Wild About - Puffball Mushrooms

Truth be told, foraging is treasure hunting.  I used to laugh at the old men on the playgrounds with their metal detectors, spending hours picking out a few quarters, and forever talking of the possibility of finding a diamond ring.  Now I get it - the thrill of the hunt, and the always-tantalizing promise of the big score, a constant carrot before my nose.

My year in forage.  First the winter, stopping my bike for every odd leaf and shoot popping through the snow, hoping, just hoping, for an edible.  Spring, hallelujah, leaves to pick, greens to eat.  Oooh, now summer, leaves, flowers, and even some fruit.  Blip * blip * blip on my radar.  Enter mushrooms on the scene - boom!

Never mind the fact that I only ever found one morel this year, or that I've yet to score any boletus edulis.  For the time being, it's all good.  You see, in the past few weeks, I've been able to fill my belly with wild mushrooms, both delicate white oyster flushes, and giant puffballs*.

And let me tell ya, finding a giant puffball (in this case, calvatia booniana) will give you a fine mushroom rush.  Moreso when you pluck it from the ground and hold it in your hand.  These mushrooms are big, but even so, they are unexpectedly heavy - like picking up a piece of gold or a meteorite; their weight is shocking.  You see, immature puffballs aren't delicate or gilly or frilly, they are a solid chunk of fun-gi.

Even though some are unimpressed by their taste, not to name any names cough Julia, I'm a fan.  Each wild mushroom has it's own charms.  And the puffball's greatest virtues are it's bulk, it's mild flavor, a silky texture, and it's ease in identification.

Puffballs are a snap to identify.  The trick is to find them at the correct stage, while they are still firm (this can be any size, so don't hold out for giant mushies), and have yet to go to spore.  Simply cut them in half.  If they are evenly white throughout, they are good to eat.  If they are off-colored, yellow, green, or brown, or have bug trails - toss them because they are too mature.  If you see the ghost of a mushroom inside, cap, gills, and stem, throw it out extra quick, because it's an immature stage of an amanita, a poisonous mushroom. ~insert standard warning about not being a bone-head when mushrooming here~

Once you have correctly identified your mushroom as a puffball, you've got yourself a blank canvas of mushroom possibilities.  I am always a fan of wild mushrooms sauteed in butter until lightly golden, then finished with salt, especially if it is your first time tasting a particular variety.  This allows you to appreciate their character.  But if you've got it, treat yourself to 1/4" slices of puffball fried in chicken or duck fat, and a local herb (currently, that would be monarda in my area).

Being that puffballs are quite mild, they excel at adapting in recipes and slurp up flavor, much the same as tofu.  And, if you don't already know, let me be the first one to tell you to bread and fry these little stinkers right up.  I can still recall Connie Green speaking of chicken-fried puffball with mushroom gravy.  Personally, my favorite of the moment is puffball mushroom cooked in the style of eggplant parmesan - breaded, fried, topped with a good tomato sauce and cheese.  Puffball mushroom also makes a lovely mock sesame-tofu (see, I'm not the only one who mocks tofu, even the mushrooms do it!).

Apparently, giant puffballs do not dry well.  I made a duxelle of one of my giant puffers, thinking it a good way to preserve the mushroom frozen.  After quickly freezing and thawing, it didn't release much water, so I think it will be lovely come wintertime, added to soups and sauces.

*many thanks to my generous friend M, who has so kindly let me walk away from her property with giant mushroom treasures, and many more fabulous forages, and is a hoot to chat with on top of it :)

Also, if you want to read more about puffballs, have a look at this post by Wild Food Girl.  I'm so excited to report Wild Food Girl and I will be out chasing the King (bolete, not Presley) together tomorrow.

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