Woodland Wonders: Local mushrooms offer a taste of spring

There is much to love about mushrooms – that savory, earthy taste; textures that range from delicate to medium to meaty-firm; curious, whimsical shapes; and a full spectrum of colors that can light up a sauce, a soup, a soufflé and a myriad of other dishes.

Members of the Missouri Mycological Society are gearing up for the start of wild mushroom season. Whether you choose to go on a MOMS foray or head to your local farmers’ market or supermarket for some fresh or dried ’shrooms, here’s a quick guide to cooking the delectable edible “higher” fungi that you’re most likely to encounter this spring and early summer.

MOREL Morchella esculenta, M. crassipes, M. semilibera, Morchella deliciosa, M. angusticeps and others
Yellow, white or black, the highly prized specimens from the genus Morchella have an oval to conical cap with a honeycomb-like ribbing and hollow stem. All fresh morels boast a nutty magnificence, but Maxine Stone, author of Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms (to be published this spring by the Missouri Department of Conservation) and a passionate member of MOMS for more than 20 years, considers yellow morels to be nirvana. “They are rich and intense, like an earthy liqueur,” said Stone.

Cooking suggestions: The deeply pitted ridges of a morel beg for a seductive cream sauce. You can stop at creamed morels or continue on, plating with pasta or serving atop something hot off the grill. The characteristic hollow stem makes the morel ideal for stuffing whole – as long as you carefully remove the sand and grit and any lurking insects from those collected in the wild. (Note: Some people experience gastrointestinal upset when black morels are served with alcohol.)

CHICKEN OF THE WOODS Laetiporus sulphureus
Chicken of the woods, so named because its thick, fibrous white flesh resembles the texture of chicken meat, is a delightful specimen to behold in the wild as it hangs suspended (hopefully in a cluster) on the bark of old trees. With a smooth, wavy surface and knobby edges, this mushroom looks quite like a misshaped hand fan. One variety of chicken of the woods sports a bright orange top and yellow bottom; another, a pale orange tip and cream-colored bottom.

Cooking suggestions: Shred the dense flesh and use like poultry to make dishes such as mock chicken and dumplings or mock chicken curry. This mushroom is best eaten fresh when it’s very young and tender.

SHIITAKE Lentinus edodes
Shii is a type of oak tree in Japan. Take means mushroom. Put them together and you get a succulent, woody-tasting, medium-firm ’shroom. You won’t find many log-grown shiitake mushrooms anymore in North America, but Ozark Forest Mushrooms owner Nicola Macpherson cultivates three strands of round-capped shiitakes on oak logs at her farm in Salem, Mo., harvesting upwards of 200 pounds per week during peak summer production. A cold-weather shiitake strain called “snowcap” often has beautiful cracked patterns on its caps, due to the slower growth in the spring and autumn. This is a highly prized grade of shiitake (Donko) in Japan; meaty and succulent, it’s positioned as a choice mushroom on Macpherson’s farm and at farmers’ markets.

Cooking suggestions: Shiitakes exude a rich, full-bodied, earthy pungency that shines in Asian dishes. Macpherson also likes to grill them and serve them with a soy-ginger dipping sauce, but recommends first brushing the mushrooms with oil so they don’t stick to the grill. Shiitakes are chewy and firm enough to handle longer cooking times, so they work well in a stew, soup or braise. Reconstituted shiitakes, noted Macpherson, will have a more concentrated flavor and aroma than their fresh counterpart (an ounce of dried shiitakes is about equivalent to half a pound of fresh).

OYSTER Pleurotus ostreatus and others
With its fan-shaped, slightly convex cap with a shallow depression at the center and barely any stalk, this mushroom does, indeed, resemble an oyster shell. Found in clumps on logs, stumps and rotting wood, the velvety-smooth oyster comes in many shades – from pearly white to pale gray to dingy yellow. Macpherson, who cultivates all three varieties, including a bright yellow, described oysters as mild but “sweeter than a shiitake and more fragrant.”

Cooking suggestions: Oysters are versatile and ideal for adding delicate mushroom flavor to soups and sauces. Creamed oysters partner nicely with potatoes for a golden-crusted gratin or with egg noodles in a mushroom stroganoff heavy on the sour cream and scented with fresh dill. Be careful not to overcook oyster mushrooms because they have high water content; in addition, the yellow oysters will lose their color after prolonged cooking. They should be cooked “hot and fast,” according to Macpherson, especially yellow oysters, which she suggested treating like bean sprouts.

CHANTERELLE Cantharellus cibarius, C. cinnabarinus and others
Chefs adore chanterelles, and for good reason: Ranging in color from golden yellow to bright orange and bearing a rustic fluted cap, they are a natural beauty. The medium-firm texture and thick, tapering stem of the fruit bodies give you something substantial to work with. And did we mention that woodsy apricot aroma?

Cooking suggestions: Chanterelles and eggs are a lovely marriage. Tear the mushrooms, and then work them into omelets, scrambled eggs or frittatas. Chanterelles star as a simple side sautéed in butter or olive oil with garlic, parsley and shallots.

BLACK TRUMPET Craterellus cornucopioides
Also known as “horn of plenty” and “trumpet of death,” the black trumpet is characterized by a long, hollow stem that flares into a fluted shape resembling the instrument whose name it bears. Black trumpets are not always black, appearing in other dark hues such as blue, gray and brown, and first sound their horn in June, then continue to pop up throughout the summer. “It looks like a small, fragile mushroom, but the texture is firm,” said Stone.

Cooking suggestions: Because they are so dark, Stone considers black trumpets to be well served when prepared in a dish with a contrasting color, such as a squash soup or pasta with spinach.

Look for Ozark Forest Mushrooms at Local Harvest Grocery and Whole Foods, as well as the Maplewood Farmers’ Market on March 27 and at Tower Grove Farmers’ Market starting May 8.

MOMS member John Davis, aka The Mushroom Man, sells wild mushrooms on Saturdays at his stall at Soulard Farmers’ Market.

Fresh wild mushrooms – Never eat wild mushrooms raw. Always cook them first. To clean wild mushrooms, place them in a colander or brown bag and shake to dislodge clinging leaves, dirt and other debris. Trim off the bottom of the stem. Next, wipe down the cap and stem with a damp paper towel. A mushroom brush or soft toothbrush can also be used to gently clean the gills and stems of sand and grit. If more cleaning is required, place the mushrooms in a colander and rinse with water just prior to cooking. Check the hollow of mushrooms such as morels for insects and slugs. If a mushroom is filled with worms, soak it in salt water for 30 minutes to an hour.

Dried mushrooms – Reconstitute dried mushrooms by placing them in a bowl of warm water for 30 minutes. Use the soaking water in soups or stews. One ounce of dried mushrooms equals 7 ounces of fresh mushrooms.

Slice or shred? – In general, it is preferable to slice cap mushrooms. Some mushrooms, such as chanterelles and chicken of the woods, fare better when torn.

If you are going to collect edible wild mushrooms, forage only for those you know. Some look-alikes, such as the false morel (Gyromitra esculenta), are poisonous. Forays organized by MOMS (missourimycologicalsociety.org) are an excellent introduction to the identification, collection and preparation of edible mushrooms. Morel Madness, the annual weekend morel foray organized by MOMS, will take place April 23 to 25 at Cuivre River State Park. Do not use this article as your field guide for identifying edible mushrooms.

All pictured mushrooms from Ozark Forest Mushrooms