Friday, November 07, 2008

As Winter Approaches...

the mushroom season is slowly come to an end. The cold nights and lack of moisture the last few weeks have marked the end to an incredible fall season of mushrooms. Normally, I name the year at this time. Like 2007 was the year of chanterelles, as I found them in record numbers. This year I would say it was the year of the hen, but it was really the year of the mushroom here. With the constant and unusually high amounts of rain we received all year, I picked record numbers (for me at least) of about everything from morels in spring, to chants and sweettooth in summer, and of course hens in the fall. I even found more chicken of the woods this year than I have in the past. My cupboards are full of dried mushrooms and I have a nice section of my freezer full of everything from partially fried morels to several pounds of some excellent mushroom duxelle (which takes about 10 hours to make by the way, but well worth it.)

The season drawing to a close does not mean that there will be no more mushrooms. I am sure if I looked hard enough I could still find a hen or two especially if I went a little bit further south, but I am literally henned out so I probably won't be heading out anytime soon to look for more.

And in a few weeks, I'm sure I will get the urge to walk the woods again. There are two mushrooms that you can find in abundance during the warmer spells of winter. The first I will mention only in passing. It is the velvet foot or Flammulina velutipes mushroom . I DO NOT recommend that novices hunt and eat this one as it has a very poisonous look-a-like, the deadly galerina. Although many mushrooms are poisonous, few are truly fatal, but the galerina is one of them. Look at the pictures on the right. The first one is velvet foot and the second one is the deadly galerina.
Can you tell the difference? This is one case where you have to take a spore print to be absolutely certain. Velvet foot should give you a white print, galerina will produce a rusty brown spore print. Until you really know what you are doing, it is best to just stick with the cultivated version of this mushroom, Enoki, pictured last. You can hunt it down in the produce aisle of you local grocer or some of the finer restaurants in town.
It took me about five years before I trusted myself to properly identify this mushroom and I still pass on it many times I see it just in case. However, they are quite tasty. If you have ever had tried enoki then you know a little bit of what I mean. Though they look completely different and even taste different they give you a hint of the flavor of those found in the wild.

The mushroom that you can find around here all winter that is good for beginners is the oyster mushroom or Pleurotus ostreatis. I usualy find these in woods with more softwoods (elm, willow, and maples) so I hunt for them in the same locations I hunt morels in spring. Look for downed logs in these areas and check them even if there hasn't been any rain. The cold nice and frost often provide enough moisture to keep them flushing as long as the daytime temps are in the 40s. Oysters can survive temps down in the 20s, so even hard freezes have little effect as long as the days warm up a bit.

So if you didn't get your fill of wild edibles this year, do not fret, there is still a chance to find some nice oysters. I tend to avoid older specimen who have that slight fishy smell, but I know plenty of people who eat them as well. In my opinion they aren't quite as tasty and the texture can leave something to be desired, so I generall only pick the younger ones, especially those still in the button stage. The one good thing about hunting in winter is NO BUGS so not only do you not have to worry about ticks and skeeters, but your mushrooms are nice and larva and beetle free so you can keep all you find.

Another reason I mainly look for oysters where I hunt morels is that you can never start scouting too early. Finding that dead elm or recently blow down or chopped off cottonwood, sycamore, or maple and making note of it can pay huge dividends come spring when you can be the first to these trees with the potential to produce 50 to 100 morels. If find some of these, check them early and often come April, especially those with lots of exposure to the sun. Last year I found a nice mess of morels around one of these trees. So, even if you don't find any oysters, a winter walk in the woods can be well worth the effort.