Archive for the ‘Wild Foods’ Category

morel

It’s that time of the year again!  The young,electric green has sprung back into the trees, the flowers have begun to bloom in the redbuds, in the dogwoods and the showy orchids are sprouting in the hollows!  The vernal quarter of our annual circle has replaced the monotonous yet striking stark of winter with pure, unadulterated life.  This season is always exciting in the southeastern woodlands.  It is like a match has been set to dry tinder, boom!  Life is back! morel habitat One of my favorite parts of this season is the return of the morel mushroom.  I wait for it every year and each year it comes but always in it’s own special way and time.  No two years are alike and this year is no exception.  Last year came on quick, March was hot and the leaves and growth of spring came earlier than I had ever seen in my fifteen years of east coast living.  The morels followed suit and by March 24 we were collecting them.  Then a dry spell hit at the would be peak time and dried everything out.  There never really was a second bloom.  Usually the morels rise from the forest floor in succession.  It seems the blacks come first, then the little grays, and I’m not sure if it’s the grays that turn into big yellows or if the yellows do their own thing, and then, after about three weeks to a month, it is over.  As I speak I’d say we’re about two weeks in and it is a late season.  This spring has been cool and slow to progress. There has been good moisture with light rains falling sporadically over the entire “window” that is the yearly cycle of the morel.
morel tableThe numbers of mushrooms I have been finding in my favorite spots have not been stellar, though I am not complaining.  It is hard for me to wander far from my usual picking haunts as they have provided great harvests in the past, though I know there are other places that must be just sitting there, full of gorgeous, mature morels waiting for me to stumble upon them.  I try to scout a bit each year for new spots and I have walked miles this year doing so, though so far I have not found the new treasures I had hoped for.  All is well, though, my payment has been in solitude and time spent in beautiful places witnessing the rebirth of Spring!

Josie morel

My daughter Josie Mae with a fat basket

The morel is a magical fruit of the forest, it is so strange and enchanting that when you do happen upon one it is as if you are living in a fairy tale, they are quintessentially other worldly, though we often tend to forget that we live on a planet in outer space!  The morel plainly brings that fact into focus.  Each year the blooming of the morels tends to coincide with Easter.  I’ve always thought of the morel hunt as sort of an epic adult Easter egg hunt without all the corny rabbit laying eggs bullshit, this deal is real!

Hunting morels is enthralling and worth it’s weight in gold gastronomically as the morel is one of the tastiest mushrooms on Earth!  The morel does grow in all of the United States so, if I were you, I’d look it up in your region, see when it blooms and then, at the right time, head out and begin your search.  This is a great way to enter the endless world of wild food foraging and really scratch that primal itch.  You need be aware of a poisonous look alike that is called the false morel.  Look it up.  When you get to know the two you will see that they are easy to tell apart, but until then be vigilant and if you find what you think are morels consult someone in the know before ingesting them.  If you run into a huge patch don’t panic, they are easy to dry and store so that you can enjoy them throughout the year.

morels and greens

Morels with garlic mustard and dock, two varieties of wild forest greens

My best luck in finding morels has been in deep hollows with poplars, spice bush, showy orchids and the like.  I do best where the soil is a deep black and is loose and rich.  I have also lucked upon them in riverbeds in the silty soil many times clustered around Ash trees and Sycamores and Elms.  There are many tales of where to find them, I find all rules can be broken but that some general consistencies do hold true.  Lately some guy on a morel message board site has been claiming that cedar thickets put out tons of big yellows.  I have not confirmed this personally but remain intrigued.  I know that out west they also grow in coniferous forests and like burn sites.  Apple orchards, or abandoned orchards, have also been mentioned many times.   During this time of the year I can imagine them everywhere but don’t always find them everywhere.  They are magical, mystical and worth every ounce of energy you put into finding them.  Bring your kids along!  They increase the number of mushrooms you will bring home and they love the thrill of the hunt!  I have spent many a day with the kids picking to our hearts content all the while reveling in the beauty of our Earth.  At this time of year the forests are coming alive and when we spend time in them, we come alive too.  Morel hunting is a great way to reignite your connection to all of life.  We are blessed beings living in a blessed Universe.  Go check it out!!!

lion's mane mushroom

photo by Helen Geisler

Have you ever stumbled upon this strange looking fungus in the woods?  I remember the first time I saw it.  It was so unique and thought provoking that I spent about ten minutes with it not realizing at the time that it was a choice find.  I knew no better then. To this day I still feel a bit silly for my ignorance.  That one I saw all those years ago was lucky to get away!  The Lion’s Mane is a SCORE!

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The proud author with a super fresh and sizable find!
photo by Helen Geisler

I like to call this fungus the Seafood of the Forest because of it’s delicious oceanic flavor.  This interesting looking mushroom, when prepared correctly and sauteed in a hot pan is a lot like fresh scallops!  I recently brought one to the restaurant where I work and gave some to my friend’s who own the place.  I’ve brought them mushrooms before, but upon looking at this “creature” they both seemed a bit skeptical.  I reassured them.  Once prepared and eaten they couldn’t believe their taste buds, high marks all around.

These wonderful “mushrooms” are medicinal and have been used for millenia in the East and who knows for how long here in the Americas.  I’m sure the Indians could have told us plenty about them.  The Lion’s Mane is said to be good for memory and nerve damage in the brain, amongst other things,  which is  especially poignant in this age of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Dementia. Drop the pharmaceuticals people, look to the Earth!  She has all we need and it’s fun to go get it!  This incredible fungus is delicious and good for you!  To think that for all these years people have said health food doesn’t taste good!  What a joke.

When you find a Lion’s Mane check how fresh it is.  Sometimes they will be yellowy or brown around the edges or full of water if it has been raining.  If you are lucky it will be prime.  Either way it is worth taking with you.  I have, on rare occasions, not taken one because it was too old and weathered, but that is rare.  If it is wet bring it home and slice it into steak size pieces.  You can then use towels to absorb excess moisture by pushing down on the pieces you have cut.   After that put them in the fridge on a plate and let them sit for a couple hours.  I have found them frozen on trees and it doesn’t seem to effect them poorly.  They do like hardwoods and especially the Beech trees which are majestic, a smooth grey and have a bark that resembles elephant skin.  The Lion’s Mane, like most things, grows to different sizes and sure, bigger is better!  More to eat.  This fungus has no poisonous look alike.   I have found them  hand sized and I have found them, one this year, about the size of my head (see photo.)  They are easy to prepare and stay fresh for a considerable amount of time in the refrigerator or outside in mild to cool temperatures.

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Looks like a brain and is good for your brain!
photo by Helen Geisler

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Golden brown and ready to eat!
photo by Helen Geisler

I like to cook these mushrooms as I would seafood or scallops.  Simply.  Use olive oil or butter and get your pan hot.  Slice your mushroom into half an inch thick steaks. Lay your slices in the pan and let them cook until they are a light golden brown.  Use some sea salt, pepper and maybe an herb you like to season them.  Once done take them out, set them aside and give them a try.  They are phenomenal!  My kids love them too!  You can use these mushrooms in other dishes as well.  They easily serve as the meat of an entree you are preparing or are perfect as a gourmet appetizer by themselves.  Lion’s Mane are versatile and their flavor holds up well with sauces.  My first choice is to eat them on their own, simply cooked!  These are one of my favorite fungi.  The season to find them is fall in the eastern woodlands here in Virginia.  I am told that they are found in all of North America, in temperate Asia and in Europe.  Keep your eyes open.  Some folks have said they have found them in spring as well, winter too.  I have spotted many while driving as they are a striking white and stand outwhen you do see them. They are unmistakable once you are upon them.  Lion’s Mane are magical, like most things in nature, and will make your day a special one indeed!  Bon apetit and happy hunting!

Author’s Note:   This mushroom is somewhat of an exception in that it has no look a likes at all, poisonous or otherwise and is regarded as safe. It is very important to follow the rule “when in doubt, throw it out!,” or, better yet, leave it alone!  It takes time to become an experienced forager so err on the side of caution when hunting.  It is good to reconnect with our food gathering roots, so do it wisely!