I can go to the grocery store or the farmers market and buy wonderful looking produce – some of it sourced straight from the farmer.
But there’s a joy in tramping through the woods and discovering such wild food as chanterelles, morels, chicken-of-thewoods, lamb’s quarters, ramps and fiddlehead greens.
That’s how Julie Marton feels, too.
“Now, with this warm weather, the mushrooms are really beginning to pop,” Marton tells me when we meet for coffee.
She has several books on mushrooms with her that she uses to identify the fungi she encounters in the woods.
Marton, who has a home in Harbor Country, acquired the foraging habit when she hiked through the woods with her parents. She’s gotten so used to foraging that she sees edibles everywhere, and it doesn’t have to be in the country.
“I was staying in a hotel in Indianapolis recently and there were so many shaggy manes growing around there,” says Marton, talking about the whitish-colored mushroom with a shaggy conical cap sometimes also referred to as lawyer’s wig.
According to Project MUSE – a source of high-quality books and journals for the scholarly community – shaggy mane is part of the group known as the “foolproof four,” a term describing the four most easily identified mushrooms, the others being chicken-of-the-woods, morels and giant puffballs.
Because they only have one common look alike, also edible, they’re considered foolproof because of the reduced chances of picking the wrong species. A caveat is necessary here. Though there’s a lot of good stuff to be found in fields and woods, there’s bad stuff, too, so beginners should go out with someone who knows what they’re doing.
Marton keeps it simple when cooking what she’s foraged, including wild asparagus and ramps.
“I sauté the morels in butter with a little salt and pepper, and then eat them on toast or sometimes with scrambled eggs,” she says, noting she cleans them by soaking them in a bowl of water and then patting them dry. “They are such a good flavor I don’t want to mask it with competing flavors.”
Marton has also hunted for puffballs, those big, globe-shaped mushrooms that are commonly seen in the woods.
“They take a long time to cook, and you need to use them pretty quickly after harvesting,” she says.
Local restaurants like Terrace Room and Bentwood Tavern in New Buffalo buy some of their foraged produce from Tim Davis, who has been certified as an expert mushroom identifier by the state.
To become certified, Davis took a course presented by the Midwest American Mycological Information, the Michigan Farmers Market Association and the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art and Natural Design.
A day-long course, the morning presentation focused on fungal biology, morphological characteristics of mushroom identification as well as a review of every species of wild-foraged mushroom approved for sale in Michigan.
In the afternoon, participants took a 50-question test, which included questions like, “Which two characteristics distinguish Polyporus umbellatus mushrooms from their look-alikes (Grifola frondosa, Meripilus giganteus, Bondarzewia berkeleyi)?”
“It’s complicated,” Davis says. “For instance, there are several different kinds of black morels, including the Morchella elata.”
There’s also Morchella esculenta, a blonde morel, and Morchella Americana, which blooms in the spring and ranges in color from gray to a white or yellow color.
What’s the difference among the more than 80 species of Morchella or morels?
“Besides the different colors and different textures, they have different flavors,” Davis says.
And that’s just the morels “I ate pheasant backs today,” he says. “They’re very meaty and something people can pass up and don’t even know they’re even edible. They smell and taste like cucumbers and can be eaten raw. And because they’re meaty, they provide a lot of food.
“You find them around in abundance,” he says, “they’re white on the bottom when young, and on top they’re golden brown with a pattern resembling the back of a pheasant. Turkey tail, hen-of-the-woods and chicken- of-the-woods are all different mushrooms that have a bird name.”
You can learn a lot about wild mushrooms talking to Davis. I also find out there are two varieties of chicken-in-the-woods – one pink and the other more of, in his words, “an orangey-yellow.”
I didn’t wild harvest chicken-of-the-woods, but instead bought some at the St. Joseph Farmers Market that Cindy Grewett of Kitty Hill Organics had gathered.
When Grewett showed them to me, I realized I had often seen them growing clustered together like orange colored shelves on the sides of the trees when I’d been hiking in the woods. I had always assumed they were poisonous because, well, they’re bright orange.
Grewett, who I’ve known for 30 years, told me they really do taste like chicken, and to sauté them in a pan until tender. Easy enough, I thought.
Taking the mushrooms home, I rinsed the dirt off and sliced them into narrow strips, melted butter in a sauté skillet and threw them in.
About 15 minutes later, I added more butter because they’d soaked up all the butter I’d originally added and were still somewhat tough. About 10 minutes later, I had to repeat the process.
Finally – and I’m not sure how much butter I went through – the pieces had softened to the point where they were very tender. They also shrink somewhat during cooking, but I still had a panful of orangish food.
I made some pasta and, after seasoning the chicken-of-the-woods with salt and pepper, I mixed them with the pasta, used a little Parmesan cheese and had a great meal – make that more than just one great meal.
As for their name, they’re thick, so they do taste meaty. And yes, you could say they’re chicken-like in flavor. They’re also rich, but that could have been all the butter I used.
When Davis, who says his father taught him how to find food on the land, moved to Michigan, he started foraging for relaxation. He also liked taking photos of birds, and when exploring, he noticed there was a lot of food to harvest in the wild, more so here than in Illinois, where he’s from. Soon, foraging had turned into a business, Tim’s Wild Foraged Goods, and he’s thinking of expanding and hiring a crew of trained foragers.
“I’m only one person, and the demand often exceed the amount I can supply,” he says.
But still, Davis says he’s always willing to talk to people about harvesting wild foods.
“Or they can email me if they have simple questions,” he says. “I like talking about finding foods in nature.”
Readers can contact Davis at 680-7749 or dr.naturalg@gmail. com.
Ingredients — 5 tablespoons unsalted butter; 1 pound chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, cut into thin matchsticks or coarsely chopped into 1/2-inch pieces; 1 teaspoon kosher salt; 1/2 cup brandy; 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth; 1/4 cup heavy cream; Small bunch of yard onion, just the green part, finely chopped (can substitute chives)
Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large, stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat. Toss in the mushrooms and the salt, stirring with a wooden spoon to coat evenly.
Cook for 3 minutes; the mushrooms will darken to a deeper, almost red-orange color. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and cook for 2 minutes, making sure it has melted.
Remove from the heat. Add the brandy, which will cause the mixture to bubble and steam.
Return the skillet to medium high heat. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the liquor has been absorbed, stirring gently once or twice with a wooden spoon.
Add the broth, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has cooked down a bit to form a slightly thickened sauce; then stir in the cream. Reduce the heat to low, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring as needed.
Divide among individual plates, garnished with the onion greens.
– Recipe from “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast” by Hank Shaw
Spinach & Nettles Spanakopita
Serves 6-8, if made in a pie dish. Serves 4 in 8-ounce ramekins.
Ingredients — 2 pounds spinach, or mix of spinach and chard; 2 cups dried nettles; 3 cups water; 1/4 cup olive oil; 1 yellow onion, diced; 2 eggs; 1 1/2 teaspoons dried dill; 1 teaspoon salt; 30 grinds of pepper; 8 ounces feta, crumbled; 1 tablespoon butter (for greasing the baking dish)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Wash and stem your fresh greens (especially if you use some chard). Bring the water to a boil in a large pot, and add all your greens and dried nettle to it. Boil the greens (be sure to stir them well so the nettles get immersed) until tender (about 10 minutes).
Drain the greens in a colander (and save the boiling water for use as soup stock for later). When the greens are cool enough to handle, squeeze as much water out of them as you can. Chop and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pan. Add the onions and sauté until translucent.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, dill, salt and pepper with a fork until well mixed. Add the greens, onion and feta, and stir again until completely mixed. Spoon into a buttered pie dish or buttered ramekins, and bake for 40 minutes.