Tag Archives: mushrooms

Chicken-of-the-Woods

I have written a few posts on foraging and natural history in Britain, here’s a little post about a lovely edible mushroom:

As I was walking in Lyme Park at the weekend I kept an eye out for edible goodies. Lyme Park is great for oyster mushrooms because of the large number of beech trees in the forests there. However, I did not expect to find a splendid chicken-of-the woods growing on a dead tree trunk just off the path to the children’s play area! Goodness knows how many had walked past it unaware of the delicious treat..

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Although I am by no means an expert, I recognised it straight away – a large bracket fungus with multiple brackets with a beautiful and almost garish orange and sulphur-yellow coloration. In fact, another name for it is the sulphur polypore (the polypore part is because it doesn’t have gills on its underside like a typical fungus, but many tiny pores). There really is nothing else like it, so you can be pretty certain of what it is.

However, before I go on: always confirm you have correctly identified the fungus and check more than one field guide. The two I use are the River Cottage Handbook No.1: Mushrooms, for quick reference and the Collins Fungi Guide for more detailed descriptions. If you are not 100% sure of what you are picking, don’t pick it!

As with all fungi there is a certain amount of variation – there can be many brackets or a few, they can be a range of widths from a few inches to a couple of feet, the brackets can be neat and flat, or can look as though they’ve poured out and frozen, like orange lava, in a Dali-esque manner. The one I found had grown around blades of grass, trapping them like flies on amber. I didn’t take it all because I thought I’d see if the intact part would grow back – if I’m lucky I might be able to collect a regular ‘crop’ over the next few months!

Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo in situ because my phone has run out of batteries, but here’s a few pictures I have found in books and on the ‘net that shows off this variation:

2013-08-08 21.47.13   chicken wood tallchicken woods flatchicken woods tall

From (in order) John Wright, First Nature, Cornell University, Malcolm Storey

Chicken-of-the-woods, or to give its scientific name Laetiporus sulphurous, is only found on trees, and the trees can be living or dead. It is usually found in the Summer and Autumn, and occasionally in Winter if it is a mild one. It grows most commonly upon oak and also yew, cedar, cherry wood, sweet chestnut, and willow. It is worth pointing out that all Laetiporus species are edible except if found growing on poisonous trees such as yew and cedar.

Whilst on the subject of edibility, I should also mention that Laetiporus sulphurous is only edible when cooked.

Cooking with Chicken-of-the-Woods

This fungus is called chicken-of-the-woods because it’s firm flesh is pale and fibrous but tender, like chicken breast. For that reason it makes an excellent meat substitute for vegetarians. What a coincidence it is that I have a friend visiting me who is vegetarian; we could put the chickeniness to the test.

I did hope it was good because the chicken-of-the-woods I found was pretty big, weighing in at 2 kilograms and bigger than my head! It therefore would keep me and my visiting friend Stuart in meals for most of the week.

Preparing it is simple. Separate the brackets from each other and trim away and tough woody bits then rinse it under the tap briefly to get rid of any soil and creepy-crawlies, then slice it reasonably thinly. Then it is just a question of integrating it into a recipe. As you slice, you’ll notice that the flesh is rather dry, so when frying it you should add a little water so that it can absorb it and become more typically mushroomy in texture.

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Its firm flesh is tender and yielding and definitely has a truffle aroma and flavour when cooked – there’s a lot of umami going on in that mushroom! It’s definitely the tastiest wild mushroom I have found thus far. We couldn’t understand why it hasn’t been cultivated as food because it was so substantial and satisfying, and better than any TVP, Quorn or other mock meats. Maybe I’ve found a gap in the market…

Here’s what I made with it:

One third was turned in simple mushrooms on toast  – a recipe can be found for that here – the only changes I made was to add a little water after a few minutes’ sautéing, and to omit the cream/milk. Whenever you try a mushroom the first time, this is the thing to cook for it shows it off in all its glory! It fed 4.

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The second third was used in a stir fry with the typical stir-fry veg, soy, (vegetarian) oyster sauce and, again, some water. This really showed off its meaty qualities. Excellent. This fed 2.

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The last third was a spinach and chicken-of-the-woods lasagne. I made a simple béchamel sauce flavoured with Lancashire cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, then sautéed the mushrooms in olive oil, added some water and steamed the spinach on top of the mushrooms. Everything was layered up in the usual way, finished with some Parmesan and breadcrumbs and baked. This fed 4….

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Now it is all used up, and we didn’t even get bored of it. I do hope another grows back on that tree trunk…

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On a Mushroom Hunt

The British crops have been failing left, right and centre because of the all the warm and very, very wet weather we have had over this growing year. The fields and orchards have been chock full of mouldy, diseased-ridden peas, beans, apples, plums and pears. It’s been a great year for mould.

Mould is caused by fungi and luckily, this year has also been great for the fungi we like to eat: the mushrooms, so as long as they are doing well, we shall always have a good meal.

Tricholoma scalpuratum or yellowing knight

I am pretty new to mushroom hunting, but there are a few species that I already know and love, but faced with 120 000 species worldwide, of which 1841 are recognised as edible (though not necessarily by all). Luckily, I have a background in ecology and evolutionary biology and so I’m okay at identifying and classifying. However, the obvious problem here is that being okay is not good enough when it comes to mushrooms, as you may be rushing down to A & E with the family in an ambulance clutching your Collins Fungi Guide in your clammy palms.

Shaggy ink cap

Mushrooms have been held in high regard throughout history because, except for a few European species, they cannot be cultivated in any consistent way. There is no evidence that prehistoric man ate mushrooms, but they were certainly enjoyed in Ancient Egypt and Rome, indeed the Romans were the first to cultivate them. This art seemed to die out with them and it wasn’t resurrected until Victorian times. It’s strange to think that mushrooms were such an expensive ingredient that often had to be exchanged for oysters in many dishes. How times have changed.

Because mushrooms are notorious for their often narcotic and poisonous qualities, there were considered magic during the Middle Ages. Many an alchemist pored over the life cycle of fungi in an attempt to discover the secret of life itself – mushrooms had the amazing ability to create life from decay.

I could go through all the edible species of mushroom in Britain, but that would be rather boring so instead I thought I’d mention the ones I have found so far in this post and then add to it in further posts whenever I come across them.

Identifying Mushrooms

As I said, I am certainly no expert in fungus ID, but it is for this very reason that I take appropriate precautions.

First of all you need at least two good fungus guides: there is such variation within single species that there can be a lot of overlap between them and therefore potential misidentification. More than one book covers more variation. I think it is best to have one book with drawings and one with photographs. The two I use are the Collins Fungi Guide – which is very in-depth – and River Cottage Handbook No. 1: Mushrooms – which is much briefer but is full of hints and tips.

Aside from the mushroom you are interested in, you need to look for other things: are they single or in clumps, or even patterns? Where are they? Fields or woods? If they are in woods, are they on trees, if you what kind? Therefore it is very important that you know some of the trees: the main players are oak, beech and birch, so make sure you know them, or take along a tree guide with you too.

If I am not really sure at all, I take a photo of them where I found them and pick them with their bases intact so I can classify them later when I have time.

Jew’s ear or jelly fungus grows almost exclusively on elder

Do not be tempted to take any advice from old wives’ tales as they are almost always wrong. However, most poisonous species have three features that are worth bearing in mind: scales beneath the cap, a ring and a small sac at the stem’s base. Not all will have all three qualities, so not take this advice as read either. The important thing to remember is that if you are not completely sure, don’t eat it!

Over the last week or so I have come across shaggy inkcap, shaggy parasol, wood mushrooms, the rather anti-Semitically named Jew’s ear fungus and a huge host of , commonly called yellowing knight (though the one’s I found were not particularly yellow).

Two mushroom recipes

I cooked several dishes with our mushroom crop, but I shall just report two here.

Creamed mushrooms on toast

Simple, fast and will show off your mushrooms to their finest. It’s not for dieters.

Ingredients (per person)

1 double-handful of wild mushrooms

2 ounces of salted butter

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tsp of chopped thyme leaves

salt and pepper

5 or 6 tbs double cream

freshly-grated nutmeg

one thick slice of hot buttered toast

Pick over the mushrooms, wiping away any soil with a damp cloth. Melt the butter in a frying pan and when it stops sizzling add the garlic and thyme and fry until the garlic is soft. Tip in the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Stir and fry until the mushrooms given up then evaporated their juice. Add the cream and stir, adding a little nutmeg. Serve immediately on toast. Poached egg is optional.

Dried Mushrooms

When you have a glut of mushrooms, it’s a good idea to preserve them in some way. This is a recipe from Elizabeth Raffauld’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper that turns mushrooms into a delicious, rich and dark seasoning. I’ll leave it to her to tell you how to make it (I have added the odd note in parentheses).

Mushrooms before drying

“Take the thickest large buttons you can get, peel them, cut off the root end but don’t wash them. Spread them separately on pewter dishes [or on baking trays] and set them in a slow oven to dry [around 60-70⁰C]. Let the liquor dry up into the mushrooms, it makes the powder stronger, and then continue in the oven till you find they will powder [they will snap easily].

Mushrooms after drying

Then beat them in a marble mortar [or a blender] and sift them through a fine sieve with a little Chyan [Cayenne] pepper and pounded mace. Bottle it and keep it in a dry closet.”

Mushrooms powdered

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The Dumpling Eaters

For those of you not in the know, in England a dumpling is a small ball of suet dough that has been poached in water, milk, stock, soup or stew. Dumplings have been around for a while, and started life just a mixture of flour and water.

The Roman invasion force under Julius Caesar lands in Britain met by a horde of natives

by Mary Evans

During the Roman invasion and occupancy, somewhere around AD50, their own version of the dumpling was introduced that was made of lentils rather than flour. They didn’t catch on. As time passed, our own British dumpling began to get a little more complex: milk was added along with extra ingredients and became larger and larger until it had to wrapped in some cloth. It was at this point the pudding was born.  I’m not going to talk about puddings in this post as they need their own one themselves. The British then became famous for their puddings. The humble dumpling still remained very popular though and became quite upmarket in rich households: they were enriched with ingredients such as butter, bone marrow and sugar. Fresh and dried fruits were also popular.

King John signing the Magna Carta in Runnymede on 15th June 1215

King John (1166-1216), was a massive consumer of dumplings, and thought it necessary that on a Sunday every man in his court should breakfast on wine and dumplings. The king was advised by a Sir John and it was he who got King John into eating them. He was found out as a witch because he “had perform’d many Hellish and Diabolical Ceremonies”, including one that caused the king to think that the moon was made of green cheese. No-one seemed to blame the Magna Carta or the losing of the crown jewels on witchcraft though. His dumplings and puddings were so delicious that it was assumed that the reason for this but be that he was in league with the Devil. People soon realised it was because he put nice things in them, and forever onward, Sir John was named Sir John Pudding.

These two Johns were Dumpling Eaters according Messrs Thomas Gordon and Henry Carey in their bizarre essay from 1726: A Learned Dissertation on Dumpling; Its Dignity, Antiquity and Excellence With a Word upon Pudding; and Many other Useful Discoveries, of Great Benefit to the Publick. Snappy title, eh? The original Dumpling Eaters, they say, were a race that split from the Romans during their British occupancy. When the Romans left, these Dumpling Eaters ‘wisely resolv’d never to go Home again’, because they had devoped such a taste for them. They spent their time eating many dumplings and worshipping the god Bacchus rather heavily, if you get my meaning.  The Dumpling Eater Doctrine was still around in the early eighteenth century, where they could be found in their club house where they would eat ‘not only Dumplings but Puddings; and those in no small Quantities’. What became of the Dumpling Eaters, I do not know. I do hope there still an Order of them around.

There are many recipes for dumplings around, both sweet and savoury. I thought I’d share this recipe with you for wild mushroom dumplings which I made not too long ago. At my local Farmer’s Market, there was a stall selling locally picked mushrooms and I couldn’t resist. I had some duck stock that I had made in the freezer (see this post for recipe), so I thought I would make a nice clear duck soup into which I could poach my dumplings. I shall give some more recipes for dumplings as I find more recipes for them. The soup is of my own invention and the dumplings recipe comes from the always excellent Lyndsey Bareham.

For the soup

1 1/2 pints of duck stock

1 carrot, finely diced

a bay leaf

2 springs of fresh thyme

For the dumplings

2 oz self-raising flour

salt and pepper

1 oz suet

1 oz of wild mushrooms, finely diced

1 small shallot, finely diced

To make your duck stock clear, you need to clarify it. There are many ways to do this, but by far the easiest is to freeze it and then wrap it in a piece of muslin or a cloth and allow it to defrost slowly in the fridge.

You should find that the stock that comes out is perfectly filtered by the cloth. You’ll also be surprised at the solid bits left behind in the cloth.

Anyways, pour the stock into a pan along with the carrot, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for around five minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

During the simmering time, whip up your mushroom dumplings: mix together all the ingredients in a bowl and mix in just enough water to make a soft dough.

Take pieces of dough and roll them into balls a little smaller than a walnut. Place the dumping in the simmering soup, turning up the heat so that they cook through. They should be done in no longer than 15 minutes.

Easy!

More dumpling recipes:

Horseradish Dumplings

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The Pearls of the Fields

Autumn is nearly upon us and that means it will soon be mushroom season. I haven’t much experience with gathering mushrooms myself, but have found them in the past when walking in the woods. I reckon there are only about five types I can identify and be 100% sure I know what they are. When you do see some that you know, it is very exciting to collect them and bring them home. There is, apparently, a mushroom-collectors’ club in St Louis, so I shall be checking that out.

Oyster mushrooms are easy to find – they grow on dead beech trees

 Jew’s ear fungus is less well-known, but very easy to identify

Our relationship with mushrooms goes back a long, long way; mushrooms were consumed by Paleolithic man ten thousand years ago. Fungi, then as now, were not just used as food, but also as poison and for their narcotic effects.

Field and woodland mushrooms were highly-prized; it is odd to think that oysters were once used as a cheap mushroom substitute. These days, the basic mushroom is the closed cap cultivated kind, which was only grown on a large scale in the nineteenth century, so it is obvious why they were so highly sought-after. This was only in Britain though, the Romans managed to cultivate them way back when, as did the French a century before we British. We were just a bit slow on the uptake there, I suppose.

Mushrooms also were thought to be magical: they cause the familiar fairy rings you see during rainy periods in late summer and seemed to appear from nowhere. The first century Greek physician Dioscorides, suggested throwing the shredded bark of the poplar tree over compost to obtain mushrooms ‘spontaneously’ by ‘the grace of the gods’. In the Middle Ages, mushrooms were officially pronounced magical, and it was up to the alchemists of the day to try and discover the secret of creation from them (they must’ve become frustrated with the turning base metals into gold thing).

A fairy ring of mushrooms

Mushrooms have been used to give food an interesting meaty and earthy flavour to food. The reason they are so good for this job is that they all chock-full of umami – the recently-discovered fifth taste. Cooks in the eighteenth century made a lot of mushroom ketchup and mushroom powder for seasoning food, and I will make some myself eventually and put the results on this blog.

I love mushrooms of all kinds, so I thought I would give a couple of recipes – one historical, and the other a British classic.

Alexis Soyer (1810-1858)

The first is from a book called Shilling Cookery for the People by Alexis Soyer, published in 1854. He was the first celebrity chef and I am sure he’ll get a posting all to himself at some point. He happened upon some tasty field mushrooms and tells us the story of how he came up with a recipe for those ‘pearls of the field’:

“Being in Devonshire, at the end of September and walking across the fields before breakfast to a small farmhouse, I found three very fine mushrooms, which I thought would be a treat, but on arriving at the house I found it had no oven, a bad gridiron and a smoky coal fire. Necessity, they say, is the mother of Invention, I immediately applied to our grand and universal mamma, how should I dress my precious mushrooms, when a gentle whisper came to my ear… The sight when the glass is removed, is most inviting, its whiteness rivals the everlasting snows of Mont Blanc, and the taste is worthy of Lucullus. Vitellius would never have dined without it; Apicius would never have gone to Greece to seek for crawfish; and had he only half the fortune left when he committed suicide, he would have preferred to have left proud Rome and retire to some villa or cottage to enjoy such an enticing dish.”

I have reported this recipe in the other blog with Jane Grigson’s modifications for making the delicious dish yourself in a modern oven. Click here for the recipe. Try it – you will not be disappointed, no siree.

For some crazy reason there is no recipe for Cream of Mushroom Soup in Jane Grigson’s English Food. I do not know why this is because when I was thinking about recipes that were omitted from the book, it was one of the most glaringly obvious absentees. As you may know, it is one of the reasons for doing this blog – compiling recipes that were missed out of English Food. This recipe is one of my staples and is from Lindsey Bareham’s excellent book A Celebration of Soup. It is delicious and very quick to make and uses the old-fashioned way of thickening soups with the use of old bread.

Ingredients:

2 oz stale white bread

milk

1 lb mushrooms, finely chopped (any kind, but Portobello mushrooms are the best for this)

2 oz butter

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

2 tbs finely chopped parsley

salt, pepper and nutmeg

1 pint of chicken or vegetable stock

4 fl oz double cream

Place the bread in a dish and pour enough milk over it to make it nice and soggy. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the mushrooms.
Cover, and simmer for five minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread, break it up and add it to the pan along with the garlic, parsley and the seasonings (don’t be tight with that nutmeg, folks) before pouring the stock over the lot. Bring to a boil, and turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for a further ten minutes. Pop the soup into the blender, return to the pan, stir in the cream and bring back to the boil. Easy!

If you want to do a low-fat version, use some fat-free cream cheese like Quark, or just use milk instead of cream.

That’s enough mushroom talk for now, I think….

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