Monday, April 19, 2010

In the Weeds

Yesterday was the monthly Baltimore Food Makers pot luck, and about thirty of us enjoyed a picnic in the Jerusalem Mill area of Gunpowder Falls State Park. After eating we hiked through the park along the Gunpowder to the Jericho covered bridge and over into neighboring Flying Plow Farm, searching for wild edible plants the whole way.

Some folks from the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Group joined us for the day, and MAPS leader/expert wild foods forager Hue started us off with an appetizer of maple seed pods, and also picked up a pokeweed shoot and spring beauty corm for show-and-tell.

I also helped point out common wild edibles as we ranged through the park. My emphasis on these weed walks is on the weeds -- they're basically everywhere, even in the city; nobody cares if you kill the plant when you gather it; and many varieties are so abundant it's fairly easy to gather enough to feed a family and even preserve some for winter. So we started off taking a look at some common varieties -- dock, plantain, chick weed, dandelion, cow cress, day lily -- growing right by the park roadside.

Once we entered the forest, however, the emphasis was more on looking rather than gathering (with the promise of free-for-all foraging once we reached Flying Plow). The harvesting of native plants is prohibited in Maryland state parks, but we got to admire a pantheon of native varieties in situ. A partial list: skunk cabbage, jack-in-the-pulpits, wild ginger, trout lily, spring beauty, toothwort, greenbriar, wood nettle, jewel weed, and wild ginseng. We also found, in distressing abundance, invasive non-native edible species such as Japanese knotweed, lesser celandine and garlic mustard.

One of the highlights of the walk was when Hue spotted a hericium erinaceus -- lion's mane mushroom -- growing on a beech tree.

(Thanks to Aliza Ess for the photo -- the pieces missing from the mushroom are because several samples had already been taken from it!)

It was a large, dense double cluster, and so after Hue gathered as much as he wanted for the gourmet wild foods cooking class he's teaching next week there was plenty left for other group members to take some home. We all stood around together totally geeking out on this fungus, smelling and tasting and utterly delighted.

This was my first lion's mane. Even uncooked it was delicious -- slightly sweet, with a faintly acrid aftertaste. Hue commented that lion's mane is supposed to taste like lobster, and I definitely got that from the dense, rich flesh.

Here is a close-up of a lion's mane, showing the shaggy strands of the mushroom's outer layer that give it its name:

Eventually the group moved on, but even as we toured Tom and Sarah's first year setup at Flying Plow Farm and identified even more edible species (dandelion greens, mint, dead nettles, gill-over-the-ground, sorrel, burdock) my mind was half occupied by thoughts of sautéing my share of lion's mane in lots and lots of spring butter.

A long day of weed walking plus hungry children the moment I got home called for a simple Sunday supper of spaghetti and meatballs (my homemade frozen "DIY convenience food" -- is that an oxymoron?) in heirloom tomato marinara. The guys had no interest in the lion's mane, which was just dandy with me -- more for mama! -- so while the main course cooked I divided the lion's mane in half and melted just enough butter to coat the bottom of a small cast iron skillet. I pulled half of the mushroom into chunks roughly the size of lump backfin crab and slow-sautéed them for a long time. They never browned -- I wasn't trying for sear -- and did not express any liquid; instead, they just seemed to soften and blot up all the butter.

A dash of sea salt was the only other need for these astonishing 'shrooms -- really, you could have told me I was eating lobster chunks and I would have believed you, the taste and texture were so similar. The lion's mane is just really rich, with a slight sweetness that reminds me of really fresh, ocean-y crustacean. I just stood over the frying pan letting each chunk melt on my tongue and savoring...until Jack came in asking for more meatballs, as in the ones I'd cooked for myself.

Inspiration struck: I'd cooked the mushrooms as a side dish, but they'd work well as an impromptu entrée. My house marinara is very simple, all about the brightness of tomato, and it worked really well with the remaining lion's mane when i swirled both into a plate of pasta. I ate a few bites, and then did a light grating of sheep's milk romano over the rest. It was really really good either way, but the cheese provided just a hint of earthy sharpness that made a nice counterpoint.

Brian later emailed me that he'd made faux crab cakes from his portion of lion's mane, a brilliant way to take advantage of the mushroom's unique properties:

He also mentioned, however, that even though the "crab" cakes were fantastic, he realized he couldn't tell them from a regular crab cake and felt almost disappointed. So, he wrote, "I just heavily seasoned both sides of two mushroom pieces with salt and threw those in the oil to brown heavily on both sides. (It was at this point that it occured to me that i should have been using butter). When I bit into the first one of these, I just sat there chewing in pleasure. It was so juicy and so sweet. It was like a cross between the seafood sweetness of a really good scallop and the oceany subtleness of an oyster. I had sprinkled good seasalt on when they came out of the pan, which might have contributed. But really, these two slices were mind blowing. It's amazing how different this is from something like a morel though. A morel is forest and earthiness - this was nothing like that, but in a completely different way."

Brian concluded, "We have got to find more of these." And I concur completely. Power to the weed walk!


************* said...

Nice close-up. And yes, I was shocked how much this mushroom tasted like lobster! So delicious.

Selya in Tomorrow Land said...

It was really good raw. I didn't take any home to cook. Wasn't it really wet? I would have thought that it would be a challenge to cook.

If you don't feel like relying on nature to grow your Lion's Mane, I found a kit you can buy to grow it yourself:

Chuck Donofrio said...

Also known as Old Man's Beard, this species is solitary (rarely two together) its habitat is wounds of living hardwoods or on the cut ends of recently felled logs, widely distributed (Mushrooms Demystified; David Arora).

You posts make my mouth water. Yummy!