheese evenly over the mushrooms.
- Put the bread in the pan until the cheese just starts to melt.
- Top with the greens and second slice of bread.
- Turn and grill the second slice.
- Press on the sandwiches with a spatula.
Remove and serve when the cheese starts melting down the sides of the bread.
Serve with a big salad finished with a fruity balsamic vinegar.
To contact the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club: http://wpamushroomclub.org/
Photography by Jacqueline Radin