Forgotten Feast Friday: Midsummer Mushrooms
Don't you just love this time of year? If you live on the East Coast of the United States like I do, the hiking trails are beautiful: The plants are thick, full, and unruly, and the leaves are only just beginning to turn on the trees.
It's also a wonderful time to start harvesting mushrooms, if you haven't been already! Huge clusters of Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus cincinnatus/sulphureus) polypore mushrooms can be found fruiting at the bases of rotting hardwood trees. There's been lots of rain, and with this there is the opportunity to find Chanterelle Mushrooms: the small, yellow Smooth Chanterelle (Cantharellus lateritius); the beautiful tangerine-colored Cinnabar Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus); and, of course, the elusive, highly-prized Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius). Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are also in season! Mushroom soup, anyone?
First let's talk about the health benefits of each of these mushrooms, and then let's cook them up!
Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the Woods is primarily found on the bases of rotting trees. (Be sure the tree it is growing from is hardwood to avoid any toxins getting into your food!) It grows in big, unmistakable yellow-orange clusters of overlapping shelves, and each bracket can grow up to10 inches across and10 inches long! There are no poisonous lookalikes (although there are two that are considered inedible), but you can be sure you have the right mushroom if you check for pores- not gills -on the underside and if the inside color is fleshy and similar to the color on the outside.
Some people say that Chicken of the Woods really does taste a lot like chicken, where others even claim to notice a lobster-like taste. My personal opinion is that it tastes more like chicken than lobster, although it is mildly sweet and a little bit lemony. The texture is meaty when picked while the mushroom is still fairly young.
It's wonderful that this mushroom is so delicious, as it is chock full of antioxidants (which are vital to aging healthfully), inhibits the growth of Candida in the body, and contains medicinal constituents that suppress the growth of cancer cells. Additionally, Chicken of the Woods is beneficial in an effort to balance hormones: It promotes the healthy production of estrogen and may contain lipids that allow radiation-damaged bodies to produce the binding agents (globulin) necessary to properly process testosterone.
The beautiful, trumpet-shaped Golden Chanterelle thrives in moist soil and can be found from July through September. They are a lighter color on the inside than on their golden outside, and have fairly easily identifiable "false gills" that appear to have been melted into the mushroom and are quite difficult to remove. Freshly picked Chanterelles will smell mildly, but distinctively, like apricots. The Jack-o-Lantern Mushroom is considered a "poisonous lookalike" to the Golden Chanterelle, but there are some easy ways to separate the two: Jack-o-Lanterns are orange throughout the entire inside, have bioluminescent qualities, and have true gills on the underside. They also grow on rotting wood, rather than springing up from the soil as the sunny Golden Chanterelles do. Although the lookalikes aren't deadly, they can cause severe nausea and stomach pain, so it's better not to pick the mushroom if you have any doubt.
Of course, Golden Chanterelles are one of the most prized mushrooms that grow in my area, but also tasty (and more plentiful) are the Cinnabar and Smooth Chanterelles! The Cinnabar variety is smaller and more dainty, only growing a couple inches high and tending to grow near hardwood trees and alongside creek banks. Despite that it grows in damp conditions, it is never slimy, but actually quite smooth and dry, and it leaves a pink spore print, which is a great way to separate it from other mushrooms.
The Smooth Chanterelle is almost exclusively found growing near oak trees. It is separated from its kin by its nearly-absent false gills, which present themselves more like smoothed-out wrinkles, and a sturdy-looking stem. Its cap colors are also quite variable, ranging from cream to yellow to orange, but the inside is white when sliced, and it has a pinkish-yellow spore print like its kin. It, too, can be identified by its apricot-like smell.
The Golden Chanterelle is loved above all, however, due to it's extremely pleasant, hearty texture and mild, peppery flavor. They have been prized in gourmet cooking since the 18th century, when they were served to French royals and gained popularity. Still, the Cinnabar Chanterelle is a slightly fruity, but mostly mild mushroom, and delightful to see on your plate due to its beautiful color. The Smooth Chanterelle might have the least exciting flavor- a mild version of the Golden Chanterelle -but their large size and hearty texture still make them a good addition to a meal. Especially considering the health benefits of these Cantharellus varieties!
Vegans will be excited to know that Chanterelles are actually a good source of vitamin B12, which is mostly found in meat and dairy products. Also present are vitamins B1, B6, and B9, as well as minerals copper, iron, potassium and zinc. This makes them great for promoting a healthy nervous system, preserving neurological wellbeing, and also maintaining cardiovascular health. Most notably, however, Chanterelles are a great source of vitamin D, and may help combat Type 2 diabetes. One cup of Chanterelle mushrooms contains19.33% of the daily recommended value of Vitamin D, which combats both insulin sensitivity and also inflammation which may be present in the body.
Last but not least, the Oyster Mushroom! These might be gathered more easily at your local health food store than outside, as they are relatively inexpensive gourmet mushrooms, popular, and easy to buy fresh. However, it is infinitely more exciting to find them growing on a hardwood tree during a quiet hike! If you think you've found a cluster of these beauties, one of the first things to look for is the gills. Do they run directly from stem? These are called decurrent gills. The caps should be smooth, white to tan, with no bumps or scales. Each shelf can grow to be 10 inches wide. When picked, they smell a little bit like licorice. The inner flesh should always be white, and when printed against dark paper, the spores should reveal themselves to be a white or powdery purple-grey. It has no poisonous lookalikes in the United States, although you may find other mushrooms from the same genus that simply are not regarded as the "true" Oyster Mushroom. (A neat fun fact: The Oyster Mushroom is considered "carnivorous", because in addition to its more predictable diet of decaying wood, it also paralyzes and consumes nematodes!)
Oyster Mushrooms are well loved for their mild, slightly sweet and umami taste as well as their velvety texture. They're fairly delicate, and so many chefs will tear them to add them to dishes rather than chop them up. Unlike the other mushrooms I've mentioned in this post, the Oyster can also be eaten raw, although it is arguably much more delicious when cooked.
The Oyster Mushroom is not only a treat, but a wonderful source of protein- up to 30% by dry weight! -and vitamins B1 and B2. It has also been proven to lower cholesterol levels because of a molecule it contains called lovastatin, which makes it a great addition to a heart-healthy diet. Like the Chanterelle, it possesses anticarcinogens: The International Journal of Oncology states that two molecular mechanisms from alcohol extracts of oyster mushrooms specifically inhibit growth of colon and breast cancer cells without significant effect on normal cells, and has a potential therapeutic/preventive effect on breast and colon cancer.
Now that you know of a few mushrooms to look for on your next walk or midsummer hiking trip, here is a simple, delicious recipe you can try. It's so exciting to find a healthy recipe to cook up, but even more rewarding when you've gathered the ingredients yourself! Give it a shot:
Forest Mushroom Soup
Or maybe Chicken of the Woods Soup for the Soul...?
1/2 lb chicken of the woods (coarsely chopped)
1/4 lb oyster mushrooms (torn)
1/4 lb varietal chanterelles (halved)
2 scallions (sliced thinly)
1 medium carrot (sliced 1/4 inch)
1 medium stick of celery (sliced 1/4 inch)
2 c vegetable/chicken broth
1 c marsala wine
1/4 c heavy cream
1 stick of butter (8 tbsp)
1 tbsp thyme
1 tsp terragon
1 tsp ground black pepper
salt to taste
In your soup pot, melt 5 tbsp of butter over medium-high heat. Add in carrots and celery and sauté for 6 minutes. Add in mushrooms and scallions and sauté until mushrooms begin to release juice and their colors deepen: ~4 minutes. Then add in the rest of the butter to melt.
Briefly remove from heat to carefully add in marsala wine, then return to heat to stir in, allowing time for the wine to be soaked up by the mushrooms. Then, add in broth and spices.
Allow soup to boil for 5 minutes before adding cream. Let soup simmer on low for 5 more minutes, and then serve hot.
*** DISCLAIMER: Please remember to never eat any mushroom if you're not absolutely sure what it is. When in doubt, throw it out! Or keep it and seek out a professional to help you to identify properly. Safety first! ***