Fall has finally arrived, and we’re on a roll.
I said two blogs ago Nature is pregnant with surprises and looked forward to a return trip to the Brainerd (Minn.) Lakes Area to discover more of them.
A couple of weeks ago, my oldest daughter, Arin, and her mountain climbing son, Asher, stumbled on a delicious species of edible mushroom called the Bear’s Head Tooth. The soft, white ‘shroom resembled a chunk of coral that looked like it would be more at home on an ocean reef than a forest floor.
Once we discovered the Bear’s Head was edible, of course I cooked it. I described the eating experience like this: “The ‘shrooms were so tasty, so delectable, so mouthwatering delicious, so slyly and subtly flavorful, so creamy, just so damn good! we were astonished — speechless even. We couldn’t believe that something so odd looking could taste so heavenly.”
Last weekend, we took a short hike around a small lake hoping to absorb Minnesota’s fall colors (and more mushrooms?). Our walk took us along the top of a ridge that contained a beautiful early autumn overlook of the far lakeshore.
North-central Minnesota’s fall color transition is happening in slow motion. The foliage remains 70 percent green, but the splashes provided by golden draped maples promised the fall color explosion is on its way. Although we couldn’t fully see autumn, we could feel and smell the cusp of its arrival.
The hiking area contains an almost balanced mix of blowdowns and standing trees. That’s because powerful straight line winds ripped the Nisswa/Baxter/Brainerd area apart this past August and in July 2015. Besides tearing up the forest, storms raised havoc by damaging roofs, blocked roads and knocked out power for some people for a week. The area also has been a target for parades of tropical precipitation two years in a row. Besides producing too many wet basements, the wet earth makes trees susceptible to toppling during hurricane force winds.
We were witnessing the result of what happens after nature twice flexes her muscle. White pines, popples, basswood, oaks, maples — the indiscriminate wind didn’t care what it bullied. The Weather Service calculates the wind in 2015 blew more than 100 mph. Uprooted stumps, angled widow-makers — hung-bung severed trunks that haven’t completed their inevitable surrender to gravity — and fallen trees lay haphazardly on the ground.
In time, the wood will rot. As it does, the trees will return to dust, fertilizing the forest floor with nutritious decay that will allow new plants and trees to take root.
Already, mushrooms are finding the battle zone to their liking. I counted nine species of ‘shrooms on our mile-long hike. I couldn’t identify eight of them.
And then we struck gold again, or should I say orange?
Sara was the first to ask, “Aren’t those pretty?” as she pointed toward a clump of stuff that reminded me of Halloween. Three clumps of elongated pumpkin colored fungus, each about the size of a football, were growing just above the ground attached to a fallen oak. I sliced one clump and was surprised it weighed much heavier than a football. The “cap” contained about 30 individual fan-shaped and overlapping “shelves” that were 3 to 8 inches across. I’d soon discover that these are the parts one cleans and eats.
I had a pretty good hunch my hand held another type of mushroom that wore a wacky sounding name — maybe as goofy sounding as the Bear’s Head Tooth ‘shrooms we found a few weeks ago.
To confirm our discovery, like I did with the Bear’s Head find, I posted a photo on Facebook. Amazingly, the social media site proved it has some value once in awhile. My nephew, Blake, supplied the answer in minutes: chicken of the woods. Five more people confirmed what I already suspected. More research back at the lodge confirmed the confirmations.
We found what are called Chicken of the Woods. One more time: Chicken of the Woods. I like saying the name. Especially when it’s the answer to the question: “What are you cooking?”
“Chicken of the woods, of course.”
COTW are sort of related to another mushroom that looks similar and grows in a clump but isn’t as colorful. The COTW’s relative is called Hen of the Woods. I’m not making this up. Both species are not only edible but deliciously so.
I learned a few things about COTW from the web:
- COTW is sometimes called chicken fungus, chicken mushroom and sulphur shelf.
- They grow on hardwoods.
- COTW, as Sara demonstrated, is easily identified because of its orange color. As specimens age, their color fades as does their taste.
- The ‘shrooms grow in northern states east of the Rockies.
- I repeatedly read COTW are one of the easy and “safe” mushrooms to identify.
Back home, I cleaned the chickens with a paper towel. I removed the tough firm, white base and discarded it, then sliced the orange shelves into 1-inch pieces.
I grilled them for 15 minutes at 400 degrees with an occasional coating of parsley butter.
So, what did they taste like?
Some humans compare COTW to chicken of the sea or other seafood critters such as snow crab. I think they taste like chicken. The friend I invited over agrees. “Tastes like chicken,” he said. We’re not making this up. That the mushrooms accompanied grilled chicken breasts also may have had something to do with the taste comparison. A second meal of COTW the next day, this time in an omelette, confirmed the culinary chicken connection, however.
I’ll be heading south to the Brainerd area again soon, which is getting pretty late in the mushroom hunting game. But who knows, striking gold — or orange or whatever color the edible surprise turns out to be — three consecutive times on the fungus front remains a possibility.
I know one thing that won’t be difficult to find because the fall’s color explosion will be peaking.
Fall carries with it treats that tease and saturate multiple human senses. Autumn, with its orange and crimson and bronze and tan and yellow and purple palette, is the sensual season.
And I’ll take its offerings in our neck of the woods over any other state, thank you very much. If I find some edibles in the meantime, that’s just more frosting on Minnesota’s ultimate season.