The sun sets early in the woods this time of year. Where it is daylight until 6 p.m. out in the open, the light starts to fade at 5 p.m. under the canopy of a forest. This is the best time of day to find edible mushrooms.
The fading evening sun illuminates the usually light colored flesh of forest fungi contrasting them against the usually dark forest floor and tree trunks. Most of these mushrooms ‘flower’ or ‘fruit’ in the cooler, milder and wetter months of fall and winter. So if you take an evening walk through a favorite forest in December, you may likely find many mushrooms.
Of course most are not edible and some are even poisonous. However, if you stick to the easy-to-identify fungi that have no poisonous analogs, then collecting and eating wild mushrooms can be a great culinary adventure.
One of the least mistakable and easy to spot fungi of the southeastern forests is the wood-decomposing Lion’s Mane Fungus. In my own forested garden there is a dead oak near the back of the property. Every winter this rotting tree is festooned with what might be one of the craziest-looking fungi around.
Fungi reproduce from spores that are analogous to seeds. These spores disperse from a parent fungus, find purchase in suitable habitat and begin to grow. In the case of wood-decomposing fungi such as Lion's Mane, the spore produces fine hair-like fungal strands called hyphae that penetrate the food source and begin to digest and absorb said substrate.
After some time, the fungus will penetrate a large portion of the dead wood. When the fungus is mature and the weather is favorable, the fungus will ‘fruit’ or produce the visible spore dispersing portion of the fungus. The Lion’s Mane Fungus produces a volleyball-sized structure that is solid mushroom flesh on the inside. The outside is covered in downward hanging strands giving the fruiting structure the look of a lion’s mane or a beard. It is also snow white.
This fruiting structure is the edible portion of the fungus. The fungus should be firm but soft and wet-feeling, not hard and dry-feeling. To collect it, one simply cuts it away from the tree with a sharp knife. The mushroom is dense and full of water so is therefore rather heavy for its size. After collection, I usually put it in a paper sack and cover it with a plastic sack and store it in the refrigerator until I am ready to process it.
To process the mushroom, lay it on a cutting board and, using an sharp knife, cut away the outer portions of the mushroom that have been exposed to the elements as there may be soil or tree bark or bird droppings on it. Toss these parts out and then wash the remaining core of the mushroom. Then chop the mushroom into bite-sized chunks. Freeze the extra portions in a zip bag.
The Lion’s Mane Fungus when chunked and sautéed with olive oil and garlic tastes, looks and feels like seafood. To me, it has the consistency of a scallop. The other night I sautéed some of the mushroom in olive oil along with garlic, onions, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. I seasoned it with salt, pepper and soy sauce and this made a very tasty stir fry.
This quiche recipe looks like a good use for it as well. I think the mushroom would be great used in an alfredo sauce.
If you love to eat mushrooms but do not care for collecting them wild, then buy some homegrown Shitake mushrooms from Cindy Pritchard who is a regular vendor at the Oconee County Farmer’s Market. Since the market will not be back until next April, her contact information can be found here.