Late Season Leviathans

IMG_9733Hunting morels is often a fruitless endeavor.  For every picture I’ve posted,  there are probably two or three fruitless forays, at least.  But the hunt gets a bit easier toward the end of the season, when the mushrooms are bigger.  Much bigger.

IMG_9738On Friday afternoon, I shut down my work computer and bolted into the woods. It was a nice evening, and conditions were promising – we’d had some decent rain, and warm temperatures, and it was getting late in the season.  I knew that if they were out there, I’d spot them, and I was right.

For a few moments, it was easy.  The late season leviathans towered (for morels) four, five and six inches above the forest floor,  and they were illuminated like Chinese lanterns by the slanting afternoon sun.


These giants are thrilling to spot, and I was in a productive area of the forest.  I filled my bag half-full. I did leave a few behind, to help ensure the propagation of the mycelium for the future.

The big morels are drier and, in my opinion, a bit past their prime.  They’re not as perfectly fresh and dense as they are when they’re a bit smaller.  For sauteeing with a steak, or popping into a risotto, I prefer early-season morels.  However, the late-season giants are great for dehydrating, and also work well coated with cracker crumbs or panko and fried.

This particular haul was immediately cleaned and dried. I’m going to send them off to my brother, who lives in Arizona, and who hasn’t seen a Midwest morel for a long time.

While things are about spent here in Illinois, I’m going to take a look around some woods up in Wisconsin, where I keep my retired horse, tomorrow.   Then that should be it for a few weeks. Next up are chicken of the woods and oysters, which I’ve never found in the summer but I’m told are relatively common.  We’ll see!


A fruitful foray


I waited exactly six days before revisiting the nice little patch of dinky morels I has spotted last week, and was rewarded for my efforts.

As nice as this find is, a few other recent forays have not been successful.  I believe we’re just at the beginning of morel season, and this week’s warm temperatures should hopefully get things going.  A little rain is in the forecast, and that would help too.

Even though I returned empty-handed from a few ventures, I still enjoyed my tramps – lots of wild flowers are in bloom, and seeing them some thing I enjoy as as much — okay, almost as much — finding a nice fruiting of morels.

Virginia bluebells.

Virginia bluebells.

A wee little baby morel.

A wee little baby morel.


A very pretty yellow violet.

A very pretty yellow violet.



Lesser Celandine. 

Large patch of lilies of the valley, not yet in bloom.

Large patch of lilies of the valley, not yet in bloom.


The bluebells, again.

The bluebells, again.

Lilies of the valley.  And a morel.

Lilies of the valley. And a morel.


Jack in the pulpit.  And a morel.

Jack in the pulpit. And a morel.


Look up before you look down

morel 2We’ve had a nice spell of warm weather, and a good rain last night which bodes well for the still very small morels in the woods near my house.   I took a quick look this morning, and found that the mushrooms in the spots I’ve been eyeing are still too small for picking. I’m taking my chances, and giving them a few more days. 

In particular,  I’m excited by a nice fruiting I’ve found under a newly dead elm.   I spotted the tree earlier this spring, and when I visited it a week ago, sure enough, there were some dinky morels just starting to pop. 

I found that tree when I happened to look up from the forest floor, and scanned the tree tops.  It was easy to spot the dead tree. 

morel 1The voice of a departed way-too-soon friend, Mark, popped into my head.  He told me last year that he looks for trees just starting to shed their bark. Those are about perfect, he told me.  

The dead tree I had spotted showed a few bare patches.  And sure enough, there are the morels.  

So now I’m sure to look up before looking down.  And each time I do, I say a quick thanks to my friend, who I am sure is looking down on me and my fellow woodland trampers, quietly guiding us to those elusive morels. 

Do you see what I see?

Look closely.


Did you find all three?

They’re about the size of a grape. A skinny grape.  Maybe they’ll be ready this weekend, but I think that will be pushing it.  They’re awfully small.  Research suggests that another 6 days or so are needed.


It’s Not Quite Time for Morels Yet …

Don’t get too excited. This photo was taken last year.

We’ve had a stretch of weather that seems ideal for morel mushroom fruiting here in Northern Illinois, and I took a quick look around a couple patches close to my home today.

I think we have a few more weeks to wait, for a few reasons, despite the seemingly ideal conditions:

–  The springtime flora seem to be getting off to a slow start.  Mayapples are barely out of the ground, same with Trillium.  I’ve not even seen a Jack in the Pulpit.   In my experience, morels show up when these plants are well underway in their growth.  To see what I mean, look at my post from 2011, which documents my first morel finds, as well as the growth stages of other springtime woodland plants.

– No pheasantback fungi to be seen anywhere.   By the time the morels are fruiting, pheasantbacks are well established and about the size of a saucer.  In my tramp through some elm woods that are host to many pheasantbacks, I didn’t even see an emergent bud of this widepread mushroom.

– Evenings have still been pretty cool. I don’t think the ground has warmed up sufficiently yet.

– No one else has found any in this area, either.  I’ve been checking various morel progression maps and the closest find so far this year was in Springfield.  Hundreds of miles south of me.

So, there you go.  Temperatures are set to dip again and stay cool for a while toward the end of this week.  My bet is that it will be a good couple weeks before we see morels in northern Illinois.

Update 5.2 – I went out this morning and took my time looking around a few good spots.  Finally saw a pheasant back bud but no morels.  With the cold weather that’s coming in today, I think we’re at least a week away.

Front yard foray

An up-close shot of one of the Shaggy Mane mushrooms I spotted right in my front yard.

It’s been a terrible year for mushrooms. Other than the morels I found in April, I found squat.  The drought really dialed back the growth I the woods I hunt.

That said, I have seen some nice finds as I drove around this fall.   A huge chicken of the woods sprouted in a front yard of a house about a half mile from my home.   I also spotted a couple nice spreads of oyster mushrooms on trees in peoples’ yards.   Meanwhile nothing ever grew in MY yard, and goodness knows I looked.

Until two days ago, that is.  A week of warm weather and copious rain caused the mushroom gods to smile upon my front yard.

Shaggy manes in my front yard.

A couple nights ago, as I pulled into my driveway, I spotted some strange looking shapes as my headlights swept over the yard.
One look and I knew what they were – shaggy manes, one of the edible inky caps.

The next day, after properly identifying them, I picked a cluster of the shaggy manes to make into an omelette for lunch.

Lunch, in process.

After brushing stray grass off the caps, I sliced them in half, checking each for the tell-tale super-fine gills and slid them into a saute pan with some melted butter. Shaggy manes are very delicate, and have a high water content.  When they hit the heat, they actually start to expand and soften further.

I kept the heat fairly low, cooking them gently.  I also sprinkled a little bit of salt on them too, to encourage the mushrooms to release their water.  They started to sweat, and the more mature specimens that were starting to show shading of their gills actually sweated red-tinged droplets.

As the moisture leached, the mushrooms started to crisp, just a bit. At that point, I flipped them over, to cook both sides, and then poured a couple beaten eggs over them.

I think omelettes showcase mushroom flavors well, and the butter you saute the mushrooms in picks up their flavor, imparting it to the eggs.  I had read that shaggy manes had a mild flavor.    Three batches I’ve sauteed actually had lovely, pronounced mushroom flavor.   The were delicious!  This was a great way to end an otherwise disappointing season.

First finds of 2012 – Morels are a month early!

The first mushroom of the season was this morel, found on 4/6/12.

It’s been the strangest spring.  Temperatures here in northern IL soared into the 80’s for weeks in March, and the resident vegetation responded with enthusiasm.  Everything started to bloom – dogwoods, forsythia, lilacs, red buds, crab apples, daffodils, hyacinths and even some tulips.  By April first, the landscape was green and lush.  It looked like mid-May.

Doubting, but hopeful, I looked around.  And found nothing.  Despite all the greenery, the fungi were still holed up.  Initially, I didn’t even see any pheasant backs, and those are seriously fruitful in my area.   Then the weather took a cooler turn, returning to more normal temperatures, which are generally speaking a bit too cool for morels.

Some of our Friday finds, pre-picking.

A friend’s boyfriend has been finding morels down in southern IL, where he has a cabin, and he even brought me a sample (which were delicious!).  However, Illinois is a big state, and the climates at the opposite ends are very different.  However, on Thursday, when he sent word via my friend that his son found morels in Elgin IL, I sprung into action.  Elgin is pretty close by!

My mom is visiting us for Easter, and she loves morels.  I was hoping to Fedex her a shipment last year but I failed to find enough to make it worthwhile.  With the news of the finds in Elgin, however, I made plans to go hunt in some areas where I knew she’d be able to get around safely.

She arrived on Friday afternoon buzzing with news from the Iowa radiowaves – some lucky soul had found 500lbs of morels near Des Monies.   When I told her we were going out to look for some that very day, she was very excited, though I did have to manage her expectations.

The first place we visited – a newly cleared wooded lot near a school, immediately yielded one morel (pictured above) and a lot of hope.  The second location was a total dud.  The third, however, was not!

If you’re into morel hunting, you know the feeling when you find a nice patch.  First one, then another, then – oh look! here are three – and then a few more.  It’s a thrilling feeling!  We gathered about two dozen nice, fresh yellow morels.

A very Good Friday indeed.

We took our finds home, swished them around in salted water and then gently spun them dry in a salad spinner.   We then sliced them in half, and sauteed them in butter, enjoying them straight from the pan, and gracing the top of an asparagus risotto. These gorgeous, buttery, nutty mushrooms were fantastic with the accompanying chardonnay from Hartford Court in Sonoma.   It was the perfect end to a wonderful day!

Sauteed morels atop an asparagus risotto.



Chicks of the Woods

This year's haul of young, tender Hens of the Woods

Last fall, I gathered several Hens of the Woods (grifola frondosa, also known as “maitake,”) and embarked on the cleaning, eating and preservation thereof.

The specimens I brought home were fresh, but they were also fairly fully mature.  In lasagna and stir fries, they were very flavorful, exhibit the classic mushroomy-flavor of the species, but they were pretty chewy.  However, one specimen was a bit younger, and it was much more tender.   I learned my lesson.   It’s best to pick Hens when they’re still chicks!

One of the Hens I gathered last year. It's more mature, and the lobes have flattened out, and are no longer rounded and plump.

This year, I ended up with a nice haul of young and tender hens.  Cleaning them is no picnic – their crevices (which are numerous) can harbor bugs, dirt, leaves and grit.  I start by trimming the bottoms and then soaking them in a large bowl in weak salt water.   Then I rinse them off, and pull them apart, continuing to rinse them.  Then the detail work begins – using a vegetable brush and a paring knife, I clean the mushroom thoroughly.  No one wants grit (or a beetle!) in their lasagna.

I preserve as much of the fat, meaty core as I can, if it’s tender. If it’s not tender, I simmer it (after cleaning) to make mushroom stock.

Once the hens were cleaned, I made myself an absolutely delicious omelette with smoked turkey, Swiss cheese and a couple handfuls of mushrooms.  The rest were chopped finely and turned into duxelles, which I then froze for future use, or were simply frozen by putting large pieces in plastic bags (removing as much air as possible) and then freezing. Unlike most other mushrooms, Hens freeze well.

Important note:  When using frozen, uncooked Hens, it’s important not to thaw them.  They need to straight into the pan from the freezer.  You can chop them up when they’re frozen pretty easily.




Conflict of Interest

Masses of honey mushrooms spell doom for this oak tree

The sight of honey mushrooms clustered around the base of an oak tree is, for me, kind of overwhelming.  Two conflicting emotions collide. First comes wild joy, because honey mushrooms are delicious and usually plentiful, meaning I can drag bags of them home.  That joy is quickly tempered, however, when I look up at the bare branches of the host tree.  Honey mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of armillaria mellea, one example of which which has the distinction of being the largest living organism on the planet.  They are also pathogenic parasites that rot wood and kill trees.

The path they are carving in one forest I frequent is clear.  A long dead and now decaying oak stump stands uphill from the tree pictured above.  Downhill from this tree, another handsome oak sprouted a handful of mushrooms this year.   A pair of trees nearby are as yet unaffected – visibly, at least.  But you know their days are numbered.

Honey mushrooms are rich tasting and flavorful.  As I carry bags of them off (taking care in this case to use plastic, not mesh) I hope that the fact that I’m removing so many spores from the ecosystem will slow their march.

A fabulous find

A giant puffball, deep in the woods, ripe for picking.

When leafing through field guides to edible wild mushrooms, I have always stopped to stare a moment at the pages devoted to the giant puffball.  Easy to identify, and extravagantly sized, I’ve always wanted to find one.

I did find a small, grapefruit sized specimen last year.  And it was delicious.  In fact, I’ve concluded that the puffball is close to perfect – easy to find, identify and clean, and delicious to eat.

This last weekend, my friends Christy and Mark arrived on my doorstep, with an absolutely monstrous puffball in tow, and a smaller specimen as well.  Sadly, the larger specimen was just a couple days too old to eat- spores had started to form within.  The smaller mushroom, however, was fresh and lovely.

Puffballs, courtesy of my friends Christy and Mark. Yes, those are full-size bananas.

Excited by their finds, I marched out into the woods early the next morning.  Tramping around, I saw little evidence of fungal growth of any type.  It’s been dry, but I pressed on.

Entering my least favorite part of the woods, a hilly spot riddled with downed trees and lots of prickly undergrowth, my pace slowed as I picked my way carefully through, around, under and over the fallen trees and branches.

And then I saw it.

There, glowing eerily from the forest floor was an immense, white, alien orb.  A smaller one sat nearby.  Praying under my breath that it was still fresh and sound I made my way over to the immense puffball.  Its surface was smooth and sound, and I had to give it a sharp tug and twist to release it from the ground. It was heavy and firm.  Good signs, for sure.

Yes. The puffball was about twice the size of my noggin.

Before carrying it off, I took a very cheesy and terrifically unflattering self portrait, with puffball.  Then I slid it into a nylon bag, and cradling it gently, started to pick my way out of the wood, gingerly carrying my prize in front of me.

I finally made it out of the woods, and ventured home, drawing some strange looks from passing motorists as I made my way back up the road to my house.   Once home, I reverently laid my treasure on a cutting board, and took a few more pictures, just to document my good fortune.

My monster mushroom, with a can of tomatoes for scale.

Holding my breath, I sliced into the puffball.  Would it be snowy white inside? Unspoiled and ready to eat?  Or would it have started to age, sprouting spores, and rendering it inedible?

Using a sharp serrated knife, I gently cut the mushroom in half.  It was snowy white! Perfect!

I invited Christy and Mark to dinner to celebrate, and made puffball strudel and  puffball & sausage penne.  Both were delicious, and the recipes will be posted soon.   The remaining puffball was sliced and turned into puffball parmesan, and the last bits will be used in another batch of penne this weekend.  Finding monster puffballs does result in a total embarrassment of riches, but I’m up to the challenge.