Summer mushrooms

By Tom Seymour | Jul 30, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour Black trumpet mushrooms are tasty, not poisonous, as used to be thought.

Ever have the desire to harvest those wild mushrooms out on the lawn or in the nearby woods, but just didn’t dare? Well, perhaps it’s time to buckle down, learn some of the easily identified mushrooms and begin enjoying these free, plentiful and tasty treats.

Make no mistake about it. Some mushrooms can make you very sick and some are downright deadly. But armed with a proper knowledge, you need never have an unpleasant experience.

The first thing to do is buy a good field guide. The market abounds in wild mushroom guides, and many are technical and complicated to a fault. Really, how many of us care that the “mushroom geeks” have moved a favorite mushroom from one scientific group to another and in doing so have given it a new scientific name? Some techie-style mushroom hunters have their own laboratories, complete with high-powered microscopes to aid in identification. But such as this is beyond the scope (pun intended) of this article.

For guidebooks, I always recommend the National Audubon Society's "Pocket Guide to Familiar Mushrooms." This small tome has first-class photos and easy-to-follow instructions for identifying the mushrooms listed therein.

And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my own newly released mushroom book, "Foraging Mushrooms Maine, a Falcon Field Guide," an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, copyright 2017, Rowman and Littlefield. My new book was specifically designed to highlight some common Maine mushrooms.

Before going on, here are a few things to remember.

Never eat a wild mushroom raw. Never. And when trying a new mushroom for the first time, eat just a small portion, a half-teaspoon full, perhaps. This is to see if that particular mushroom agrees with you. Some perfectly fine mushrooms just don’t set well with certain people. So if, the next day, you haven’t noticed any side effects, then go ahead and enjoy a full portion.

Finally, remember that if a mushroom you wish to identify does not meet all the criteria noted in your field guide, you should discard it. Also, by virtue of space limitations, this column cannot stand as a definitive source. Rather, consider it a catalyst for your desire to go “'shrooming.” So with guidebook in hand, get out there and begin searching. And again, don’t eat any mushroom until you have fully identified it in a field guide. Now it’s on to our five easy summer mushrooms.

1. Gem-studded puffball

Rated “choice” by novice and expert alike, this mushroom begins popping up on gravel and gravelly lawns and similar places. I often find them growing near gravel pits.

The "gem-studded" part of the name refers to the little spines, or “gems” on the outside. These are easily rubbed off with the thumb. This mushroom grows to 2 inches tall, and when mature, has a vent on top. When the almost-dried mushroom is stepped on or squeezed, the spores shoot out like smoke or dust. And by the way, this fine dust is sterile and can be used as a styptic for stanching the bleeding from shaving or other small cuts.

Nothing else looks quite like a gem-studded puffball. But for safety's sake, slice the mushroom in half, lengthwise. If the flesh is pure white and the texture of hard cheese, with no outline of a cap-style mushroom in evidence, you are good to go.

To use, slice the rest of your gem-studded puffballs in half, roll in flour and fry to a golden brown. Mercy, they’re good.

2. Giant puffball

As if gem-studded puffballs weren’t easy enough to identify, giant puffballs are even more so. These, quite literally, pop up overnight on well-trimmed lawns. And once the spawn, from which the mushroom springs, is established on a lawn, these huge mushrooms will come up year after year for many years.

Giant puffballs are best when the skin, which can be quite leathery on older specimens, is thin. But even huge ones, those specimens nearly as big as a basketball, are fine as long as you peel the skin. This is quite similar to peeling a hard-boiled egg.

Once these huge mushrooms are peeled, slice the thing in rounds, much as a butcher would slice a beef muscle into steaks. From there, refrigerate those portions not to be used immediately. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.

I like to cut these rounds up and fry until golden brown. But these mega-mushrooms lend themselves to many and varied forms of cookery. One neat idea is to cover with pizza sauce and whatever topping suits your fancy and bake in the oven, just like a pizza. Or marinade the rounds in any favorite marinade and cook on the grill.

One caveat applies. Don’t let these big mushrooms go too long, hoping they’ll grow even larger. In mature and over-mature mushrooms, the white flesh turns yellow and becomes very bitter. For the best giant puffballs, pick when the size of a softball. While that’s small for a giant puffball, it’s still bigger than most other mushrooms.

3. Fairy ring mushroom

The name refers to the ancient notion of fairies dancing in a circle. And indeed, these delicious mushrooms grow in circles, on top of and around degenerating hardwood stumps. All traces of the stump may be long gone, but the mushrooms remain.

These cap-style mushrooms have a little bump on top of the crème-colored cap. The gills appear to bloom, or bulge out, in the manner of an inside-out parasol.

A toxic species often grows on lawns, where fairy ring mushrooms are found, but the gills on these grow partway down the stem.

To use, just remove any clinging debris, chop and sauté in butter or butter substitute. Like giant puffballs, fairy ring mushrooms appear on the same site each year. But with each passing year the ring becomes wider.

4. Black Trumpet

Most of the time, mushroom folklore is misleading. Case in point: When I was a young boy walking through the woods with my grandma, an old, country woman, I was warned against one of the most delicious and piquant wild mushrooms out there. Grandma said, “Look out, Tommy. Stay away from those. They’re death trumpets.”

In her defense, grandma was only going along with what so many other old-timers thought about these black, trumpet-shaped mushrooms. But grandma and her peers were completely wrong. Black trumpets, which also come in shades of brown and gray, are another choice mushroom.

Looking like 3-inch-tall cornucopias, these treasured fungi grow in open areas in shady woodlands. Old tote roads, such as the one on the back end of my own back 40, see wide spreads of these every year in late summer.

No other mushroom looks quite like these little trumpet-shaped mushrooms.

To prepare, make sure to remove all debris. Do this (and this applies to preparing any mushroom) when the mushroom is dry. Don’t wash mushrooms, because that will make them mushy. Yuk!

Then, with no further preparation, slowly cook in oil or butter. Black trumpets make their own savory gravy. When serving, place mushrooms and gravy on a bed of brown or wild rice. A slice of toast will make a suitable substitute. These are among the tastiest wild mushrooms of all. Enjoy.

5. Spreading hydnum, or hedgehog mushrooms.

These cap-style fungi are in a league of their own. There are no known toxic species similar to these. The 4- to 5-inch high mushrooms have a crème-colored cap, the underside of which is full of little, tender spines that hang down like icicles. This accounts for the scientific name of Dentimum repandum. The word “Dentimum” refers to the little spines, which if left long enough on the mind for imagination to set in, look like little teeth. The spines are easily rubbed off with the fingers.

Hedgehog mushrooms grow in semi-shady woodlands, usually on places where hardwood trees have fallen and are slowly decomposing. The locations of even long-vanished trees still harbor these most delicious mushrooms.

Of all the wild mushrooms, these are my favorites. Cook them as you would any mushrooms. Choices of recipes are countless.

Meanwhile, once you become intimately familiar with these five wild mushrooms you can depend upon them every year. They will soon be like old friends, friends that you eagerly anticipate each year.

Have fun with these. Once you learn them, you will indeed be an accomplished 'shroomer.

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