Two nights ago I found myself at our public library, diving deep into the bowels of what the Affordable Care Act will mean for my family and what our options for insurance may be. Between looking at different websites trying to navigate this maze of government red tape, my mind would wander and my eyes would focus on the view looking down on the land outside of the library. Our library was built over 20 years ago on land that was one of the last remaining farmsteads in W. St. Paul, MN and it still contains a few aspects of what it once was.
The fact that the county purchased this land for building a library (rather than a housing or commercial developer), was in certain regards a saving grace for some of the wildlife that called this little piece of Earth home. So while there is a big library building and parking lot, there are a few acres of land that hold the remnants of a small oak savanna, a pond full of ducks and geese, black walnuts, birches, maples, delicious fruiting mulberries, aronia bushes, wild raspberries and many other species of plants and animals.
There is also a thriving underground network of mycelia; in other words mushrooms that also inhabit this small holdout of nature. Sitting there in the library, daydreaming of affordable health care, my eyes were distracted by a large, white orb maybe 30 or 40 yards away from me. From my vantage point looking through the windows, it was hard to tell exactly what it was – maybe a kid lost a ball, or someone lost a grocery bag to the wind, but whatever it was, my eyes kept coming back to it. Something inside me knew what it was all along, so before it got too dark outside, I packed up my bag and made the short hike to find out what this mysterious object actually was.
It took me less than five minutes to find what I was looking for, and let me say it was hard to miss! I have seen some puffball mushrooms in my life, but nothing like this! This Calvatia gigantea, or more commonly known as a giant puffball, weighed in at just over 2 pounds and was harvested at just the right time. It was the perfect age for eating, and had no damage from bugs. I gratefully harvested this gigantic fungi, and headed home to show my family.
Mushrooms are an interesting food in our household. I am a crazy mushroom freak – I love hunting for them, eating them, and learning about them! My kids are slowly following in my footsteps and becoming a bit more adventurous when it comes to eating mushrooms, and my wife is allergic to all mushrooms so she keeps her distance. Needless to say, I am spoiled when it comes to mushrooms as there are very few mouths that I have to share my mushrooms with.
Knowing that I could only eat so much on my own, I brought some of the giant puffball with me to work to share with a few folks who I know would appreciate such a find. Both of my bosses in the kitchen where I work love wild crafted mushrooms. The day before my find, we tried some sulphur shelf mushroom (Laetiporus sulphurues), which is a bright orange, highly edible mushroom common to Minnesota and most of North America. Two wild mushrooms in two days, not too bad!
I ended up cutting thick slices of the puffball and sauteing the pieces in butter with a little bit of salt and pepper. How to describe them short of saying they were heavenly? They are very light with a noticeable, but subtle, mushroom flavor and a texture that literally melts in your mouth. In the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, giant puffballs are described as choice, which means don’t pass these up when you get a chance to eat them!
Another mushroom that I found the next day, also on this same land at the library is some type of bolete. There were a few dozen of them growing in the footprint of a birch, so it leads me to believe that it is the birch bolete, or Leccinum scabrum or possibly the Slippery Jack that is comprised of a few other varieties of boletes. This is a perfect example of why it is so important to make a positive ID before consuming any mushroom.
According to my Mushroom Field guide, boletes contain the largest number of edible species of any family of mushrooms. While there is a good chance that the one I found is edible, and most likely quite good, I will not be taking a bite until I can make a positive ID, which most likely will not happen this season.
Making a positive identification of mushrooms can be done in a number of ways. The first and easiest is by visual observation. This works for some mushrooms without any problems. I was taught about the “FoolProof Four” which include Morels, puffballs, sulphur shelfs, and chanterelles. I have found three of the four and am still trying to track down chanterelles. From my understanding, chanterelles do have a few look alikes that are not good for you, so having some back up methods of making positive identifications for mushrooms is a good thing to know about.
Other methods include knowing whether a mushroom has gills, pores, or some other way disseminating its spores. Aroma can also be a clue, like the first time I found Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) there was an overwhelming smell of anise, which in the case of oyster mushrooms is an identfying characteristic. Location of where it was found can be helpful, but by no means does it prove anything about the exact species. And then there is a relatively simple test that you can do called a spore print (I will write about this sometime, I promise) that can also help you to ID a mushroom. While I will not go into detail here about a spore print test, it is a very helpful way in determining what a mushroom may be.
Ultimately, if you are into mushrooms and enjoy hunting them and eating them, then educating yourself is the most important thing you can do. The internet is very helpful, but personally I have found real life books to be more enjoyable when it comes to learning about mushrooms. The National Audubon Society Field Guide To Mushrooms has been indispensable on my mushroom forays throughout the years, for it is full of great pictures and very scientific descriptions that have lead to some neat discoveries. Another one that I have found helpful is Edible Wild Mushrooms of N. America by David W. Fischer and Alan E. Bessete. This book is not nearly as comprehensive as the Audubon Field guide, but focuses more on edible mushrooms and all the wonderful ways that they can be prepared and preserved.
Just like gardening, tapping maple trees, or trying to catch a swarm of bees, mushroom hunting (and eating them as well) will always be an exciting and somewhat seasonal part of my life. As I write, the seasons seem to be changing in front of me! Cold winds blow out of the north, the leaves are changing colors and are falling to the ground, and I can see the Dark Days of winter looming not far off over the horizon. But even with this season winding down there is always the hope of the future to keep us going and moving forward. Soon enough the cold embrace of winter will keep me inside more than I would like to admit, but even winter does not last forever! Before I know it, I will be out again, scouring the ground for the ever wonderful Morel! Peace & Cheers
Giant puffball image via beautifulcataya/flickr