In any culture there is a segment of the population that goes about its business unnoticed—or at least underappreciated--by the rest. It consists of the workers and toilers quietly but diligently doing work integral to the function of society. It might be the garbage collector, the motel maid, the fry cook, the bus driver; each shoulders a portion of the burden important to the day-to-day well being of America but does it without fanfare and headlines. In the absence of these “worker bees,” society as we know it would quickly and certainly stumble and fall.
In similar unflashy form, the organisms responsible for the cleanup and maintenance of the natural world do their work without much hoopla either. We don’t see them in zoos, they are not depicted on greeting cards, they don’t represent a school’s mascot, yet bacteria, fungi, protozoa, tiny insects, and other organisms work nonstop at breaking down and recycling every piece of organic material in our world. Without them, our lives would be impossible.
One tiny corner of this underworld has a certain attractive appeal to some of us though. Some--certainly not all--fungi are edible. Indeed a few of the mushrooms which seemingly appear overnight on the ground or on trees are incredibly delicious. So sought after (and lucrative) are some in certain parts of the country that they become the casus belli for vicious turf wars.
Please don’t treat this as a license to go out and start cooking with every mushroom you see sprouting in your lawn. On the contrary, never ever pick or eat mushrooms without knowing exactly what you are doing. Even in this Information Age, people die from eating poisonous fungi, or at the very least become sick.
I’m not a mycologist yet over the years I have come to know a handful of species that I will pick and eat with confidence. Maybe that’s the best advice I can offer, get to know a few and stick with them then only venture beyond those with rock solid information.
With that in mind let me carefully attempt to offer up one possibility for those willing to pick wild mushrooms: Shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus). I chose this one for two reasons. One, I harvested and cooked some last weekend and, two, author and mushroom expert Michael Kuo says this particular fungus is “well known and relatively easily recognized.”
Likely due to the rains of last weekend I found a large grouping of shaggy manes pushing up through the grass in a local park. I quickly picked them and brought them home. That night I baked a shaggy mane chicken tetrazzini (recipe in sidebar) that turned out to be quite delicious.
Identifying them is easy once you’ve seen a few. Their shape, structure, appearance, and habit should set this one apart from anything else. They are found on tall white columnar stems. Draping over and nearly covering the entire stems are white caps covered in scales ranging from light tan to brown giving it the appearance of a shaggy layered wig. A small white ring encircles the stem at a young age and drops toward the ground as it matures.
The giveaway for shaggy manes is its habit of “deliquescing.” That is, within hours this fungus’s gills liquefy into a black inky mess. For this reason it should be harvested and used that day or the next morning at the latest.
Interestingly these mushrooms are known to exhibit a staggering feat of strength. When enough of them are sprouting en masse they can lift and separate slabs of asphalt.
While shaggy manes are not at the top of many lists of sought-after mushrooms, they still impart a wonderfully delicate and mild taste to any dish. Given the fact it can be found worldwide in a variety of habitats, it makes for a good first choice for trying wild mushrooms.
Shaggy Mane Chicken Tetrazzini
• 1 pound shaggy mane mushrooms, sliced in half
• 4 tablespoons butter
• 1 pound cooked chicken or turkey meat
• 1-1/2 tablespoons flour
• 2 cups chicken broth
• 1 cup half and half
• 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1/4 cup dry sherry
• 1/2 pound vermicelli
• 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a saucepan, sauté the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of the butter for 5 to 10 minutes, or until brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and mix with the chicken meat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter to the same pan and add the flour. Cook and stir for 2 or 3 minutes. Using a whisk, blend the chicken broth into the flour, whisking continually. When the sauce is thick, add the half and half, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and sherry. Continue to cook until the sauce is well blended. Remove from the heat.
Cook the vermicelli in a large amount of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain.
Mix half of the sauce with the chicken and mushroom mixture, and the other half with the vermicelli.
Alternate layers of vermicelli with the chicken and mushroom mixture in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese on top and bake in a preheated 350º oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until bubbling and brown.
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course
Teeda LoCodo, from the Cookbook of the Mycological Society of San Francisco