Wild Things in August - Porcini Mushrooms

Welcome to Wild Things in August. Boletus edulis mushrooms, otherwise known as cepes, porcini, steinpilz, and kings boletes, are being spotlighted for Wild Things this month. I actually had a whole different plant picked out, and even had the introduction written. But I changed my mind at the last minute.

Porcini mushrooms are all I can think about, dream about, and want to cook at the moment. So, why not feature them? Well, I supposed that I had feared that if I selected them for August that I would jinx myself and not find any. But before July even ended, I had found more mushrooms than I did all last year, so I think it is safe to roll with them.

I realize that only a select few people will be able to participate this month. If you are an amateur, please don't go hunting for porcini mushrooms without an expert (and by that, I mean an actual human being, not a guidebook or the internet) by your side. If you a novice, wait for the Wild Things round up at the end of the month, and try making the contributed recipes with dried store-bought porcini.


Are you new to Wild Things?  Here's the scoop.

In many countries, traditional foods are prepared for their medicinal effects. In most of these places, the foods prepared were wild foods that were cheap and easy to obtain. By default, they were local and seasonal. One of the problems with a lot of modern fad diets is that in order to actually follow the diet, one needs to fork out a whole lot of money. Most of us just can't afford to do that, especially not in this economy! Not only that, but it seems might suspicious that, in many cases, these products that are touted as panaceas have to come from half way around the globe -- noni from Tahiti, acai from Brazil, gogii from China. What are the odds that God (or the higher being of your choice) put all of the good stuff in Tahiti, and left us to fend for ourselves until the advent of globalization? Whether food or medicine, the majority of what we need can be found locally. It might not be trendy, but it will most probably be just as effective, if not more so. Wherever you are, you have with your reach an untapped resource - wild foods!
Welcome to the Wild Things Round Up*

As your host, I'd like to demonstrate that eating wild foods doesn't need to be a terrifying endeavor, and that our health and our diet needn't be dictated by financial status or geographic location.

A Few Notes About the Round Up

1. Wherever you are, you have access to Wild Things, even if this means clandestine trips to your neighbor's yard in the middle of the night**.

2. Foraging isn't only for hippies and luddites, though hippies and luddites are both very much welcome (Hi, Hippie!  Hi, Luddite!). It's easy to assume that everyone who eats this way lives out in the wild, and shuns the material world and/or technology. But it just isn't true! This isn't a club exclusive to country mice. I live smack in the middle of suburbia. I'm a very well adjusted modern woman who loves my life, and happen to love nature as well.

3.  This is not about trying to be a cave dweller. Though there are plenty of people in the world who successfully and gracefully live a life that is more similar to how people lived hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. I'm not one of those people, and I'll assume that for the most part, you are not either.  It's easy to romanticize, but that is a difficult, hard working life. It's also not necessary to remove yourself from the modern world in order to be connected to nature. When it comes down to it, isn't that what we all want a bit more of -- connection, to nature, to community, to other people, to a higher power? Nature is everywhere. Life is everywhere. It's not outside of your touch. It's not only available to people who sacrifice modern convenience. You do not need to give up your makeup or latte.

A Few Foraging Rules

1. DO NOT EAT ANYTHING THAT YOU CANNOT 100% IDENTIFY!!! I can't stress the importance of this point. People can die from this sort of stupidity. Let's not win any Darwin Awards here.

2.  Know the foraging laws in your area. Call the city, call the forest service, call the landowner.   Respect private property. Ask permission. Most people will gladly let you pull up some weeds for them. Most of them are delighted to get rid of some of the fruit that rots all over the pavement. Just ask.

3.  Don't take more than you need. Never take rare plants. Learn what's in your area -- only take things what are abundant. This is important! Always think of the future, not just in terms of what you want, but in terms of the ecology of the system from which you are harvesting. These ecosystems have been around for millenia, since long before people got there. Don't be the one to change that in one generation.

Tools You Will Need

1. Scissors and/or pocket knife

2. A local guidebook (don't be tempted to grab a national guide), with pictures

3. Bags for collecting food

How to Play

At the beginning of each month, I will introduce a new Wild Thing. I will give pictures, descriptions, best locations, and taste, and also list any possible toxicity issues. The plants that I feature will be those with few, if any, toxic lookalikes. And if there are any, I'll give you ample warning. None of the plants I select will have any potential lethal lookalikes.
Over the course of the month, both you and I will go and find the featured plant, play with it in the kitchen, and come up with creative ways to use it. But don't feel like you need to invent a recipe in order to participate. Feel free to tell about your experience using a known recipe. But please do credit the originator of the recipe. 
If you have a blog, post your recipe on your blog, and then share it with Wild Things. Also, mine your archives, and link old recipes.
If you don't have a blog, you are still welcome to participate. Simply introduce your recipe and experience with a few sentences, and then share your recipe. A picture is always nice, too, although not necessary to play along.
Before the end of the month (sooner is better, because your host has a day job!), submit your recipe to wildthings.roundup@gmail.com . Please send your recipe directly to that email address. If you send it to my personal email, or post it on Facebook, I'm likely to forget it.
At the end of the month, I will provide a round up list of everyone's adventures. Sound like fun?  I think so.

*No association with Monsanto.

** Just kidding.  I don't advocate stealing. Really, there's no need -- a knock on the door and a "Hey, I noticed that you have an apple tree full of rotting apples. I was wondering, could I take a few of them, or pay you for some of them, or mow your lawn for some of them?" will suffice. Most people are horrified at the thought of taking money for apples, and will drop big bags of them off on your front step for months to come.


How to Identify Porcini Mushrooms

The caps of buttons emerge from the ground at 1-2.5" in diameter, and are usually still tightly closed around the stalk at that point.  As the Boletus spp. mushrooms mature, the cap opens up to look something like half a hamburger bun, and can be anywhere from 3-10" across (a rare exception will get even larger, which is an astonishing sight).  In the Rocky Mountain region, the caps of Boletus rubriceps mushrooms often take on a deep burgundy red color.  In other areas, the cap may be cinnamon color, red-brown, or yellow brown.  Mushrooms that haven't seen much sun and buttons are often much lighter in color.  The caps of Boletus spp. mushrooms are usually mat-dry, but can take on a sticky appearance and texture in wet weather.

On the under side of the cap, novice mushroom hunters might be surprised to see that porcini have pores, which are little holes that look like a sponge.  In buttons, these pores are buff-colored.  As porcini mushrooms mature, the pores grow longer and slimier, and progress from buff, to yellow, and finally a yellow-green color.

The flesh of Boletus spp. mushrooms does not stain.  In other words, when you scratch or bruise the mushroom, it doesn't turn blue, purple, red, or grey.

The stalks of porcini are husky.  In young mushrooms, they are often nearly baseball-shaped.  As the mushrooms matures, the stalks of porcini remain thick, anywhere from 1-6" in diameter, but become elongated.  The clavate or bulbous stalks look like they are made to hold up hefty mushrooms.   Indeed, regardless of their level of maturity, porcini feel quite heavy for their size.

One of the most distinctive features of porcini is that their stalks, particularly the upper-most portion, are covered in a fine netted pattern.  The surface of the stalk is usually a creamy white to pale tan color, but can take on a faint pinkish or yellow-brown tint.

The spores of porcini are olive brown when examined in a spore print, and are 12-20 x 4-6 microns, and are elongated, eliptical, and smooth (Stucky Evenson, 1997).

Where to Find Boletus Edulis Mushrooms

In the Rocky Mountains, where I live, the appearance of Boletus rubriceps mushrooms follows the summer monsoon rains that come at the end of July and beginning of August.  That is when I start looking anywhere from the foothills up to timberline in damp, but well-drained forest locations dominated by Englemann spruce.

Elsewhere, Boletus edulis mushrooms are known to grow under conifers, mixed conifer-hardwood forests, and hardwood forests. (Miller and Miller, 2006)

How to Prepare Porcini Mushrooms

Save your finest specimens to eat fresh.  These will most likely be the young buttons (also known as bouchon, the French word for cork), which still have firm white flesh and buff-colored pores.  My personal favorite size of porcini is when the caps have opened up to be 3-3.5" in diameter, but the pores are still buff to pale yellow in color.  I find this size has the best balance of flavor and texture.

If you have a worm phobia, let me be the one to break this to you - mushrooming is not for you!  Like many mushrooms, with age, porcini are increasingly likely to be infested with worms.  Simply pick and cut your way around the worm holes the best you can, and cook your mushrooms thoroughly.

If you are drying your mushrooms, a certain amount of worms are ok.  They simply fall out as your mushrooms are drying.  You are left with slightly holey dried mushrooms that are perfectly acceptable to use in soups and risottos.  It is up to you to decide how much worminess you can deal with when drying.  Do follow basic food safety guidelines.  If your mushrooms are mushy, discolored, or smell off, don't eat or dry them.

On very overgrown Boletus spp. mushrooms, the pores grow long, greenish and slimy.  You should likely leave these mushrooms in the field.  For porcini mushrooms that are slightly long in the tooth, but that you've decided to eat, you can gently tease the pores away from the cap.  Break them into chunks and dry them separately.  When ground, the pores make a lovely mushroom powder.

It is possible to saute and freeze your mushrooms.  Pickling also works.  But I prefer to dry the bulk of my Boletus spp. mushrooms.  I use a paring knife and small brush to clean them up to the best of my ability.  Then I slice them into 1/4" pieces, and leave them to dry.  I use a dehydrator for speed.  But because I live in an arid climate, I've dried lots of mushrooms on everything from wicker baskets to an old screen door.  Just make certain your mushrooms are dried to the point of crunchiness.  Otherwise, you will risk your entire haul going moldy.  Store dried mushrooms in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark place.


To my fellow mushroom hunters - could I ask you a favor?  In the comments here, could please leave a description of the cap color and associated tree for the poricni mushrooms in your area?  I could regurgitate something I read in a book, but haven't seen with my own eyes.  But I'd prefer to hear about your first-hand experience.  Thanks!

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