Shroomin’

Okey dokey, let’s get this outta the way right off the bat; yes, some folks of a certain age, often those raised in the ’60s, (AKA Me and M), may well have some, ahhh… knowledge of certain kinds of mushrooms… Yes, those mushrooms, the psychotropic variety: There, I’ve said it…

I josh about magic mushrooms, sorta but sorta not; fact is, several varieties of psychoactive mushrooms are very closely related to deadly ones. Amanita Muscaria is arguably the most famous of the ‘magic’ mushrooms, lauded in song and story; it’s also closely related to Amanita Phalloids, the Death Cap, and they even kinda look alike: One gets you stoned, the other kills you…

Pretty dark start to a piece about edible mushrooms, huh? Is all this scary talk necessary?

In a word, yup; at a casual glance, the green-spored Lepiota, (Chlorophyllum molybdites), looks damn near identical to the white button mushrooms you see in stores and reportedly tastes pretty good; eating one will earn you a trip to the ER at best.

So, how does one try new mushrooms safely?

Before we answer that, let’s clarify one other important point: If your only exposure to mushrooms has been the bland, boring White Button variety or the dinner plate sized Portobello’s sold in most groceries, no one can blame you for not liking mushrooms. What we’ll explore a bit here are the real McCoy, great local, wild ‘shrooms well worth your time and energy and kitchen.

If you’re not excited about hunting them yourself, go to your local farmers market, co-op, or organic grocery and find you some. Get to know the seasons for the varieties you like, and shop when they’re available. Anything you buy here is as safe as anything else they sell, so shop with confidence. Wild mushrooms have a relatively short shelf life, so you want to buy product that is no more than a day or two old at most; ask before you buy and plan meals accordingly. Gently rinse and immediately pat mushrooms dry; soaking and/or leaving them wet will cause them to deteriorate faster. Store ‘shrooms inside a paper bag in your veggie or crisper drawer; they’ll appreciate the cold, dry conditions.

If you’d like to preserve them longer than that, they can be dried or frozen successfully.

If you’re drying, you’ll really want a decent dehydrator for the job. If you don’t have one, then slice your ‘shrooms to about 1/4″ thick and place them in your oven on the lowest temp you have, in a single layer on a cookie sheet until thoroughly dried. Reconstitute dried mushrooms in water for use and don’t toss out the water; it’ll make an excellent adjunct to soup, stew, and sauces.

You can freeze mushrooms fresh and whole, or parboiled if you prefer. To parboil, submerge them for a minute or two in water at a rolling boil, then shock them in an ice bath, (50% ice, 50% water), pat dry with paper towels, and allow to dry fully on a rack.

Whether you choose to dry or freeze, place your bounty in airtight containers.

If you’re interested in hunting the elusive local mushroom, Google Your Town and Mycological or Mushroom Club/Society and I’ll bet you’ll find one. Get in touch and I’ll guarantee you they have some sort of program for rookies. Join, learn and gain a lifelong passion.

Just in case your area doesn’t cover all the bases of learning to forage, then please read and abide by all these points.

1. The Golden Rule of Mushroom Hunting: If you’re not 100% positive of the identification of what you have, do not eat it, period, end of story.

2. Do not believe any of the tall tales about identifying poisonous mushrooms; they ain’t gonna tarnish a silver spoon or turn blue when ya bruise ’em, and it matters not at all that other forest critters will or won’t eat of them. The only way to be safe is to be 100% certain of your identification.

3. A quality, well-recognized Field Guide is a necessity. They’re an excellent resource that will cover most, (And sometimes all), of the attributes necessary for positive identification, but shared experience with other knowledgeable folk is absolutely necessary to learning safe hunting practices.

4. Always keep what you find separated by variety; poisonous mushrooms can and will contaminate safe ones.

5. Don’t ever collect from less than desirable surroundings; close to civilization means a much greater likelihood for the presence of pollutants, insecticides, and weedicides, which are certainly not what you want your ‘shrooms seasoned with. Even parks and golf courses should be out of bounds, frankly.

6. Get to know the species you’re interested in from A to Z; some popular eating varieties will change widely in appearance from youth through maturity.

As I hope you’ve gathered, while buying and eating wild mushrooms is a snap, gaining the knowledge needed to safely forage on one’s own takes some dedication, time, and energy.

Just so ya know, it is well worth the effort; there’s a reasonable, delicious handful of wild varieties that are easy to spot and hard to screw up the identification of; with any luck, one of them will be a favorite for you.

Now, before we go, perhaps a recipe? Simple, literally. Unlike those nasty store varieties, these babies really do have flavor and texture. In a sauté pan over medium heat, add a little good quality extra virgin olive oil and bring it to temperature. Toss in your mushrooms, add sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste, then sauté until heated through. Rub a few pieces of fresh baguette with a clove of fresh, peeled garlic and crack a nice bottle of wine. Enjoy; it’s all you’ll need.

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