Edible fall mushrooms still around
“Do you want mushrooms in your omelet?” I asked my wife.
“We don't have any”, she replied. “I didn't know you were planning to make an omelet so I didn't pick up any at the store.”
“Not to worry—nature has provided some for us.”
When I looked out the kitchen window that morning, I had spotted a nice batch of shaggy manes that had sprung up next to the bird bath in the backyard and had inspired the omelet idea. I went out with a knife and snipped a bunch off, then browned them up in butter with some chopped onions and sausage before adding the eggs. The manes weren't quite up to morels, but were certainly good eating.
Shaggy manes are distinctive—there are only a couple of other species that resemble them, but to be sure of what you have, check out a good book or mushroom identification website such as americanmushrooms.com/edibles5.htm before eating.
It's important to harvest these mushrooms early, too, before their tightly-packed heads begin to open. As they mature, the bottom fringes will open and start to turn dark. The fungus soon degenerates into black goo, living up to the name of its genus, “inky-cap.”
Another good fall mushroom that has ended up in our frying pan on occasion is the giant puffball. It's undoubtedly the safest mushroom in the woods, since there's nothing that resembles it.
The puffball is an orb that looks like someone left a white basketball laying on the ground. By the time it's this big, though, the center (called the “gleba”) has probably began to turn from a snow white to a yellowish color, indicating it is over-ripe. I like to pick them when they're about the size of a softball.
Puffballs don't have a strong taste of their own, but like tofu take on the flavor of their surroundings. Some people like to simply brown them in butter, but I've always found that they soak it up so quickly and thoroughly that they end up tasting like, well, butter.
A third fall mushroom that's a safe bet is the hen of the woods, which is a frilly mass that slightly resembles a tan to dark-brown chicken laying on an old oak stump. They're known for their great flavor and good texture.
Unlike smaller individual mushrooms that take a hat-full to make a pound, a single hen can easily weigh several pounds. Fortunately, it lends itself well to freezing, so it can be stored and used throughout the winter.
Like the shaggy mane and puffball, however, the hen should be picked when it is young, since it toughens with age and becomes inedible. It's the last mushroom of the year, hanging around until late October, and presents the final opportunity for the mushroom hunter until the morels pop up again in the spring.
There are a host of other fall mushrooms, but none as distinctive as those previously mentioned. One October I met a mushroom hunter while camping at the Meadow Valley Wildlife Area north of Necedah. He was picking “banana-buttons,” ordinary-looking mushrooms that resemble a number of other species dotting the forest floor.
“Gotta be careful” he advised. “There's another one around here that looks a lot like the button, but it's pretty toxic.”
“How toxic is pretty toxic?'” I asked.
“Let's just say that if you eat one by mistake, you probably won't make it back to camp alive.”
He may have been overstating things, but there are a few fungi that are that deadly (bearing macabre names such as “death cap,” “destroying angel” and “deadly webcap”). The majority of mushrooms you find are edible—but not necessarily palatable.
Still, no one in their right mind is going to attempt to eat a species unless he or she is 100 percent sure of what the mushrooms are.
D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org