Good Life

Writer's fascination with fungus has mushroomed over the years

Bill photographs a mushroom while on a hunt near Coburn, Pa.  Bill Russell, of State College, is a renowned wild mushroom expert with over 50 years experience.  He has written the book Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic.  CDT/Nabil K. Mark
Bill photographs a mushroom while on a hunt near Coburn, Pa. Bill Russell, of State College, is a renowned wild mushroom expert with over 50 years experience. He has written the book Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic. CDT/Nabil K. Mark

Mushrooms are part of Bill Russell’s earliest memories. Now long retired, he vividly recalls being a young boy, sitting in a high chair in his western Pennsylvania home, nibbling the mushrooms his mother had brought in from the yard and placed on a tray in front of him.

Soon Russell was out in the yard himself, hunting those same mushrooms.

Decades later, Russell still makes weekly outings in search of mushrooms when they are in season. Since memorizing his first mushroom guide cover to cover as a boy, he has written his own guide to the mushrooms of central Pennsylvania and is at work on another. He regularly speaks at mushroom forays, the equivalent of mushrooming conventions, and often makes himself available to those with mushroom-related questions by setting up shop at Webster’s Bookstore Café in State College.

To the uninitiated, the allure of fungi and their pursuit can seem elusive. Not only are many not interested in their taste but you often have to spend a fair bit of time in damp woods just to find them.

Once you do find them, there’s a chance they could kill you.

Yet those who have long been drawn to mycology say they’ve seen a recent uptick in mushrooming interest. When asked what draws newbies to the hobby, Karen Croyle, a lifelong mushroomer from Phillipsburg, had a quick reply.

“Free food,” she said with a laugh. “There’s also the mystique of knowing something other people don’t know. And the idea of living dangerously.”

Go slowly at first

There’s not a lot obviously dangerous about harvesting local mushrooms. But Russell puts it this way:

“The dangers of eating wild mushrooms are overstated. But the danger of eating the wrong wild mushroom is not.”

Often perfectly harmless wild mushrooms have doppelgangers — very similar mushrooms that, if eaten, could cause anything from an upset stomach to death.

To mitigate such risks, Croyle, 53, will study a mushroom for two years before putting it in her mouth. Even then her husband won’t try anything until she tastes it first. This is the first lesson of mushrooming: Don’t rush into it. For anyone hoping to dive into the world of scaber stalks, shaggy manes, puffballs and fairy rings, it’s best to first go out with a seasoned mushroomer.

Russell and Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center both provide guided mushroom walks. If you’re committed to going out solo, be sure to have a couple of mushroom guides on hand so you can cross-reference finds. A knife to cut mushrooms out of the ground or off bark and a paper bag in your back pocket for the mushrooms should be all the tools you need.

Mushrooms thrive in warm, rainy weather and are most abundant locally from July to October. While they’re often in wooded areas, they also like lawns, cemeteries and fields. Croyle noted she never picks mushrooms where there are no weeds, as it’s often a sign that the area has been chemically treated. Mushrooms are very porous and easily absorb those chemicals, making them a less appealing addition to a meal.

Showing your mushrooms to someone more knowledgeable than you to confirm they are actually edible is also recommended before you put anything in a pan.

Eventually mushroomers become confident in their identifications, and soon their finds become a regular feature at the dinner table. Some of the most popular local edible mushrooms include black trumpets, hen of the woods and chanterelles.

Morels, one of the first edible mushrooms to appear in spring, have a fanatical following in these parts. Stories abound about camouflage-clad hunters heading out to their favorite morel spots, switching cars along the way to make sure no one is following them to their secret groves.

For chef Brenda Palmer, the appeal isn’t only that the food is free, but that it’s wild.

“These mushrooms are something you can’t industrialize,” she said.

Cooking with mushrooms

Palmer grew up going on mushroom outings with her family and being force-fed poorly frozen specimens throughout the winter. Now a cook at Zola’s New World Bistro, who also runs the Huntingdon-based Standing Stone Chef Services, Palmer has since found that there are much, much better ways to enjoy Mother Nature’s fungal bounty.

“Mushrooms love butter and anything in the onion family,” she said. The most common recommendation for a wild mushroom meal is a simple sauté with butter and onions. These forest finds also are a great complement to any egg dish.

For those feeling more adventurous, Palmer suggested a recipe for black trumpet cheesecake. See page 15 for recipe.

To ready mushrooms for cooking, Palmer had some tips on the best ways to prep them. First of all, she said, don’t wash them. Mushrooms absorb water, so it’s best to simply brush them off and cut off the root. Croyle suggested getting most of the dirt off in the field before you even put a mushroom in your bag or basket to save on prep time back at home.

When cooking mushrooms, it’s recommended to hold off on salting them, because their porous nature makes it very easy to commit the sin of over-salting. Lastly, when cooking mushrooms, keep in mind that they will release liquid as they cook. You can either collect this for use as a mushroom broth, or consider cooking the mushrooms long enough that they reabsorb the liquid, adding that flavor back into them.

When you collect more than you can use, Palmer recommends making a simple duxelles with the leftovers. Simply mince shallots and mushrooms, sauté them in butter and pepper until the mushroom broth is reabsorbed and store this in an airtight freezer container. It can later be added to soups or sauces, on steak or pasta. Many cookbooks can provide suggestions on how to use the resulting duxelles.

Combine these culinary delights with the endless varieties flourishing in central Pennsylvania’s forests and one can begin to see why mushrooms have held Russell’s interest for all these years.

“People ask me, ‘What’s the allure of mushrooming?’ and I say, ‘Why are you into baseball? Or growing petunias?’ I’ve always been into offbeat things. For me it’s the challenge, there’s always something new to learn, and there are rewards,” said Russell. “There’s something to take home for dinner.”

Black Trumpet ‘Cheesecake’

Hors d’oeuvre for 12

Recipe by Brenda Palmer/Standing Stone Chef Services Ingredients

2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese (room temperature)

1 pound of black trumpets or other mushrooms**

6 ounces of small diced or shaved Gruyère cheese

2 eggs

1/4 cup sour cream

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil

8 cloves garlic, minced

2/3 cup shallots (or onions), diced

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram (about 3 tablespoons if fresh)

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 teaspoon each, salt and black pepper

white truffle oil (optional) Preheat oven to 450 F.

Pick through your mushrooms; cut off and discard the woody, lower stem. Brush off any soil. Chop or pulse in the food processor. The pieces should be small, but still recognizable. Melt butter with oil in an open sauté pan over medium-high heat.

Sauté shallots and garlic for 1 minute, add mushrooms. Sauté mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until they soften and the caramelized juice begins to stick on the bottom of the pan. Add the vinegar, stir 30 seconds and remove from heat.

Put the softened cream cheese in a mixing bowl, add 1 egg and mix until completely incorporated. Add the other egg and mix again until smooth. Add sour cream, marjoram, salt, pepper, Gruyère and mushrooms to the cream cheese. Make sure to include any juice left in the bottom of your sauté pan.

Spray a 2- or 3-quart oven-safe baking dish with vegetable oil before filling.(You may want to divide into two dishes. The first dish can be discarded after guests have snacked for two hours and a fresh one served in its place.) Bake in a water bath for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees, and bake another 20 to 40 minutes, depending on your dish(es). Test the center of the cheesecake — it will be more like a solid than a liquid but will still jiggle.

Refrigerate until serving. Serve chilled or at room temperature. If you want to impress your friends further, drizzle white truffle oil over the top right before serving. Serve with baguette, rye toast points or get several different types of hard rolls from the bakery, slice as thin as you can, drizzle with olive oil and toast. Serve with a cheese knife or butter knife for spreading on your bread.

*Black trumpets are also known as horn of plenty (Craterellus fallax).

** You can use any kind of mushroom. Palmer suggests avoiding the spongy-textured ones, such as puffballs or any of the bolete, because of the texture. One hen of the woods mushroom would be enough for the whole dish to taste great. If you are getting mushrooms from the store, Palmer suggests crimini (baby portabellas).

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