Cookies in the Kitchen, Wild Mushrooms in the Woods
I’m having the usual veteran cookie baker’s dilemma: too many tempting new recipes vying with too many old favorites (we will not speak about too little time or too few pairs of roomy pants).
To cope this year, I’m going to try a 180 from the time honored “one dough, many cookies” strategy. As soon as I get this posted I’m going to shrink the list and use the dough for spicy walnut ginger fingers to make the fancy cut out shapes necessary to a proper assortment. They’re only a distant cousin of pepparkakor , but under the circumstances I’ve decided they’re close enough.
Bill, meanwhile, has none of these problems. He just keeps going out mushrooming and will with luck bring home winter oysters, about which ( and a few others) he has written another guest post
FRIGID FUNGI: A GUIDE TO THE FLESHY MUSHROOMS OF WINTER, from First Rate (Winter Oysters) to Fatal (Autumn gallerina)
Almost any walk through the Northeastern Forests in winter will reveal a wide assemblage of hard conks or leathery fans decorating the fallen logs and standing timber of the area. Among these tough woody fungi will be a few that are fleshy and pliant. Some will have been nibbled upon by squirrels and deer, suggesting edibility. Here is a primer on a few of the most common: one is deadly, the others, to some degree or other, are edible, even choice.
Galerina autumnalis is the deadly one, and it can be found year round in the Hudson Valley. Although it grows on wood, most commonly on punky downed logs, this small butterscotch brown fungus contains the same toxin found in the Destroying Angel Amanitas. There is an Old Wives Tale that all mushrooms sprouting from wood are edible, but as this mushroom indicates that bit of Folk Wisdom is a myth, a deadly myth!
A full description of this “Autumn Galerina” can be found on Page 620 of Lincoff’s The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, the reference most often turned to in the Northeast for authoritative information. Or see this more detailed description. Be absolutely sure you can identify this mushroom before you consider eating any that even remotely resembles it!
I have found it in the Hudson Valley fruiting in every month of the year. At times it is mistakenly collected by young adults seeking a psychoactive experience. It also can be mistaken for Flammulina velutipes, the following edible species.
Flammulina is another small butterscotch colored mushroom. It has a number of names in various field guides, ‘Velvet Foot’ or ‘Velvet Footed Collybia’, being ones which seem to have staying power, even though the genus Collybia has been radically eviscerated by taxonomic redistribution. Lincoff’s description (p. 759) correctly points out that Flammulina typically grows on sound standing wood – most commonly Elm in my experience.
The stem is often covered with a yellowish to brownish velvety covering (the ‘Velvet Foot’). Galerina usually has a ring on the stalk, although the ring quite often will have fallen off. Flammulina has no ring. Another important distinction is that whereas the spores of the deadly Galerina will be rusty-brown, the spores of the edible Flammulina will be white. Michael Kuo’s detailed description of the mushroom is here , and his useful guide to finding spore color by making spore prints is here
Most collectors who eat mushrooms seem to rate Flammulina as ‘edible’ but not ‘choice’. I have eaten it in the past, either fried up in butter and garlic or as an addition to soups or stews. Leslie, with the more refined palate, prefers to keep it in the woods rather than in our refrigerator.
This brings us to the two Winter Oyster Mushrooms, one of which, Panellus (or Pleurotus) serotinus is like Flammulina ‘edible but not choice’.
Panellus is often referred to as the Late Fall Oyster. I usually find it from first frost in mid-October to hard freeze mid-December, although in the Catskills I would often find it as early as September on fallen Beech logs at high elevations. Before I knew better, I would even leave the more balmy lowlands to seek it out. It is quite distinctive, often bluish or greenish yellow with yellowish gills and a well defined stub-like stalk.
It is also quite tough, and would easily escape damage tucked into my rucksack, withstanding the climb up, over and then down the mountainside. It also dried well, and provides a decidedly chewy experience incorporated into hearty stews. Shall we say that its bitter flavor lends itself well to robust sauces, like burgundy or tomato, or both! For more see Lincoff (p 789), or this detailed description, bearing in mind that P. serotinus is another one that Leslie has banned from the fridge.
She has no quarrel with Pleurotus ostreatus, the flagship species in the Oyster Mushroom complex, and the one from which its name derives. This is truly a ‘choice’ mushroom, a delicious candidate for the table. As the name implies, ostreatus often has a distinctly delicate oyster or anise like aroma, a quality that comes, at least in part, from its enhanced protein content. This mushroom not only feeds on the cellulose and sugars found in the tree, but also sets out a specialized mycelial network designed to trap and feed upon nematodes which live within the fibers of the host tree.
Unlike the thinner fleshed Oysters of summer, the Winter Oyster is usually large, each leaf like cap may be up to eight inches wide and an inch or more thick. They grow in overlapping clusters and it is not unusual to find a clump that approaches a cubic foot in size, weighing several pounds.
Also, unlike the summer oysters that are usually riddled with white grubs – the larval stage of the red and black beetles which scurry between the gills – ostreatus found in winter are clean of such infestations. When I come upon a good fruiting of them I can pick only what I need for the next day or so, confident that I can return days or even weeks later and harvest the rest (assuming of course that they are out of reach of deer and rodents, which also seem to relish this choice edible).
Several companies have developed commercial species of Oysters, with differing colors, shapes, tastes and aromas, depending upon the strain and upon the substrate used to grow them . None I have tried, however, can compete with the wild ones for the table.
One cooking technique that has worked well for me is to incorporate a bit of anise flavored liquor somewhere in the recipe; Pernod is the one I most often use. A few drops seem to highlight and enhance the anise/oyster flavor component of the mushroom..
Oysters are very easy to cultivate. The simplest method is to cut up sections of the fruiting tree and bring them into a domestic location. All that remains is to water, watch and harvest. Only a bit more sophistication is needed to inoculate virgin material; oysters are often the first mushrooms attempted in mycology labs. Straw, leaves, newspapers, corn stalks, and a host of other materials have been used as substrates. In graduate school at SUNY New Paltz we had great success growing oysters on rolls of toilet paper.
But be forewarned, Oyster mushrooms can easily escape the substrate for which they are intended and take over the house, growing on the walls, beams, and even toilet seats! In the 1980’s members of our local mushroom association were able to purchase fresh Oysters grown in a nearby greenhouse by an innocent organic farmer. Two years later I heard that he had to abandon his house after the invading Oysters had moved in. In another case, this summer I was asked for advice by a team of Wood Scientists on a similar case on the west coast.
Greg Marley, of Mushrooms for Health, found and photographed this cluster this summer in Maine.
Lincoff describes the Oyster Mushroom on p 793, and Kuo has a good description, with multiple links, here.
ONE FINAL CAVEAT
One final caveat: Pleurocybella (Pleurotus) porrigens, commonly called Angel’s Wings, is one of the Oyster species which has long been considered edible and safe. But recently it has been associated with a number of deaths in Japan of people who had chronic kidney diseases.
All mushroom photos by Bill Bakaitis unless otherwise credited