Lessons from the Mushrooming Season - Learning to Appreciate Non-Choice Mushrooms

Sarcodon imbricatus, commonly known as hawk's wing

For some mushroom hunters in the Rockies, there are only the choice mushrooms - morels in the spring, porcinis in the late summer, possibly a sprinkling of chantrelles along the way.  There is good reason for this.  These mushrooms have much-loved flavor, and lend themselves to a number of cooking techniques and food pairings.  They also have the advantage of being easy to identify.  And who wouldn't want to stalk these luxury foods, known the world-over for being delicious?

But for mushroom lovers who are willing to step outside the box, lesser-known mushrooms have a lot to offer as well.  These under appreciated mushrooms have delicious flavors all their own, even the mildest among them can be used to "stretch" the flavor of more desirable mushrooms, and they can provide an important psychological victory on a day of unsuccessful choice mushroom hunting (if you know and love a mushroom hunter, then you understand the importance of this last factor).

Take the hawk's wing mushroom, as an example.  This mushroom is easy to spot, because it has the characteristic pattern of a hawk's wing from above (or an alligator's back, if you ask my father, who it would seem has seen neither hawk nor gator), and teeth (rather than gills or pores) on the underside of the cap.  This mushroom has a meatier texture and stronger, more pronounced umami flavor than other mushrooms.  I've dried quite a few, and intend to use them as my mushroom flavor workhorse over the winter, much as some would use dried shiitake.

Albatrellus confluens, an edible polypore
Another group of easy to identify mushrooms are from the Polyporaceae family.  Two varieties that I see growing in the same area as porcini are Albatrellus confluens, and Albatrellus ovinus.  Both have tiny white pores; while the Abatrellus confluens rather pink on top, the Albatrellus ovinus presents with a lemon yellow color.  Some people report Albatrellus confluens to be bitter, but I haven't yet tasted one that was bitter.  If you can correctly identify this mushroom in the field, it's good to break off a little piece, chew it up, then spit it out to determine if it is bitter.  I find both of these mushrooms to be mild, and are quite nice sauteed and frozen.

There are a great number of mushrooms out there which are considered to have a mild flavor, which means that they won't be listed as choice by the guide books, merely edible.  But that's not a reason to avoid collecting them.  This can be an advantage if you have a family member who dislikes mushrooms.  And in tough economic times, their protein and mineral content is a potentially valuable addition to the pantry.  Also, these milder mushrooms combine well with, and add kitchen mileage to choice mushrooms, allowing you to "stretch" the flavor of the stronger porcini and morel.  Even dried puffball, which some consider to be flavorless, is crisp and bacon-like when fried.

Of course, there is always a potential for illness, and in some cases death, when eating wildcrafted mushrooms.  This is why it's always a good idea to hunt mushrooms with a more experienced person; local mycological societies almost always offer both guided walks, and help with identification. But don't let the potential danger keep you from mushrooming, just be informed and make good decisions.  I consider mushroom hunting to be far less dangerous than driving, and I imagine statistics would bear that out as well.

Flammulina velutipes, known commercially as enoki
I was lucky enough to have been taught how to identify Flammulina velutipes, which is also known as velvet foot, or winter mushroom.  This is the same mushroom that is sold commercially by the name enoki.  Store-bought enoki are grown deprived of light, which explains their different color and longer stalks.  A lot of people, even experienced mushroom hunters, steer clear of little brown mushrooms (lbm's) because of their potential for misidentification.  Flammulina veutipes can be mistaken for another lbm, the Deadly Gallina.  But, if you do know how to identify a few lbm's, that's potentially a few more nice meals every year.  I used the flush of velvet foot mushrooms pictured above in a goregous stir-fry with crawfish and milkweed pods.

All of the potential flavor and culinary issues aside, there is another important reason to have a few under-appreciated mushrooms identified and under your belt.  It's the psychological factor.  Mushroomers, when all is said and done, are treasure hunters.  And their often fragile psyches are buoyed simple things, like superstitions and positive reinforcement.  Thus, going home with some edible mushrooms is a small victory on a day when one might otherwise come home empty handed, not having found more prized mushrooms.  Being able to cook up a handful of wild mushrooms can quite psychologically soothing, particularly after having spent seven hours dragging your silly ass up and down a steep mountain, being bitten by a beetle, accidentally dropping your lunch over a cliff, tripping on a rock and cutting your leg, and still, still not having found a single porcini for your effort.  Not that I speak from experience, or anything.

I'm sharing this post with Fight Back Frida,. and the Hearth and Soul Hop.

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