Right in Our Backyard
By Bill Lawyer
What’s bustin’ out all over Rye this time of year are mysterious fungi. It’s not really surprising this summer we’ve had hot, dry days followed by hot, humid, and rainy ones, which provides the perfect conditions mushrooms need to “fruit.”
The fungus kingdom is so different from the plant and animal kingdoms that it’s difficult to nail it down. Keeping things simple, fungi eat, grow, and reproduce in a way that helps the decomposition and nourishment of flowers, trees, and other organisms. Mushrooms are the common names of various types of fungi. The scientists who study them are mycologists.
All fungi have extensive underground mycelia, busy interacting with the roots of trees and shrubs around them to keep themselves well nourished.
It’s only now that the fruits suddenly appear.
Why should anyone care about fungi? They’re not pretty. You can’t pluck them from the ground and put them in a vase to decorate your dining room table. Some are quite disgusting.
Well, there is one very negative reason for studying them — many are highly toxic. People should not eat any mushroom unless they really know it’s safe.
Over the years I participated in many mushroom walks at the Greenburgh Nature Center and other wooded preserves. Many of them were led by late, legendary mycologist Sylvia Stein, from the New York Botanical Garden. Even in drier weather, we could always find 15-20 varieties.
Realistically though, the study of mushrooms should be just that — studying them, not eating them.
My ability to sort out edible local mushrooms is limited to three species: giant puffballs, morels, and chanterelles.
But in an overabundance of caution, without expert guidance I limit my eating to the giant puffballs. And even they have to be white and fresh, with the rind having a skin texture of kid-leather. Within a day or two, depending on the weather, they’re dried out and have begun to expose the spore mass. They can be larger than a rugby football — the bigger the better. They usually bear fruit in September, but they often get cut up by lawnmowers before they mature.
Mycologists describe morels as “a rather conical, narrow species with often very regular, parallel ribs.” They are frequently found growing on the exposed roots and soil around old apple orchards. Even now, despite the fact that most of the apple orchards are gone from Westchester, the morels remain behind, decomposing the roots, as a testament to their perseverance. They only “bloom” in the spring.
Chanterelles can be found nearly all over the world, and they can be recognized by their funnel-shaped fruits, one to six inches apart. They are widely held to be the most delicious of all fungi, with their yellow-orange color and meaty texture. Stop in most food shops in France and you’ll see baskets full of chanterelles. Some cafes allow customers to pick out the ones to go with their meal.
While there is one negative reason to study mushrooms, there are also some very positive ones. First, they help expand our understanding of how these organisms have evolved and fit into the earthly food chain.
Also, they are helpful in learning how the biochemical ingredients of mushrooms can provide solutions to a variety of health problems.
And what would detective story authors do without deadly poisonous mushrooms to move their plots along?
But mostly, despite their weird shapes, sizes, and compositions, many species are wonderful to eat. They can be consumed alone or in conjunction with everything from omelets and casseroles to stews and soups.
With puffballs, after removing the rind you can cut them into one-inch thick slices and sauté them in butter. They will shrink in size as they heat, so don’t let them cook too long. You can also cut them up and cook them with scrambled eggs. This is just scratching the surface.
But then, not all of us have time to go out foraging for mushrooms in the countryside.
Commercial mushroom farmers have been growing their substrate crops in southeastern Pennsylvania for more than 120 years. The Mushroom Farmers of Pennsylvania supports 68 mushroom farms in the state that produce 63 percent of all U.S. white (button) mushrooms — valued at $554.4 million.
They also a commercially grow a number of more expensive specialty mushrooms, the most popular being Shitake, Oyster, Wood Ear, Straw, Enokitake, and Jelly.
Note that this list does not include the very popular portobellos, which are actually the mature (3-7 days older) stage of the white button mushrooms mentioned above. Their texture and taste make them a great ingredient in a wide range of dishes — such as the grilled portobello mushroom sandwich featured at Kelly’s Sea Level.
So, enjoy the edible mushrooms, but avoid the lure of ones you’re not sure of right in your backyard.
Mushrooms growing in a front yard in Rye