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Life & Times Locavore: Marvelous, mysterious mushrooms

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Posted on: April 11, 2024

By IMKE AHLF-WIEN

Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms are still one of the less understood natural wonders, and they are part of a world entirely their own: the fungi, a group that also includes yeasts and molds. Most of the fungus’ life cycle takes place underground, where it lives as a mycelium — a matlike network of strands weaving through soil or wood. Under the right conditions, this mycelium develops a fruiting structure — the mushroom — that can emerge from the ground or a tree.

Mushrooms have been foraged for consumption for thousands of years, both for culinary and medicinal purposes. Nowadays hundreds of mushroom species — foraged or commercially grown — are eaten around the world. They are a good source of several B vitamins and minerals. Importantly, they contain non-nutritive plant substances called polyphenols that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anticancer properties, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

I have fond memories of foraging for fungi with my family in Germany when I was a kid. On the wet, rainy days of early fall we started to look for mushrooms in the forests surrounding our small town of Geesthacht. With a bit of patience, we found porcini that like to grow in the shade under beech trees and birch boletes with their slightly meaty flavor. With some luck, we even discovered the rare and delicious chanterelle. We included foraged mushrooms in simple meals: with scrambled eggs for lunch, or sautéed as a side dish for dinner.

When you move to a new continent, the knowledge you had about the wild becomes obsolete. And foraging for mushrooms without the necessary knowledge can be dangerous — even deadly.

Julie Biedrzycki and Heather Cornelius, nature educators with expertise in wild mushrooms, graciously filled my knowledge gap over a tasting lunch of wild edibles. Biedrzycki and Cornelius are president and vice president, respectively, of Ancestral Knowledge’s board of directors. The Greenbelt-based nonprofit, according to its website, “is operated by a community of naturalists who specialize in native life skills and philosophies that support sustainable lifestyles.” 

As we sit in front of Biedrzycki’s century-old log-cabin, tucked in the woods less than four miles from Hyattsville, her four home-schooled, or “nature-schooled,” children play nearby, surrounded by half a dozen chickens and a sweet mutt. What I had expected to be a few simple dishes turns out to be a delicious, gourmet-style menu: chicken liver pâté with white wine and maitake mushrooms; pickled maitake; risotto with venison and roasted maitake; oyster mushroom tempura; lion’s mane faux crabcakes (see the recipe below for a similar version); candied trifoliate orange peel; and a handful of chiffonade ramps. 

Lion’s mane mushrooms most often grow from the wood of dead or dying deciduous trees.
Courtesy of Julie Biedrzyck

While savoring every bite of food and chatting away, I pick up a load of information. Here are important tips for budding mushroom foragers:

  1. Hands-on and in-person experience with someone who knows is the best way to learn and build confidence on identifying genus and species for edibles in general. Ancestral Knowledge offers wild edible plant and mushroom walks. (The next one will take place May 19, 1 to 4 p.m., in Greenbelt.) 
  2. Mushrooms are not poisonous to the touch — only if eaten. Handling a mushroom is the best way to know what you have found, yet it is never safe to consume any you haven’t learned to ID properly.
  3. Mushrooms, even commercially grown, should never be eaten raw. They contain a compound called chitin that is hard to break down and can cause stomach issues.
  4. Before cooking with foraged mushrooms, go through them one by one to make sure each is the right variety. You can make a spore print or ask an expert if you are unsure. 
  5. Mushrooms that can be considered safe for beginners are chanterelles, chicken of the woods, maitake, lion’s mane, oyster mushrooms, black trumpets and morels.
  6. Consider ordering a grow-your-own mushroom kit — for example, from The Garden International in Beltsville

Mushroom resources:

  • Mushrooms of the Southeast by Todd Elliott and Mushrooms of the Northeast

by Teresa Marrone and Walt Sturgeon

Lion’s Mane ‘Crab’cakes

These faux crabcakes are a perfect alternative for anyone who cannot eat Maryland’s most famous contribution to the culinary world! Lion’s mane mushrooms grow on trees in the mid-Atlantic region. You can also find them at local farmers markets or Mount Rainier’s Glut Food Co-op.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb lion’s mane mushrooms
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • ¼ cup minced scallion
  • ¼ cup minced red bell pepper
  • ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
  • ¼ cup full-fat yogurt or mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 large egg
  • salt to taste
  • all-purpose flour for dredging
  • avocado oil 

Directions:

Pick the lion’s mane mushrooms into pieces resembling crab meat. Place in a pan with water and ¼ tablespoon salt, cover and bring to a simmer, stir, cover, and cook for a few minutes. Allow them to cool, then squeeze out as much water as you can. 

Combine the mushrooms with the other ingredients (except the flour and oil) and mix well. Let the mix rest for at least 15 minutes. 

Form 4-ounce patties of the mixture and gently dredge the cakes in flour on both sides. Heat a pan with a few tablespoons of avocado oil to medium heat. When one side of the cakes is golden brown, after about 3 to 4 minutes, gently flip the cakes and brown 3 to 4 minutes on the other side. 

(Recipe adapted from “Lion’s mane or Hericium mushroom crabcakes” by Alan Bergo.) 

Imke Ahlf-Wien is a nutrition educator with a passion for fresh, locally procured foods.

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