Saturday, September 19, 2009

Black Trumpet Mushrooms: The Elusive Craterellus Cornucopioides

Recently a friend and I stumbled upon some black trumpet mushrooms. I have started experimenting with preserving and preparing them. Here is the story of our discoveries and my cooking and storage experiments to date...
[see also Hen of the Woods Mushrooms]

Black Trumpet Mushrooms in Sunlight

The black trumpets appeared as if out of nowhere. We were not looking for them but, rather, were in pursuit of the more common hen of the woods mushroom.

I don't mind putting off the hen of the woods (aka: maitake) awhile for this new, delicious detour. It is still a bit early for the hen of the woods. Regardless, we went hunting for them this Saturday morning. I had already found the first specimen of the season -- two days prior -- and was overly optimistic about finding another. All of our regular oaks were still empty, unfortunately. Most hen of the woods are still just mycelia, waiting under the ground for just the right moment to show their leafy grey heads.

When I tell people about the mushroom hunting, I usually get some very worried looks. Charles recently admitted to me that he was convinced I'd gone over the cliff the first time I mentioned the idea. That was last fall, in the middle of hen of the woods season. I sold him on it, of course (did I mention that his mother calls me Dr. Death?), and now he is a man possessed. Mushrooms are like that. Once you pass the initial threshold, there really is no going back.

So the two of us were out in the woods, following paths lined with green mossy hummocks and heavy underbrush. The air was cool and smelled like the oak leaves that had fallen the previous year. Last week was rainy and the ground in some places was still damp with the remaining run-off. There were signs of deer, footprints and other spoor, and many colorful mushrooms were thriving in the dampness: their red, purple, white and grey caps popping through the forest floor.

We were visiting one of last year's best maitake oaks. The ground around it was a bare and spongy mat with no trace of the mushrooms that would soon fill the angles between the surface roots. I had almost lost hope when Charles, who had wandered down the slope toward a damp ravine, cried out "Jackpot!"

"Did you find a maitake?" I asked. He was standing in an empty space with no tree roots at all. It was unlikely that he would have found a maitake there.

"No, something even better," he said.

"What is it?" I asked, disappointed. It takes a lot of convincing to get me to try a new mushroom.

"A whole bunch of black trumpets, I think."

Black Trumpet Mushroom BouquetI had heard of the black trumpet, I knew they were related to chanterelles and, as such, would be a great score. I was not, however, equipped to identify these mushrooms.

Approaching carefully, not wanting to crush anything valuable, I scanned the ground for what might be the cone of a trumpet. It was a minute before they came into focus -- they are nearly invisible if you don't know what you are looking for. Then, all of a sudden, the forest floor grew a third dimension. Flower-like funnels, black bouquets, appeared everywhere around his feet.

Charles had an iPhone in his hand and was already scanning through Google images. He handed me the iPhone.

I am not at all careless about mushroom identification. These mushrooms, however, were said to be hard to mistake. Charles had been looking for them for the past three months and was convinced that these were the real thing. I decided to reserve judgment until I could do a bit more research. We would have been foolish, however, to leave the suspects behind so we set about picking them and gently placing them in a cloth shopping bag.

We scanned the vicinity for more of the same and, finding none, took a walk down the path to a similarly marshy area. It was a half-mile walk and completely fruitless. On the path we found ourselves dodging mountain bikers -- painfully shy about our own geeky hobby in the presence of athletes on wheels. After thirty minutes of pointless wanderings, we decided to return to our original hunting ground.

Black Trumpet Mushrooms with JackknifeThe decision was well made. Following the marshy ground, we uncovered three more patches of black trumpets before finally calling it a day. The take was well over a pound of mushrooms and, once back at my home computer, I was able to identify them, with unquestionable certainty, as the real mccoy.

The next thing to do was to cook some and see how they tasted. I sauteed a handful -- more than I would have eaten of most new mushrooms -- in butter with salt, basil, oregano and rosemary. The flavor was rich and delicious. The Italian herbs gave them a taste not unlike a pepperoni and mushroom pizza. The mushrooms, themselves, had a buttery, almost fruity smell to them. I have read it described as "apricot" but that does not describe these particular specimens very well. There is a delicate, rich sweetness to the smell, but I would not say apricot.

While waiting to see if I would have any negative reaction to my first dose, I set about processing the majority of my remaining mushrooms. I split them and removed a number of slugs and bugs, the latter of which would invariably make a run for it before succumbing to the butt of my knife on the butcher block.

Next I washed the mushrooms... I know, I know! Washing mushrooms is sacrilege but I just can't leave trails of slug slime on something I intend to eat. There was LOTS of slug slime, and I had seen too many bugs dash out of the trumpets not to think of the bug bits they might have left behind. Others should use their best judgment (and perhaps a nice clean paint brush). I don't advocate washing if your stomach is stronger than mine. I just can't do it, so apologies to the purists of the mushroom world.

I had read that the trumpets dried well. Last fall I dried hen of the woods mushrooms successfully in the oven. For the trumpets, I used a closed oven at 170 degrees, the lowest setting I have on my oven. It took about two hours and was not the perfect solution for the trumpets. There are several things I will do differently next time. First, I might not dry such a large percentage of the haul. Seeing nearly a pound of mushrooms shrink to 1/8 their original size is incredibly disheartening. The resulting cup and a half of dried mushroom dust will go very quickly and does not seem to have the same power of flavor as the original, fresh mushrooms. Second, I will try placing parchment paper under the rack on which I am drying my mushrooms. The mushrooms that fell through the bars became completely adhered to the cookie sheet underneath. This, too, was disheartening -- especially given my diminished stock. Third, I think I may try to dry the mushrooms in a cooler environment -- like a solar dehydrator, perhaps. They seem to have cooked while drying, and this may be the reason that they did not concentrate as much flavor as I had expected.

My second experiment was a black trumpet pizza. I used a red sauce, instead of the white sauce I had seen recommended elsewhere. I also used fewer mushrooms, sprinkling them less liberally than in the pictures I had seen. The result was a fine pizza but there was much less black trumpet flavor than I was expecting. The strength of the red sauce probably masked the trumpets somewhat, and the fact that I did not pile them on was probably a mistake. I will, in the future, use more mushrooms but I have not decided whether or not to use a red sauce. I am not as fond of white pizza.

Black Trumpet Mushrooms Vacuum SealedFor my third experiment, I vacuum sealed a small number of mushrooms and frozen them. This is against the recommendations of many authorities. Most recommend that you sauté your black trumpets and freeze them in a broth. Having successfully frozen hen of the woods mushrooms last year , I wanted to experiment with black trumpets in my new vacuum sealer -- and vacuum sealing broth is impossible of course, not to mention completely unnecessary since you can easily press any air out of the bag before sealing. So I took a handful of fresh trumpets and vacuum sealed them. In the bag they flattened out so much that they looked like a piece of beef jerkey. They then sat in the freezer for a week for the sake of the experiment.

Just tonight, I tossed the same handful of frozen mushrooms into a pan with olive oil, garlic and butter. The sautéed mushrooms had a hint of bitterness that was not there in the original sauté, and were slightly less tender but not offensively so -- really no tougher than sauteed spinach. The taste was still very good to my palate and, for the flexibility I gained by preserving them this way, I will definitely do it again. It will be interesting to see if the bitterness is more or less pronounced in other recipes. Approach this particular method with caution but don't avoid it altogether if you have the luxury of experimentation and an ample supply of mushrooms.

I hope to spend several more days in the woods before the remaining black trumpets succumb to frost. Now that I know where they thrive, I am optimistic that I may find another treasure trove before the season is over.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Via Alpina Day 1: Munich to Meilerhütte

Forest View from Above Leutasch Austria

<< Previous Week: Via Alpina, prologue

I arrived yesterday afternoon at the four star NH Munich Airport Hotel, my first stop on the way to the Via Alpina's Red Trail. The fluffy white comforter reminded me that I was back in Bavaria as did the spotless, dustless modern furniture. For under $60, it was a real bargain. Still, on the shuttle back to the airport, I can't help but reflect that I am still hours away from the trailhead.

The subway station is at the airport so I have to return. This shuttle was free from the airport so I am surprised to find that the return trip costs €5. To an American, German customer service is often a touch too pragmatic: they have a vested interest in getting me to the hotel but no interest at all in getting me anywhere else. I guess it makes sense in a weird way but it wouldn't fly in the States.

My hiking attire is bizarrely unique in this mini-van of starched and cologned business-folk. Nobody tries to sit next to me, leaving me plenty of elbow room. I get the impression that my style, or lack thereof, is probably misunderstood. To the untrained eye, my dusty backpack and threadbare fedora give me the air of a hobo who maybe just won a pile on the horses.

The public transportation system around Munich is called the U-Bahn. The "U" presumably stands for "Untertage" (underground), so it is, nominally anyway, a subway. Not surprisingly, it runs mostly above ground out here in the countryside. Yellow stucco houses with red tiled roofs sit close to the tracks bordered by sculpted hedges and trellised vines. The yards are all planted with fruit trees and gardens. In my yard I grow more piles than plants. I am amazed to see that everyone here has such a green thumb.

It is difficult to make travel plans three thousand miles from your destination. Even so, the half-day of travel to Scharnitz, Austria was an amateur miscalculation. If I were to plan it again, I would never have slept so far from my destination. It will take 8 hours to hike to Meiler Hütte. That is a serious challenge for my first day, and I won't even start before noon.

While riding the U-Bahn it dawns on me that I haven't yet withdrawn any Euros. I have a few in my pocket from a previous trip but they won't get me far in the middle of nowhere. Hut to hut hiking in Europe requires lots of ready cash, so the first thing I want to do before heading south is to find an ATM. I hop off the subway and use my spare twenty minutes in fruitless wandering. I chase my tail through pedestrian tunnels and sleepy streets but don't find an ATM. Bahnhof München-Pasing is supposed to be a major commuter hub but it looks more like a quiet suburb. I return to the train station with some anxiety. If there are no ATMs here, will there be any in Scharnitz? How far will I have to walk just to find one, and will it take my card or decline it?

I sit nervously and wait for my train among smartly dressed locals. The minutes pass. The train must be late -- but if it were, there would at least be some raised eyebrows. I show my printout of the train schedule to the middle-aged woman next to me and she shakes her head skeptically. This really is a sleepy suburb. I got off the subway one station too early.

A half-hour later, at the real Bahnhof München-Pasing, I rush to the ticketing area. I am generally not a panicky traveler but this is starting to feel like one of those bad dreams where you make one small mistake and things spiral completely out of control. To lose a day at this point could really throw off my itinerary. My pulse is racing as I scan the departure board for an alternate train to the region.

I am saved by the one inefficiency of the German rail system. In the interest of comprehensive public transportation, they don't think twice about repeatedly sending half-empty trains on dead-end routes. Consequently, there is a train leaving in an hour for Mittenwold, just across the border from Scharnitz, not far from Innsbruck. So that's plan B, I guess.

I find an ATM and take out my daily maximum, the equivalent of about $400. Two close calls have been averted but I will have to start paying more attention to details. Mistakes in civilization are one thing but mistakes in the middle of nowhere can be deadly.

I settle myself in the slick, modern coach for the two-hour journey and consider my options. It would be a shame to miss the hike from Scharnitz to Leutasch but there is really no other way at this point. To start from Mittenwold now would be inviting disaster: one can't start an 8-hour hike into the middle of nowhere at 2:00 in the afternoon. I will have to get to Leutasch and start from there -- cutting off the first three hours of the hike. Perhaps I can catch a taxi from the train station.

On the train I see a group of hikers. The area where I am going has many popular hiking trails. If they are heading for my trail, they will be starting tomorrow. Chances are, they will be climbing other mountains. Even so, just seeing them makes me feel a little more at ease.

For those unfamiliar with European trail systems, I should give a bit of background. The Via Alpina is a newly arranged collection of trails that criss-cross Europe. I say "newly arranged" because many of the routes are reconfigurations of paths that have been used for centuries. The Via Alpina is really just another way to categorize, and connect, these same old trails. Some new paths have been (and will be) added for the purpose of continuity but, for the most part, it's just a way to encourage hikers to visit some less frequented trails.

It is in the best interest of the local hiking clubs to publicize new routes like those of the Via Alpina. These routes get people to some of the under-utilized huts that desperately need more visitors. Also, some of the more popular routes are so well traveled that they suffer from erosion and pollution. Spreading out the visitors is in everyone's best interest.

I belong to the Austrian Alpine Club's, UK Branch. As far as I know, there is no US branch of the Austrian Alpine Club. I might have joined the Appalachian Mountain Club, but I feel that the AACUK gives me the most bang for my buck in the Alps. Besides, I love Austria's mountains. They are affordable, remote and just as beautiful as the Swiss or Italian Alps; I like that my money goes to support that. I could probably get reciprocal benefits from the Appalachian Mountain Club but you just never know.

So I will see what this new, remote Via Alpina trail has to offer. I am not "thru hiking" but am, instead, chopping off a section hike that I think will be interesting. I chose it for the height of the mountains and the fact that there are plenty of cheap huts along the way. I have brought only the barest hiking essentials. My pack, some snacks, some warm clothes, some emergency items and water bottles. Not knowing the trail, I hope that I packed well enough.

As I disembark from the train, the sky is overcast but not threatening. Puffy clouds hang over the surrounding mountains like piles of white mushrooms. The weather could go either way. In all likelihood, I will be hiking into the clouds. I hope they look this friendly up close.

In front of the station several taxis stand waiting. I grab the second one. The driver has never heard of the Via Alpina. So I tell him: "I want to go to Leutasch... to a trail that will take me to Meilerhütte."

"I do not hike so much. I have bad knee," he says, as if I might hold it against him. But he thinks he knows a trail that will get me to Meilerhütte. He will take me to the trailhead for the small fortune of 20 Euros. He speeds out of town and into farm country. The countryside has few houses. The road is bordered by rough-hewn cow fences. Leutasch, Austria near the Via Alpina hiking trail to Meiler HutHe lets me out in a small pull-off at break in the fence. A yellow sign post says Meiler Hütte 22. I don't know what "22" means but I am hoping it does not mean kilometers. The driver takes my money, spins his tires in the dirt, and leaves me in the middle of nowhere. As the car disappears, the only sounds are the crickets, the birds and the ringing in my ears.

There is a bench near the fence. I put down my pack and click a few pictures. The trail crosses a field and disappears into the forest on the other side. I heave my pack onto my shoulders and head toward the trees, not knowing what to expect.

Two days of travel have taken their toll on my legs. Deep down they are strong but they complain almost immediately so I slow down my pace. It is a fairly mild hike at the start, more of a walk in the woods than a serious trek. I just need to get my thighs burned in a bit.

I pass a sandy, dry riverbed on my right. No doubt it overflows with the rains of April but right now it is dry enough to play host to two noisy dirt-bike enthusiasts. I don't think I'll see much more of that sort of thing for the next several days. Close by I connect with the Via Alpina which often shares the path with the Europäischer Fernwanderweg E4 ("European long hiking trail" E4). The E4 is an older route, developed and maintained by the European Rambler's Association. As I walk, I see signs for both the E4 and the Via Alpina, sometimes one above the other. I am familiar with some sections of the E4, as well as the Europäischer Fernwanderweg E5, but this stretch is entirely new to me. I am "wandern" the Via Alpina's version because it was well documented and slightly less well beaten. Since the Via Alpina is so new, I may just be the first American to walk this trail with these intentions.

The trail continues on a gradual incline until I reach a small spring. The water flows clear from under a little wooden platform in front of a mossy rock. The water appears clean and fresh but I have already filled my bottles. It is my tradition to drink any clean water I find on the trail, so I drink just a bit and then continue.

Shortly after the spring, the trail starts to climb more seriously. My legs have, by now, warmed up and the burn is a pleasant one. I slow down the pace to keep my breathing as regular as possible and enjoy the cool, leafy smell of the late summer woods.

Waterfall Cups Above Leutasch AustriaI hike another hour or so before emerging from the trees. The horizon widens, but only as far as the ridges around me. I pass a series of waterfalls, like cups carved into the mountainside, fed by snow and underground springs. Sheep graze, untended, nearby, and snow melts from banks along the edge. This is not glacial snow. It is too low for that. The spot is probably shaded much of the day, and the snow must have fallen quite recently.

Two hours into the hike, at around 4:00, I pause below the open mouth of a dark cave. I pull out some snacks that I bought for my lunch -- plums, cheese, salami, bread and a yogurt drink. I am tempted to investigate the cave but, not knowing how much further I have to walk, my better judgment keeps me out. Since I passed the off-road bikers in the sandy river bed, I have seen nobody else on this trail. I am surprised at how deserted it is. The trail is well-maintained but not at all well-used. Or perhaps it's the lateness in the day. In any case, I cannot afford the risks of caving along such a lonely route.

Sheep on the way to Meiler HutClimbing again, I cross over a ridge and soon find myself approaching the height of the darkening clouds. The only signs of life are lonely sheep that eat the patchy grass that clings between densely packed rocks. I should be more than half way there but there's no way of knowing for sure. So the clouds have my rapt attention. I have hiked through many rain storms in the wilderness, so I am well prepared for the worst. Still, I will be climbing to almost 8,000 feet today and would rather do the whole thing dry.

Climbing higher, the grass and the sheep disappear. I am left with the most desolate landscape I have ever encountered. The slope to my left drops off precipitously and my trail clings to a very slight lip of gravel cut into the grey mountainside. Tiny bits of rock give way under my feet as I walk, rattling down the mountainside, disappearing from sight. I imagine the danger of losing my footing. I could slide, or roll, a thousand feet before catching a large enough stone to arrest my descent. If the clouds turned to rain, the danger would increase, perhaps, two-fold. There are no second chances on a slope like this.Scree_Slope_Near_Meiler_hutte

The terrain continues like this as the clouds surround me. The water condenses on my jacket and face and the vagueness of the trail has me wondering whether I might have taken a wrong turn. There can be no trail markings on a slope like this. How could there be? They would be covered in a month with new gravel. So I follow the thin line, less than one foot wide, toward the farthest edge of the mountain. There is a false trail off to the left which I almost take. My instinct tells me, however, that I should be going up.

I turn a corner and the trail becomes firm again. But now I am hiking up an exhausting series of switchbacks. The switchbacks seem endless but, just as I wonder whether I will ever find the hut in this fog, a building creeps over the next ridge. A wave of relief washes over me as I approach an incongruous barbed wire fence at the top and see lights in a grotto behind the small building. Meilerhütte comes into view, with its two-storey glass doorway and its red cedar shingles. The grotto appears to be a shrine of some sort but I don't have the energy to investigate.

MeilerhütteI enter the building and take off my shoes. The entry way is a new addition to an old building. The rafters are new wood and one wall of the clothes-drying room is the side of the old building.

In the dining room I order an apfelsaft gespritzt (carbonated apple juice.) Two guitars hang, unused, from the brown wooden walls, and there are several black and white photographs. Otherwise, the room is unremarkable. On the far side of the room, a group of Englishmen pack around a small table. On the left, three Frenchmen are playing a game with little plastic pigs. They throw the pigs and collect points depending on the way that they land. I join the Frenchmen, to practice my French, but they end up practicing their English instead. I do not protest. They warn me not to drink the water here. It is collected from the roof and, as such, contains all sorts of unwanted bacteria as well as bird droppings. We chat for a bit about hiking. They are heading the other way on the E4 so it is unlikely that I will see them again.

For dinner, I order Eggs, potatoes, hash and a "radler" (half beer, half lemonade). It is filling and enjoyable -- just the right amount of salt and protein after my first day of hiking. I excuse myself to eat at a table with more free space. By the time I am through, the Frenchmen have gone off to bed. I write down some notes in my journal and then head upstairs to read myself to sleep by the light of my headlamp. I can't believe that I have come so far in just 24 hours.

Next Week: Knorrhütte

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Via Alpina - 10 Days Solo, Prologue

Via Alpina Trail Signs
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I am packed and waiting, writing in my notebook some deepish-type thought about air travelers as insignificant dust particles. I pause to glance around the space-age Chicago O'Hare terminal and realize that 90% of my writing is doomed to be best appreciated by black spores in damp basement boxes.

I am killing time at a layover in Chicago, waiting for Lufthansa to take me to Munich. I'll be hiking alone in the Alps for ten days before heading to Venice where I'll meet my wife. My wife doesn't hike. She has more sense than I do. She prefers "normal" vacations. You know, the kind where you relax, stay in a hotel and eat delicious food. I, on the other hand, wear my vacations like hair shirts. There will be time for cappuccinos and artwork after I've done a good, thorough penance.

It would be lying to say that I wanted her to hike. Many people find this revelation shocking. Honestly, though, I love her even more for our mutual frankness on that subject. There are some things we do very well together and some things we just don't. At this point "roughing it" falls into the latter category. Three years ago she announced, quite firmly, that she'd had quite enough of "roughing it". We had just finished renovating the condemned Victorian apartment building. It had been a year of pure torture: January in Providence with no heat; three months of thick, brown hot water; nine months of a shower lined with plastic garbage bags and bats flying out of the fire-scorched bathroom ceiling to do laps around the kitchen, etc, etc... I'm probably stupid enough to do it all again but, for her, the whole thing was just a little bit much.

This morning that all seemed like ancient history as she dropped me at the Providence, T.F. Green Airport. We were sad but resigned when we said our goodbyes over a shared nacho platter and two Bass ales. Then we played peek-a-boo through the bullet-proof barriers as I negotiated the maze of blue belts to the X-ray machines. When I looked back over the crowd of baggage inspectors, she had disappeared. When we meet again again in Venice, I'll be relaxed enough to kick back with some seafood risotto by a dark, moonlit canal. Right now, I'm ready for exercise.

The seats in Chicago O'Hare are just comfortable enough to keep me off the floor. Barely. I can't quite say why I like airports so much. The food is the flavor of cardboard packaging, the staff is dismissive at best, and there's nothing to do here but wait. On the other hand, there are no responsibilities. And flying... there is something so unbelievable about flying. I get into an aluminum tube with wings and, incredibly, it flies me wherever I want to go.

After an hour lay-over, I am sitting in my window seat inside a trans-Atlantic jet. This seat even comes with my own magic television and headset -- free with my ticket! Could I possibly be happier here?

The captain's accent is Midwestern and reassuringly confident. He'll stay awake while the rest of us sleep. It's kind of like having my dad at the wheel of the station wagon when I was a kid. Riding at night, with the back seats folded down under my pillow, I never felt safer.

It's twenty minutes of taxiing, turning and waiting before the pilot gives his orders to the crew. The attendants strap into handy little shelves that pop down from the walls. The engines fire again -- this time with feeling -- and the plane crawls, then sprints, then rockets forward. Gravity pulls us back in our seats as the nose lifts off of the runway. Every seam in the airplane wrenches to adjust to the pull of the two massive jet engines.

By the time the rattling settles down we are soaring over the countryside, breathing strange, metallic air from screw-down vents that chill balding heads like my own. The television sputters to life and the attendants unbuckle from their shelves. I watch a few brainless sitcoms then read for a spell. After a sticky airline meal, I grab two airline pillows and fold up the arm of the vacant seat beside me. I wrap my legs and shoulders in a blanket and, with the benefit of many months of research and five previous trips to the Alps, try to visualize the next two weeks.

I'll be starting my hike in Scharnitz, Austria, a stone's throw from the German border. I'll hike on the Via Alpina "Red Trail" for about seven days, staying in the alpine huts and tiny villages that I find along the way. By day seven or eight I should be in the bustling town of Oberstdorf, Germany, where eight years ago I had a memorable dinner in an outdoor beer garden with my old friend Charles. Then I'll turn south to hike three more days along the Via Alpina's "Yellow Trail". This northern section of the Yellow Trail is identical to my old, familiar E5 route. I will follow these paths to the quaint little town of Zams. Up the road from Zams is a small city called Landek. From there I hope to catch a train to Venice.

At least that's the plan. I have no real idea what this trek will be like. Even in August, the weather in the Alps can be fickle and dangerous. I am hiking alone and must be cautious. The trails I am hiking may not be well-traveled. All things considered, I may need to take some liberties with my itinerary.

This will be my first completely solo hike. I have always hiked with friends in the past but, as I get older, everyone else becomes busier. Money and time becomes a major obstacle. So, if I want to keep hiking, I will need to hike solo more often. Happily, I've never had a hard time making friends on the trail.

On this thought, sleep finally overcomes my upright position and carries me off, mouth hanging open, snoring like a bear in a cave, no doubt.

Leki Hiking Stick in the Alps

Next Week: Meilerhütte

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Preserving and Storing the American Maitake

Last fall, a friend and I experimented with freezing, drying and canning hen of the woods (maitake) mushrooms. These were our discoveries:
[see also Black Trumpet Mushrooms]

Maitake / Hen of the Woods Mushroom


This blog post is not to be used for mushroom identification purposes. If you are interested in wild mushrooms you should seek professional (and possibly psychiatric) help. I take no responsibility for the consequences of your bad judgment. I have enough trouble dealing with the consequences of my own.


Last fall, my friend Charles and I collected a number of Grifola frondosa mushrooms. Commonly known as "hen of the woods" or "maitake" mushrooms, they are easy to spot and identify . Being novice mushroom collectors, we decided that it would be best to start with a type that was simple to identify and fairly easy to locate. We ended up collecting about twenty or thirty pounds of maitake between the two of us. It was so much that it would have been impossible for us to eat it all before it went limp in the refrigerator.

My wife has less interest in this sort of thing than I do. She is a bit more down to earth and prefers her food to come from somewhere other than the base of a tree at the side of a country road. Even if she had been more enthusiastic about the earthy flavor of these hen of the woods mushrooms, we never would have eaten our entire share in the short time that they were available.

Charles had the same dilemma. His wife, though more interested, was pregnant at the time. Their other child was only three and it seemed a bit dangerous to start feeding him wild mushrooms at such a young age. The obvious solution was to experiment with various means of storing our bounty. Between the two of us, we tried three methods of preservation: canning, drying and loose freezing. I thought it might be interesting to report on the results of these experiments and to pass along what we learned in the process.

Hen of the woods mushrooms are found in the northeast between late August (in Maine) and November (southern New York). In Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, we had good luck from late September through the end of October, 2008. We got started a little late, however. Charles reports that his wife spotted the first Grifola already, during the last week of August. So the hunt is on.

Maitake Mushroom Ready for CleaningThe Grifola frondosa mushrooms that we collected last year were up to a foot in diameter and ranged from one to five pounds in weight. They look a bit like the grey-brown children of a cauliflower and a coral. They do not taste very good raw but, freshly picked and sauteed, they are richly flavorful mushrooms that cook up nicely in butter and garlic. Frondosa make a brilliant side dish and a delicious mushroom soup. They go well with poultry and would be a great addition to chicken or turkey stuffing. I like them with my eggs instead of home fries. One might substitute these mushrooms anywhere that a cooked portabello would be appropriate but where twice as much flavor is acceptable. It is always bad form, of course, to serve wild mushrooms to anyone who is not very excited and completely aware of the potential consequences of mis-identification, so I did not experiment too widely with larger-scale preparations and was hesitant to involve my extended family in the process. In the end, my sister was the only one brave enough to try one. She was thrilled with the result and will be excited to hear that the season is once more upon us.

Storage Methods

The methods that I, personally, used for storage were loose freezing (as opposed to vacuum freezing) and drying. I bought a vacuum bag sealer too late in the process but intend to try this method soon as an alternative to loose freezing.

To freeze the mushrooms, I used the following process:

  1. I washed each head in a large pot. To do so, I filled the pot with water, turned the head upside down and dunked it forcefully into and out of the water until the water was dirtier than the mushroom itself. This process was repeated with fresh water until there was no more dirt to come free.

  2. Next, I separate the heads into smaller, cauliflower-like, stalks, picked out the twigs, cut off the embedded dirty bits and rewashed the remaining stalks thoroughly again.

  3. I then dried the stalks and froze them overnight on a cookie sheet. This helped keep the stalks from freezing together so that I would be able to thaw only what I needed for any given recipe.

  4. Once frozen, I placed the stalks into Ziplock® freezer bags and pressed out all the air I could. This was a real challenge, as the frozen stalks had a lot of air between them and were sharp enough to penetrate a freezer bag.

To dry the mushrooms I used a similar process, the only difference being that I placed the cookie sheet in a warm oven on the lowest setting (170 degrees) with the oven door open. I let them sit like this for perhaps 24 hours, warming up the oven every few hours and then shutting it off. In the end, I closed the oven door for an hour with the heat on. I think I would probably experiment with closed door drying next time, as this seemed to dry them much more quickly. I don't want to cook them, though, so this will require some experimentation. My result, however, was quite satisfactory. The pieces were extremely lightweight, shriveled and could be easily snapped without bending, even at their thickest points. An entire three pound maitake, dessicated, can fit into a 16 ounce hummus container, and I have successfully stored such a mushroom for an entire year.

Maitake Mushroom Cleaned and CutTo can mushroom soup base, you are pretty much on your own. I did not prepare the mushrooms this way, so I cannot give any advice except the basics and to suggest that canning is a potentially dangerous process so you should proceed with caution. Charles found the recipe here and, against the advice of the author, substituted chicken stock for water. He also held out the cream, to be added after the can was opened. It was a delicious, peppery soup that went well with poultry and winter vegetables.

Preparation of Stored Mushrooms

The frozen mushrooms were easily thawed and prepared just as if they were fresh. As time went on, however, they began to exchange odors in the freezer with my other frozen goods. They also became tougher as the water from the mushrooms turned to frosty crystals on the stalks and florets. After three months, I lost interest in the frozen version and, after six months, I tossed the remaining pieces.

I had kept the dried mushrooms in a small container in the back of our kitchen storage cabinet. I had not bothered to reconstitute any of them until this weekend for no reason except laziness and the fact that nobody else in my household was likely to eat them with me. The coming mushroom season made me curious, however, so last night I decided to soak enough for breakfast.

This morning I tried the reconstituted Grifola frondosa, and they are definitely worth the trouble. They were a bit less tender than fresh but, considering their year in storage, plumped up more than I expected. I compensated by cutting them smaller than I would have with fresh, and they were a tasty side to my morning eggs. I would consider them as a fun, healthy alternative to bacon or home fries.

To prepare dried hen of the woods mushrooms:

  1. Place the dessicated bits in a bowl and cover them with plenty of warm water. Place a plate on top to keep out any insects or stray debris.

  2. Let them sit for 30 minutes or more, until they are elastic and easily cut with a sharp kitchen knife. They will not grow back to their original size, and the stalks will remain somewhat shriveled. I estimate that they are perhaps half their former size.

  3. I chose to slice the pieces more thinly than I would have with fresh or frozen mushrooms. I diced them into 3mm to 5mm bits and pan fried them with salt and butter. The results were exceptional. If I'd had garlic on hand, I imagine that the flavor would have been indistinguishable from fresh. They could easily be substituted for fresh mushrooms anywhere that diced bits would be acceptable.

Reconstituted mushroom observations:

  • The reconstituted pieces were a little bit tougher than fresh or freshly frozen mushrooms. The stalks were the toughness of, perhaps, al dente green beans (without any unpleasant stringiness), the fronds were almost as tender as fresh -- the texture reminded me of a seaweed salad.

  • The reconstituted mushrooms were not quite as fragrant while cooking. This is not a bad thing, really, as the fresh mushrooms have the tendency to fill a room and linger -- a bit like lobster -- well after the meal is over. Twenty minutes after cooking the dried version, the smell was almost gone. If they were fresh, I would have been smelling them for 24 hours. This may have something to do with the lack of garlic, however, so I will need to test this with garlic later.


Compared to freezing in loose bags, except for the very short-term, drying is definitely preferable. The resulting product they will keep indefinitely and can be stored without electricity in a very small space. I think I would prefer this method for long-term storage even to freezing in vacuum-sealed bags. However, vacuum freezing gives easier access without reconstituting and, if done correctly, will probably give a better result for at least the first three to six months.

Canning is a great way to provide quick access to a liquid version but is obviously less flexible than drying or freezing. Soup could easily be made from the dried stalks, and I imagine there would be no discernible difference in flavor. The difference would be in the prep time. It is always nice to have a nice can of soup on hand on a cold winter day.

Bon Appetit!
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