by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
August is the best of times and August is the worst of times. I forever think of August as spider month or more aptly spider web in the face month. Going for a walk in the woods in August means looking like a fool as you dive backwards to avoid the spider web at the last moment. Before I begin to look the fool, I revel in the bounty emerging from the land as the calendar turns from July to August. This bounty comes in the form of edible mushrooms named chicken of the woods and chanterelles.
Chicken of the woods is an easily identified mushroom due to its color, size and growing medium. This vibrant yellow-orange polypore can be found throughout the Wintergreen landscape. It grows on dead or dying wood and won’t be found growing from the ground. It grows out from the wood in large brackets 2-10 inches wide in a layered, overlapping patterns that can prove quite large. This mushroom is commonly found from late July through September. With age, chicken of the woods diminishes in color, becomes more brittle, and is much less palatable.
The flavor of the mushroom may be the genesis of the name chicken of the woods. It has a distinct meaty flavor that is quite robust. Once you have located this tasty treat, I recommend quick preparation before eating or freezing. Although it can sit in a paper bag in your refrigerator for a week, it is best prepared fresh. Begin by wiping it off with a damp cloth and then cut it into smaller portions for cooking. They can be fried, sautéed, blanched or baked. A bit of oil and garlic in a frying pan is my preferred method but it can also be cooked with wine, butter or any preferred sauce. Go light on the liquid while cooking or the absorbent mushroom will give you a bloated feeling.
Chanterelles are wonderful summer treats with a much more delicate taste than the chicken of the woods. It ranges in color from yellow to deep orange which aid in finding them among the green of the herbaceous layer surrounding them. They grow out of the soil and can be from 2-5 inches across. They have false gills on their undersides that look like wrinkles. They tend to be found in rich soils and have a mycorrhizal relationship with oaks. The fruiting bodies can be found July–September. I recommend heading out the day after a good rain to find large areas of orange mushrooms rising out of the ground.
After you locate your patch of chanterelles, kitchen time has arrived. When I bring home chanterelles they are usually a bit dirty. Swish them in and out of some cold water without submerging them to avoid water absorption. Cook small mushrooms whole and slice the larger variety for uniform cooking. I prefer to brown them lightly in a bit of oil, butter or cream sauce. They release an apricot like aroma and maintain a great texture and appearance.
Cooking and eating mushrooms should be done cautiously at first. After you have mastered ID skills and picked your first edibles, cook your mushrooms but eat only a little bit at first. Mushrooms tend to treat each stomach differently.
Don’t let early August come and go without a venture into our rich woods to search for these two varieties. Both chicken of the woods and chanterelles offer a lot of value to any kitchen and are plentiful in our landscape. Make sure you begin your search before spider in the face season!