It doesn't seem possible that it's September already. But the students are back in school, football season has begun, and some of the best mushroom hunting is here. There are actually more edible mushrooms available in the fall than any other season. Of course, you won't find any morels, but there are many other choice varieties available in our "second season".
In November of 2007, Vicky and I had the good fortune to lead writer, Stephen Regenold and photographer, Peter Wynn Thompson on a quest for mushrooms in Central Illinois. The result was a half-page story in the November 9, 2007 edition of the New York Times. You may view the article at http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/11/09/travel/escapes/09mush.html?scp=1&sq=tom%2Bnauman
Before you go on a fruitless wander into the woods, remember that moisture is the key ingredient to make mushrooms appear. So it is best to go trekking a day or two after a rainfall.
There are two mushrooms that we find on a regular basis in autumn. The first is the Hen-of-the- Woods (Grifolia frondosa). Otherwise known as: quarene, sheep's head, or maitake. The Hen-of-the- Woods is typically five to twenty pounds but can grow to be 100 pounds. It has smoky gray to brown topped fan-shaped petals all fused at the base to a massive fleshy stalk. It grows typically at the base of oak trees or any hardwood. It seems to favor scars where lightning has bared the wood of the tree. From a distance it appears to be a hen nesting with feathers ruffled. I've found them on both living oak trees and on ancient oak stumps.
They are perennial in that they will grow on the same tree or stump every autumn for a number of years. So, once you've found one, remember the location. I've harvested one particular Hen-of-the- Woods annually for thirteen years and still counting.
They can be difficult to clean because there are so many crevices and folds for debris to hide in. One method is to rinse them with the kitchen sink spray attachment or a hand held shower head. Cut away the "fronds" or petals and then rinse them again. They grow so rapidly that they encapsulate twigs, leaves, and blades of grass which require removing carefully with a knife.
Because they are usually large and won't be eaten all at once, you may want to save some for later. The number one rule is do not wash them until you are ready to eat them. Once washed, they should be eaten within three days. If you want to save some for later, simply place it in the refrigerator with a damp (not dripping wet) paper towel over it. It should last for up to three weeks. They also dehydrate and freeze nicely as long as you don't wash them first. They enhance any recipe.
The second mushroom we search for is commonly called the Sulphur Shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus). It is also called the Chicken Mushroom because the texture resemble that of chicken. The Sulphur Shelf is also perennial and can weigh many pounds. It is a bracket fungi in that it appears to be shelves on a tree, stump, or log. It always grows from wood. If you find one growing in dirt, inspect a little further and you'll find a buried log. If not, you've got the wrong mushroom. The top of the shelves are bright orange, the underside and edges are sulfur yellow. Because of their bright colors, they can be spotted from a distance. They, too, are delicious with any recipe, but Vicky and I prefer them simply fried in butter.
There are several poisonous mushrooms that appear in autumn. One of the most common is the Jack-O-Lantern (Omphalotus olearius). I mention it because the burnt orange (pumpkin) color can appear similar to the top of the Sulphur Shelf mushroom. The main differences are that the Jack-O- Lantern has a stem, gills, and a slightly funnel shaped cap. The Sulphur Shelf has no stem, no gills, is yellow underneath, and appears to be a shelf or shelves.
Other edible mushrooms we find in autumn are: Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), Shaggy Manes (Coprinus comatus), Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), and several varieties of coral mushrooms. I mention the latin names in case you want to find them on the internet. Happy hunting!
Remember, whenever you want to try eating a mushroom you're not familiar with, check it in at least two field guides. If they say it's edible, try just a nibble, wait 24 hours, and if there are no ill effects then consume larger amounts.
Please feel free to contact us with questions or comments. Especially if you have ideas or suggestions for future columns: Tom and Vicky Nauman, Morel Mania, 8948 Illinois Highway 18, Magnolia, IL 61336, Phone 309-364-3319, http://www.morelmania.com?