Over the years emerging prairie naturalist Nicole Zempel has become the “lemonade girl.” Allow me to explain … using her own observations and writing.
Early last summer Zempel invited me into one of her sanctuaries. Surrounded by craggy gneiss and granite outcroppings, this was a mix of wood and prairie along a bend of the Minnesota River. It’s a stretch of the river the two of us have paddled past numerous times, although I had not entered the adjacent countryside until her invitation. Columbines, grasping nooks of the outcrops, and other forbs were in full bloom. Some in wood, others in grass. Along the course of our foray we were quick to point out our respective observations.
My long time friend, Nicole Zempel, went into the woods to “find herself,” and emerged with gifts to share thanks to her wonder and eyesight.
Fungi is truly one of my passions, get me talking about it, ask me a question, and I can go on and on and on.
I guess as good a place to start as any is to say that fungi isstillplentiful during the winter months.
While there are plenty of fine edibles to be found during the winter months, that’s not my main focus.
Truth be told, I just enjoy learning all that I can about fungi.
I used to think of winter as pretty dull and drab. What I’ve discovered is that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Trust me, there is a world of color to be discovered!
Winter helps train our eyes to see more.
The colorful rosette of Turkey Tail, the bright yellow or rusty reds of slime mold, rocks or tree bark acting as natures canvas for moss or lichen, the shape of a tree…
These are the things I might have overlooked during greener times what with the explosion of additional life.
Not so any longer – when the snow melts that gift of “seeing” stays with me.
The trick is to get out there and explore!
I used to curse the snow – not so any longer (well, usually not). I feel it has helped to make me a better explorer and forager.
Fungi can be harder to spot with a blanket of snow cover, so I’ve learned (and continue to learn) other things that I need to look for in order to find that fungi.
Maybe a certain kind of tree, deadfall and stumps (often one of the best places to look), or it can be as simple as learning to look up more often.
Yes, it seems we foragers tend to have our eyes to the ground a lot.
Looking up will reveal many kinds of beautiful bracket fungi and some fine edible mushrooms – all growing on trees or rotting stumps / logs.
Something else to keep in mind – certain types of fungi continue to fruit in the same spot year after year, so visiting those locations can also be beneficial. The Velvet Foot is one such mushroom.
As is the edible Oyster mushroom.
Of course, they aren’t always up high. I’ve also found them low enough for the deer to beat me to them.
All said, winter wandering is also a great time to discover some things you may have missed during the warmer months – as in edibles.
This winter I have discovered a few locations where I will more than likely find Chicken of the Woods come spring.
How do I know? Because I found the dried remains.
I’ve also discovered the remains of a fascinating mushroom called the Jack O’ Lantern – I refer to them as “nature’s night lights” because they are bioluminescent.
How cool is that!
I’ve not stumbled upon them “in season” so have never seen them glow – but, thanks to my winter wandering, that will change come warmer weather.
A non-edible, in fact DEADLY, mushroom called the Galerina is also found during cool to cold weather months.
But, like I said, it’s not just about edibles – it’s about learning and the Galerina is an interesting mushroom.
As little as one cap (pictured below) is enough to cause death.
The thing about the Galerina, though, is that it can take up to eight days for a person to feel ill. By this time the toxins have been in the process of destroying liver function. Those that do survive tend to do so because of a liver transplant.
Useless knowledge, or maybe not so useless – but incredibly interesting!
And I’m not done yet! One of my favorites to find…the Turkey Tail.
There are countless displays of Turkey Tail mushrooms, praised for their medicinal properties and they come in an array of brilliant colors.
I could go on and on with these but you get the idea.
I also can’t forget to mention another interesting mushroom called the Split Gill. It is edible, but it’s considered more of an emergency edible.
It’s a fun little mushroom to photograph. The Split Gill is extremely tough and can last many seasons – during dryer times it looks dehydrated (topmost photo). When hydrated it’s color turns from a buff tan to a bright white.
So, what about the occasional winter blizzard or subzero temperatures – days when I’d prefer to stay indoors?
I’ve started to experiment with some of the various forms of fungi that I harvest. The Dyer’s Polypore for example is used as a natural dye. So, I’ve started experimenting with this. More about this some other time.
Then there are days spent in my kitchen experimenting with and getting to know the many edible mushrooms that I’ve harvested.
And, I’ve started to dabble with making what I like to call “fungi art.”
There are moments of contemplation too – things I stumble upon in the woods that are so incredible – it stays with we.
Like this Turkey Tail…
You may just see a Turkey Tail with a blade of grass – but I see the intelligence and kindness of the natural world!
I’ve seen it many times and I am always amazed. Fungi allows grass, young trees, plants, etc. the space to continue growing – while also continuing to grow itself!
And so, my desire to explore and to learn – all of this still happens during the winter. Sometimes, even more so.
Besides, a curious nature doesn’t go into hibernation.
I was aware of each and every step forward, weighted by the heaviness of wet snow and winter boots.
As I continued to trudge my own path through winters’ wonderland the secret movements and habits of otherwise reclusive forest inhabitants were revealed to me.
Further evidence of life, not that I required any.
Droplets from thawing limbs glistened. The crisp air filtering through my scarf, wrapped around my mouth and nose for added warmth, was refreshing.
With each warm exhalation I slipped into a rhythm.
Enveloped in a vacuum-like stillness that is unique to winter I continued onward.
For reasons unexplained, in this stillness there is a heightening of the senses. Ones ability to hear seems amplified. The scurrying of a squirrel can easily be mistaken for some forest giant, the snapping of a stick will let you know that you have company, you will hear the winged motion of an eagle flying just overhead.
It seems out of necessity that sight is sharpened, looking far beyond what is immediately visible to reveal what I like to call countless “big little worlds.”
Working a little harder for each step, I thought to myself, “winter isn’t so bad.”
And I meant it.
I wasn’t searching for something to appreciate as I have in the past – as I had done for far too many years.
My previous earnest efforts to make winter tolerable included exactly this:
My dog Rae enjoys the snow with all the excitement of a young child
Some native plant seeds require cold to germinate
I love spring (therefore gotta have winter)
But, I’ve finally come to my senses and discovered winter isn’t just to be tolerated, it is to be celebrated.
What’s with the change you might wonder?
It started with an insatiable interest in fungi.
It is precisely this passion that gets me out of bed early and out of doors each and every weekend.
Staying in-doors watching videos of mushroom hunting would not suffice. It only intensified my desire to get out there and see what I could see.
Spring rain doesn’t keep me in and so I affirmed that neither would some snow or cold. Short of a blizzard or subzero temps, nothing was going to hamper my ability to explore.
It is an interest in fungi that brings me to the woods.
BUT, as it turns out, it is the woods that continue to teach me to embrace this awesome season of renewal.
I can think of no better example than the search for color amongst an otherwise seemingly white backdrop.
Believe me, there are plenty of colors to be found, and the search is part of the fun. Once you know where to look – colors begin to jump out even when you aren’t looking.
Winter becomes a little less “drab.”
Brilliant, colorful displays of lichen adorn the bark of a trees and use numerous Minnesota River Valley rock outcrops as natures canvas.
Massive moss covered rock walls of vibrant greens and shades of amber add another layer of life. The same can be said for rotting tree stumps, stones, or forest hillsides…
Absent moss, many of the rock outcrops have interesting patterns and colors revealing layers of time…
Then there are the trees…
There was a time when I only saw beauty in the leafy canopy’s. Not so any longer!
I have admired the shapes – every strange twist and bend in the search for light or to make room for some neighbor.
I’ve had the pleasure of noticing creases or old wounds.
I’ve admired lichen covered bark – hues of teal, yellow, peach and more.
I’ve sat alongside a downed tree and lost count of the various forms of life found on one log.
I’ve even pondered the life of trees – some large enough to know they’ve been around before the River Valley was settled by European immigrants.
These giants have been witness to and have adapted to incredible changes. For better or for worse.
I’ve stumbled upon some old Minnesota River Valley relics that have taken my breath away.
Trees have offered me perspective.
Trees have taught me about strength and will.
Trees have taught me that in the forest “time” is but a ring on a tree. A message I take with me while not in the forest.
The giant nests of majestic Bald Eagles built upon the highest of limbs overlooking the Minnesota River become visible.
I’ve learned that trees give, always. Even after they have transitioned into decay.
They are home to insects and critters, the stashing places of squirrels, and continue to share in symbiotic relationships with fungi.
This can result in some wonderful wild edible finds.
As if all this isn’t reward enough, there are moments like this…
All of this and I haven’t even gotten to the Fungi yet! Yes, fungi can be found all twelve months of the calendar year.
A good Segway into my next post I suppose.
In the meanwhile, here’s to appreciating the glory in each season that is upon us!
Infused with the essence of the fruitiest of apricots one can imagine – my kitchen came alive on a lazy Sunday afternoon!
Well, not completely lazy.
Thinking it not polite to attend a gathering with out something to offer I was on-the-go preparing a variety of wild mushrooms.
Tasting would commence the following day at a talk I was to give about one of my favorite things to talk about…wild mushrooms!
It wasn’t long before the wonderful smell permeated my entire home and brought a little added spring to my step.
Closing my eyes – I was back in the woods on some late summer, early fall day without having left my home.
Back a little farther (or a lot farther) – I am a young child at the lake running from the beach to grab my air dried towel off the clothes line.
I bury my face in the crumpled up towel and breathe in an airy sort of freshness like no other.
I am grateful to the brightly colored Chanterelle for bringing me back to my childhood, back to fond summertime memories.
My mind wandering – I was enjoying the preparation.
When I first stumbled upon bright orange Chanterelles dotting a gentle forest slope, it took me awhile to place that fruity smell – unmistakable – and one of the identifying features, it reminded me of something else.
If you’ve ever left clothes out on a line during a spring rain and then to dry in the fresh air – you’ll know the smell.
But back to the kitchen and task at hand – my menu for a group of twenty consisted of what I had on hand – not as many Morels as what I thought I had (they are always the first to go), and plenty of Chanterelles, Honey and Chicken of the Woods.
My plan was to prepare the different mushrooms in a way that would highlight the unique flavor and individuality of each.
Therefore, not many bells and whistles were called for, nor desired.
I was especially excited to experiment in ways I hadn’t previously – particularly with the Morel and Chanterelle.
In fact I feel as though I forged new bonds with both of these wild edibles.
A seemingly simple, but very important lesson right off the bat – BUTTER matters.
I could never understand, barring health issues, when offered a choice between salted or unsalted butter why anyone would choose to use unsalted butter.
Let’s just say my Midwestern eyes have been opened to the glory of unsalted butter and I get it now.
It coated nicely and enhanced the sautéing process with out adding to or taking away from any flavors.
Let’s just say I’m a convert – depending upon the mushroom.
As any Morel lover will tell you – it is an incredibly versatile mushroom and pairs well with pretty much everything.
But on this day, and for this talk, it was about the essence of this marvelous mushroom. For me, nothing screams “essence” more than my very first taste.
My sister-in-law had prepared a plateful of fried Morels. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Using only a bit of flour, a cage free egg or two, kosher salt, pepper and salted butter.
Depending upon size she cut each Morel in halves or quarters, coated and fried. The realization that I only had a small amount left, truly enough for maybe three people – I needed enough for about twenty.
I needed a plan B – for bang. And, I needed to stretch that flavor as far as I could take it so that everyone could share in the joys of getting to know the Morel.
The big flavor of the morel tends to infuse whatever it is cooked with. I would make a Morel sauce.
This way the poor sap without a piece of actual mushroom in his/her bite could at least experience its rich, earthy flavor.
Coincidently, this super easy sauce turned out to be the group favorite!
I sautéed the Morels in a bit of salted butter until cooked thoroughly.
Setting them aside and using the same fry pan I melted additional butter with a couple spoonful’s of flour until well combined.
I poured in a couple cups of half and half, stirring until desired thickness. To this I added some kosher salt, some pepper and the Morels.
I imagined that this universal sauce would be a fantastic compliment to roasted asparagus, pork, beef, chicken, wild game, pasta, etc.
It only took a few minutes to make, tasted delicious, and kept well in the fridge.
Next, the Chanterelles.
I’ve always used them in sauces for pasta dishes, but I already had a cream sauce and I really wanted to show the Chanterelle in a way that would surprise people.
I wanted to demonstrate just how diverse and versatile wild mushrooms truly are.
So, I candied them. This brought out that sweet “fruitiness.” And, the very idea that a mushroom could be used in desserts was a surprise indeed!
Delicious, easy to prepare, and while I prefer them warm – they do keep well in the fridge.
Since the Chanterelle releases its own water upon sautéing I let them simmer in their own aromatic juices and a bit of unsalted butter until done.
I then added pure cane sugar (little by little) as it absorbed into the natural juices. I continued this until they were just how I wanted them.
Placing the candied chanterelles on a cookie tray in the oven to give an added crisp would be fantastic chopped up and served with ice cream alone or added to a drizzle topping
On to the Chicken of the Woods. Like the Morel, it is a very rich, earthy mushroom – and is incredibly versatile.
My friends use it in various rice or pasta dishes – just like chicken. But I’ve also seen it used as a topping for grilled steak or simply a stand alone side.
Keeping it simple I sautéed the slices in salted butter and some garlic. That’s it.
Excellent and also one of the more filling mushrooms by its very nature.
And, last but in no way least the Honey mushroom which has a bit of a nutty taste.
Visually, when fully prepared the Honey also looks most similar to what one finds in the produce isle at the grocery. Think buttons.
Great on pizza, in sauces, and a wonderful companion to chicken, beef, pork, pasta dishes, veggies, etc.
Sautéed in a bit of unsalted butter and sprinkled with a bit of pepper – they were ready. And, like the others, kept well in the fridge.
All in all, it was a fun talk with a fun group of people. Someone piped up and asked, with a grin, “So how many food groups do we have represented here?”
I set out to demonstrate how unique and versatile wild mushrooms are. I smiled and knew I had done my job!
The nutty Honey, the meaty Chicken of the Woods, the fruity Chanterelle and that divine Morel sauce had also done their jobs!
Fields of wild onion in bloom is a marvelous spectacle, and something to behold.
The slightest breeze will bestow upon the observer the whimsical illusion of pink and purple blooms suspended in the air – floating above the prairie grasses.
The wild onion is a lovely and aromatic edible that is native to our diminishing prairielands.
Most ID books will tell the reader not to disturb because the wild onion, as with many other native plants, is threatened.
Along with this sad truth – any ID book will tell you the basics.
The Allium Stellatum.
Bloom: Summer, fall
Cycle: Perennial, native
Habitat: dry, sun, prairies, rocky soils
Range, Leaf, Flower…blah, blah, blah….blah, blah, blah, blah
Have you ever thought that perhaps most important is what is NOT found in an ID book?
What of the plants life? In this case, the story of the wild onion? Like human beings, plants too, have a life.
Life, has a story to share.
Lead Plant – A Native Prairie Plant
Green or Blue Staining Cup ?
Native Silver Leaf
Wild Prairie Turnip
Split Gill Mushroom
Coneflower – A Native Prairie Plant
It’s found within the knowledge handed from one generation to the next.
When we glimpse beyond the description in a book – we begin to see and share in a more intimate relationship with our surroundings.
For instance, I’m 5′ 2 and a HALF inches. I have sandy blond hair, blue eyes and weigh around 123 pounds on a good day.
Does this description encapsulate me as a living being? Not even close.
Why should it be any different with plants?
If we allow, plants will offer us a heightened connection to the land, to the people, and to the history of a place.
Some of our fondest and simplest of memories – a taste, a smell, a time of year, a harvest and preparation, conversation and dinner shared amongst family and friends, a walk on a beautiful day – are plants not a part of all of these?
Mention eating or sharing your bounty of wild mushrooms with others and you’re sure to get one of three responses.
1.) Reluctance = “Well…I don’t know…have you eaten any yet?”
A very valid question mind you, but often invites a sarcastic answer. To be sure, I always consume before sharing with others. And, prior to that, I practice proper diligence in identification. I consult a number of ID books and sometimes take a spore print.
2.) Avoidance = “What!…no way…it’s too dangerous.”
Fear is a beast and robs us of what could very well be our most valued and rich life experiences. As with anything, the more we surround ourselves with and learn about the things (we think) we fear – we tend to fear less. Some of the most important moments in my life have happened outside of my comfort zone.
3.) Excitement = “Yes! How do I cook them?”
And that is what this particular post is all about!
Note to the adventurous – before consuming any mushroom do some research of your own.
Behold the Scaly Inky Cap.
Scaly Inky Cap – Edible Stage
Scaly Inky Cap – Edible Stage
Scaly Inky Cap – Past Its Prime
Scaly Inky Cap – Past Its Prime
Scaly Inky Cap – Past It’s Prime
Edible when young yes, but will cause illness if consumed within several days of drinking alcohol – either before or after the mushrooms are eaten.
Highlighting the importance of research, the result is said to be, “Like the worst hangover imaginable, or even worse.”
My introduction into the world of wild mushrooms was when a platter full of fried Morel mushrooms was placed in front of me. I was hooked!
They can be enjoyed in so many ways, but I remain partial to dipping them in a little bit of flour and egg and frying in some butter. A crispy coating with a tender mushroom center.
Really, Morels are excellent any way you choose to prepare them. Omelets, sauces, gravies, you name it.
They are one of the first mushrooms to appear in the Spring – as soon as the ground thaws. If you are lucky enough to stumble upon a patch, be sure and check back the following year – odds are they will be there.
Fried Morels – oh so good!!
Another early mushroom often found by Morel hunters is the Dryad’s Saddle. If conditions are right they may be found in the summer and fall too.
Everything I’d read about the Dryad’s Saddle made me not want to bother. Texturally they were said to be rubbery, leathery, corky or otherwise tough.
Curiosity did eventually get the better of me and I harvested these.
Dryad’s Saddle & Morels
To say the texture was rubbery or leathery would be an understatement. I worked up a sweat cleaning and preparing these.
A saw would’ve come in handy. For my efforts I couldn’t chew the finished product. Bummer.
Following this less than desirable experience I was determined to find a way to enjoy this mushroom.
Further study revealed that what I had harvested was essentially past its prime. The key to enjoying this truly delicious mushroom is to harvest when young. About the size of a tennis ball, or smaller.
Also, a quick look at the underside is a good indication. Once the porous surface becomes swollen or more visible – grab that saw.
What a difference! This mushroom went from tree to skillet in less than five minutes. It was very tender and sliced easily. A tip – cut thin slices.
Dryad’s Saddle (Prepared with butter and a bit of garlic)
Cook all wild mushrooms thorougly
The Dryad’s Saddle smells like watermelon rind and in my opinion requires little to no seasoning. I found the taste to resemble that of a cucumber. It’s light and fresh.
I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine this would be excellent served with wild game – specifically pheasant.
In the case of the Dryad’s Saddle it paid to be a little stubborn and not give up on it so easily.
There may be nothing better (in my opinion) than the taste of the Morel – but I can say the fruity aroma of the Chanterelle is something to behold.
Reminiscent of an apricot – if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a large patch – close your eyes and breath in. Deeply.
Aside from the wonderful fruity essence – the Chanterelle is a beautiful mushroom. Note the folds (not true gills) on the underside – another distinguishing feature.
Notice the folds (not gills) on the underside
The white flesh of the Chanterelle
Chanterelles are brilliant in color
My first sampling of the Chanterelle
I prefer younger Chanterelles – they have less of a chance of becoming infested with larvae and they require little cleaning.
When frying the Chanterelle – you’ll more than likely notice quite a bit of water in the skillet. I continue to fry, removing the water every so often. When water is no longer released I crisp them up a bit and serve.
The Chanterelle is excellent with pasta dishes. I’ve read that because of it’s “nutty and slightly sugared” flavor it’s been used in dessert dishes and even as a topping for ice cream.
I’m still experimenting with the Chanterelle, and enjoying that fruity smell….
A mushroom that is hard to miss – quite literally, and easily identified is the Chicken of the Woods.
Found toward the latter part of Summer and into Fall – not only a stunningly beautiful mushroom – but when placed in the skillet the smell is out of this world.
Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the Woods
Lacking an adequate description, they smell “earthy” or like a “very strong” mushroom. Once on the skillet this is intensified and permeates the house.
True to it’s name – this mushroom does kind of taste like chicken. And like chicken, this mushroom is incredibly versatile.
Prepared with a bit of garlic and butter it can stand alone or be included in any variety of rice dishes. Oh so good!
The underside of the Chicken of the Woods is a vibrant yellow porous surface. The top, various shades of yellow and orange.
One mushroom goes a very long way as they are a very filling and hearty mushroom. In addition to being a fantastic edible – it’s also said to be a strong anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogen.
While not all mushrooms are edible, they are all truly fascinating!
They are mysterious – science is still learning about their intelligent and awesome abilities as well as the symbiotic relationships shared with their surroundings.
Beyond this – there is more unknown than known about the majority of mushrooms out there.
For the mushroom enthusiast – it isn’t all about edibility – it’s about learning.
Happy hunting, happy eating and happy sharing – it’s all part of the experience!
I imagine the Plantain plant, growing on a once vast prairie, providing for the various needs of the people living there. A time when “weeds” didn’t exist.
I don’t understand how so many wonderful, powerful plants – with any array of special powers can be reduced to nothing more than a “weed.” Boy are these folks missing out on the magic in their own backyard.
My yard has always been a chemical free zone and is no longer perfectly manicured. In fact, over the past few years I’ve been transforming it (little by little) into a wild, edible and primarily native yard.
What I’ve noticed is that I don’t buy as much bird food – they seem to prefer a more natural feast found in my yard.
A sweet little hummingbird visits about the same time every evening and tends to favor the Catnip plants – I’ve also seen it visit the Honeysuckle and Columbine.
The bees and butterflies too visit several plants – seeming to favor Coneflowers, Bergamot, Black-Eyed Susan’s, and Catmint.
I quickly realized that I use little to no water. The plants being native to this place are well suited to survive and withstand whatever mother nature throws their way.
And, while I still pull thistle and crab grass and continue an on-going battle with the Ox-Eye Daisy – which is incredibly invasive, my yard is pretty low maintenance.
The joy I experience sitting in my yard and gazing off into the prairie is gratifying and hopefully a little bit contagious.
I feel peace and calm in the observation of life and its many cycles – otherwise known as the magic in my own backyard.