Our gardens in many lights

mardi 27 septembre 2011

Of a mushroom that pretended to be a ball

Cet article en français. 
Este artículo en español.

Louise : Today, I won't spin you a fable from La Fontaine, but I do wish to present you a very special character, a weird thing that could have inspired the famous french poet.

How can one not be surprised by this sight!

The first time I saw from a distance this weird white ball on my lawn, my assumption was that there was a kid, somewhere in the village, who might be really sad to have lost its toy. But I did not get close to investigate; no time, I had to go to work. And I forgot about it, my mind busy with this new workday and its thousand details. Then the next morning, the white ball was still there, exactly at the same place but it looked bigger than I remembered. Strange. I got closer and found, a couple of meters from the first one, a baseball of the same whiteness in the grass!

It took me a good minute to realize that these were in fact mushrooms of a variety I knew nothing about. That autumn, I watched closely and suspiciously their evolution, their cycle of life. I didn't inquire for their names : wild mushrooms are dangerous, everybody knows that, and my general principle was to let them live their life without interference. However when their skin turned brown and split, revealing a dusty, sickly brown-green interior, I got worried that this cloud of spores might be toxic.

A couple of years passed and the sightings of these balls kept occurring in August and September. A friend of my daughter finally gave me information on these mushrooms : my backyard's underground was apparently a perfect site for Giant Puffballs (Vesses-de-Loup Géantes, in french) and not only, according to her, were they not toxic, but they were perfectly edible and even delicious! Why a colony of Calvatia Gigantea decided to establish themselves here is still a mystery. I never saw them anywhere else in the neighborhood or farther away.

My daughter's friend had some trouble convincing me of this monster's edibility, but after she took a specimen to a chef of her acquaintance for counter-verification, I couldn't doubt anymore. The only thing left was to taste it. We peeled, sliced, fried the thing in butter and sat down at the dinner table : It was definitely hard on the liver, since the mushroom absorbed an insane amount of butter while cooking! I learned later on that when giant puffballs mature, their pores become bigger, transforming them in a kind of sponge, rendering this cooking method inappropriate. I went back to researching this free food source and learned of a few other interesting ways to make a meal out of them.

Note that the giant puffball doesn't have any form of
stalk. A mushroom is actually the aerial part of the
organism that lives underground. It's a bit like a flower,
in the sense that it' a transitory part that plays a role
in the reproduction of the plant in producing spores
(kind of seeds).

Ready for the harvest.. but taking care to not poison myself !

Even if this mushroom comes back reliably each year around mid-august, for me, it is a matter of health and good sense to check again that it is the real deal. Therefore, I always reread the description before harvesting the white ball to make sure I don't take in something that looks alike and could make me really sick. You see, when the giant puffball is still small (10 cm in diameter or less), it can be confused with an amanita muscaria at an early stage of growth, just before the amanita produces a white stalk and a cap (then it is clear which one is which). And here, we are talking about a deadly mushroom. But there is no worries when we wait to see the giant puffball grow, because according to the experts, there is no other poisonous mushroom of this form and size that has a pure white flesh, with no discernable inside pattern.

Here we see the filaments that bridge the mushroom to its underground parts.
It looks like roots. I learned later on that it's preferable to not tear off any species of mushrooms,
 but to cut them close to the ground. This way, the mycelium (the underground part) can survive.
Now I take a knife at the base of the puffball to detach it.

At this size, the risk of wrong identification is non existent.
However, it is still small enough to have a strong and thick flesh, easy to cook
and tasty.
For extra precaution, cut the puffball in two. The flesh must be pure white and completely uniform
 in its coloring and texture and it must not present any sign of patterns.
If it has started changing color, it means it started developping spores and is no longer edible.
If you decide to harvest giant puffballs, make sure you have asked a mycologist in your region or checked it in a serious reference book to make sure you know a foolproof method to identify  the toxic mushrooms that look like a young giant puffball.
Remember : some mushrooms are deadly and their toxicity is sometimes so important that
even a doctor will be powerless to save the imprudent who have tasted it.
Don't forget that also, as with any other type of food, some people could simply be just allergic.
It is then wise and prudent to only ingest a small quantity the first time to see how you react to it.
We can easily clean, cut, peel
and cook such a monster in less then 30 minutes.
The flesh is delicate and neutral,
but with a definite forest flair.

In the kitchen...
Giant puffballs are easy to prepare. Wash the exterior without soaking the mushroom, else it will absorb the water. Next cut it in slices, and peel it delicately. The skin is easier to peel when the mushroom is in slices than whole. After, you can cut it in dice or thinner slices depending on what you want.

So far I tried 3 ways of preparing this mushroom.

- Just by frying some slices in a little butter. Very good when the quantity of butter is limited...

I cooked mushroom dice in this small steamer
made of silicone (a Starfrit product).
I filled the steamer and placed it in the microwave
at medium intensity for 2 minutes.
I let the cubes cool on a big plate afterwards,
and finally, I transfered them in a plastic container for

- Make a pancake batter, soak the slices of puffballs in it and fry in a skillet with a dab of butter or oil, as you would cook french toasts. It's our favorite recipe (so far).

- Cut the flesh in small dice and steam cook, let them cool, and then freeze for later use, in a soup, sauté, stew, or spaghetti sauce. But I noticed that after several weeks in the freezer, the cubes develop an unpleasant smell. Therefore, I think it's better to cook them soon after the freezing process.

There's still many recipes I need to test. For example, I read that we can roast the slices in the oven, or hollow the mushroom, and stuff it. This mushroom is a bit like tofu ; it takes the taste of the other ingredients it's been cooked with.

Speaking of which, some sources state that it can replace tofu or eggplant.

I named this monster the piglet. It matured, split and opened up,
maybe because of the bountiful rain we had this summer.
Its more than 30 cm in height and almost 60 cm wide!

Here's one of its friends, measuring approximately 40 cm in diameter.
Its colors already mark him as unappetizing and it isn't yet at the
greenish cloud of spores stage. If I let it in place, this mushroom will
be there next spring, still releasing spores !

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