PITTSBURGH — Kat Lieder admits she used to hate mushrooms because she thought they were creepy.
When she dug in the garden with her father as a kid, something about the fleshy, spore-bearing fungi gave her the willies.
“I thought they were only associated with death and dead things and decay,” she says.
So even she was surprised to find herself on a hilly, wooded trail in Pennsylvania on a recent Saturday morning, rooting through fallen leaves and scrutinizing dead logs and mossy stumps in search of mushrooms poking up from the forest floor.
Thinly sliced lean steak, garlicky mushrooms and fresh spinach are rolled into a whole grain wrap for these attractive pinwheels.
The University of Pittsburgh professor of global studies was in fine company: More than 100 new and veteran foragers, divided into small groups depending on how hard and far they wanted to hike, were on trails throughout the park. All had the same mission: to gather, study and exchange information about wild mushrooms. The daylong event also included lectures, displays, a cooking demonstration and a grand feast featuring more than a dozen mushroom dishes.
It was all part of the 21st annual Gary Lincoff Mushroom Foray held Sept. 18 by the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club. Named for national mycology expert and local fungi fanatic Gary Lincoff, it brings together people of all ages, experience levels and interests for a day of mushroom fun and education.
Like so many events, last year’s foray was canceled because of the coronavirus. So the crowd buzzed with excitement during the early morning welcome at Rose Barn. A table inside held waxed bags and empty egg cartons for those who forgot baskets for collecting.
Longtime member Josh Doty, of McMurray, Pennsylvania is an identifier for the club. Like many in the group, he got into foraging 12 years ago while photographing them, “then had to learn what I was taking pictures of,” he says with a laugh. He knows not just their common monikers such as maitaike, chicken of the woods and black trumpets but also their Latin names.
One mushroom his group encounters again and again is Russula. Found near oak trees, they come in a rainbow of colors and are one of the most recognizable genera among mycologists and mushroom collectors. He also points out Lactarius, also known as milk cap mushrooms because their fruitbodies ooze a sticky, milky latex when sliced with a knife.
While mushrooms often serve as decomposers by digesting dead organic matter, some are actually parasites that attack a living host and live on it, sometimes killing it. Many more, he says, are intimately linked to trees by symbiosis.
That’s what Lieder found so fascinating when she watched the Netflix documentary “Fantastic Fungi” during the pandemic. She sought out the Real Fungi stand at the Bloomfield Saturday Market. Her many fun conversations with its owner led her to not only grow shiitakes and oyster mushrooms in her basement, but go on her first foray with WPMC.
“They are connected with living things in ways I hadn’t ever thought about,” she says.
The September foray, which netted more than 150 species, including a rare pouzarella, drove the point home.
“It was so delightful to really know how many living things that are all around you that you don’t see,” she says. “And everyone was so generous with their knowledge.”
Still, fear persists for many would-be foragers, what with toxic beauties such as the milky-white Destroying Angel mushroom — a single bite can kill you — sprouting on the forest floor along with edible morels, oyster mushrooms and chanterelles. And with book titles such as the soon-to-be-released “How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying” by Frank Hyman, who can blame us?
It doesn’t help that many mushrooms can only be identified under a microscope.
“The popular misconception is that we know what all the mushrooms are,” says mycologist Michael Kuo, who was one of the foray’s guest speakers and the expert voice behind MushroomExpert.com. “But we don’t, and that’s why (foraging) can be dangerous.”
That’s why joining a club like WPMC is smart. They follow the mycologist’s golden rule: Never eat an unidentified mushroom!
Club members Kristen and Trent Blizzard, authors of the new “Wild Mushrooms: A Cookbook and Foraging Guide” (Skyhorse, $20), understand foraging can be a scary thing for newbies. But as with any hobby, if you invest in a good local or regional identification book and do your research, it can be less so.
“This community is full of wonderful people who are willing to share their knowledge, and have so much enthusiasm,” says Blizzard.
The Blizzards, who live and forage in Colorado, started their mushroom adventure as bloggers on Modern Forager. They quickly built a tribe by offering “burn maps” that detail where to find morel mushrooms that carpet charred forest floors.
Full of gorgeous photographs, their cookbook is a go-to guide for anyone who loves to hunt or cook with wild mushrooms. Along with tips on harvesting etiquette and kitchen tricks, it includes chapters on preservation and cooking techniques. (Did you know you can candy chanterelles or infuse mushrooms with alcohol?) Then it’s on to recipes from 25 skilled foragers around the country.
There are 115 in all, covering 15 different varieties of culinary fungi — everything from jams and soups to jerky and pasta dishes, using favorites such as chicken of the woods, oyster, morels and porcini mushrooms. There also are profiles of some of the foragers sprinkled throughout “because they’re so awesome and the world needs to know about them,” says Ms. Blizzard.
The recipes had to be simple, and dishes the cooks actually ate on a regular basis.
As a result, “a lot of flavors came into play that were very exciting,” Blizzard says, with Eastern European, Thai and California influences. “We learned mushrooms can be delicious prepared in a different way.”
What makes foraging such a great hobby, she says, is that it never gets old. It’s also sustainable and gets people outside, surrounded by nature.
“It grows with you, and it’s thrilling,” she says.
AUTUMN MUSHROOM AND BUTTERNUT TART
This tart works because the crust comes together without any rolling. Any fresh wild mushrooms work — think chanterelles, hen of the woods, king boletes or black trumpets. With the addition of roasted butternut squash, it’s a perfect marriage of fall flavors.
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups (9 ounces) shredded white cheddar or Swiss cheese, divided
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into chunks
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons ice water
1/2 pound peeled butternut squash or unpeeled delicata squash, cut into 1/2-inch slices
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg and toasted ground cumin, to taste
3/4 pound mixed fresh wild mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
Fresh sage leaves and sliced green onions, for garnish
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Make pastry crust: Place flour, 1 cup cheese and salt in bowl of a food processor fit with a metal blade. Process for a few seconds to blend, then add butter. Process for 10-20 seconds or until mixture is like fine crumbs.
Beat yolks and water together with a fork. With motor running, pour into food processor. Process for about 5 seconds or until the dough just comes together.
Crumble dough into an 11-by-7-inch rectangle fluted tart pan with a removable bottom, or a 12-inch round tart pan. Press dough evenly into pan with your fingers, making sure the bottom of the crust isn’t too thick. Use a fork to prick dough all over.
Press a double-folded piece of foil down into the pan. Bake pastry for 12 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees. Remove foil and continue baking for about 10 more minutes or until crust is a light golden brown. Cool.
Toss squash with 1 tablespoon oil, then season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and cumin. Spread out on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with mushrooms on a second baking sheet. Roast for about 25 minutes or until tender, then cool for 5 minutes.
Sprinkle 3/4 cup cheese in the bottom of pastry crust. Arrange squash and mushrooms on top, sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese and bake until cheese is melted, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with herbs and onions.
Serve tart warm or at room temperature, cut into slices.
CHICKEN MUSHROOM COCONUT CURRY
With its meaty taste and texture, chicken of the woods mushrooms can be substituted for chicken in almost any recipe. They’re also relatively easy to identify, which makes them a hit with novice foragers.
For this recipe, the authors recommend mushrooms that are young and tender, with barely opened pads. It can be made up to three days in advance; add apples, onions and cranberries just before serving.
On the advice of mycologist Scott Pavelle, I blanched the chicken mushrooms for 30 seconds before roasting to kill any bugs (I know — gross!)
Some people experience an allergic reaction to chicken of the woods mushrooms, so start by eating small amounts to test sensitivity.
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons Madras-style Indian curry powder
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon unsweetened coconut flakes
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
5 cups chicken mushroom, bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup orange juice
1 heaping tablespoon dried chicken-flavored consomme
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup dried cranberries
Juice 1/2 lemon
1 large Vidalia onion, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 large Granny Smith apple, chopped
2/3 cup thick coconut milk
1/3 teaspoon dark roasted sesame oil
6 drops hot sauce, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Chives, scallions, roasted sesame seeds or unsweetened coconut flakes, for garnish
Heat a large Dutch oven on high heat. Add oil, curry powder, Italian seasoning, pepper, coconut flakes and nutmeg. Stir to heat the spices, about 1-2 minutes.
Add mushroom pieces and stir to coat. Saute 4 minutes on medium-high, stirring occasionally. If using fresh mushrooms, make sure the pieces do not scorch; you may need to add 1/2 cup of water.
Add half the chopped parsley leaves, chicken stock and orange juice and bring to a boil. Cover Dutch oven and simmer on medium for about 8 minutes.
Dissolve powdered consomme in the wine, pour into Dutch oven and stir to incorporate. Bring to a boil. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt, cranberries and lemon juice. Cook on high 3 minutes.
Stir in onion, apple and remaining parsley. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add coconut milk and sesame oil, bring to boil, stir well and turn off the flame
Taste the liquids and correct flavors, adding more salt, curry and acidity as needed.
Serve over rice or pasta, and garnish with chives, scallions, toasted sesame seeds or coconut flakes as desired.
CHICKEN OF THE WOODS BUFFALO CHICKEN DIP
Chicken mushrooms are one of the easiest to identify. But they can harbor bugs, especially if they’re older. (Check for any tunneling on the cut edges.) So you may want to blanch them in boiling water before using them. You can store them in a paper bag in the refrigerator before cooking, but no longer than a week.
Here, they pinch-hit for shredded rotisserie chicken in one of my favorite football season recipes, buffalo chicken dip. The shelf-like fungi is both beautiful and tasty — they’re meaty, with a mild lemony flavor — but can cause stomach upset if not thoroughly cooked.
1 1/2 pounds roasted chicken of the woods mushrooms, chopped or shredded into bite-sized pieces
6 ounces (3/4 package) cream cheese, softened
8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
1/4 cup blue cheese crumbles, plus more for garnish
1/3 cup blue cheese dressing, plus more for drizzling (optional)
1/3 cup of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, or more to taste
Chopped cilantro, pickled jalapenos or sliced green onion, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Clean chicken of the woods mushrooms with a damp paper towel or mushroom brush. With a paring knife, carefully trim away woody or tough parts, leaving only the tender outer fronds.
When water is hot, blanche mushrooms for 30 seconds, then remove with tongs to a cutting board. Cut into even-sized pieces or strips.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place mushroom pieces on the baking sheet, drizzle with a little olive oil and bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for 1 or 2 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix together chopped or shredded mushrooms, cream cheese, cheddar and blue cheeses, blue cheese dressing and Frank’s Red Hot. If it’s not saucy (or spicy) enough, add a little more.
Spoon into a casserole and bake until cheeses are hot and bubbly, and dip is heated through, 15-20 minutes.
Garnish with chopped cilantro, pickled jalapenos and/or sliced green onion. Serve with crackers, pita chips or corn tortillas.
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