October is showing her true colors as autumn moves into the hills. Puffy white clouds move lazily across a remarkably blue sky, casting dappled shadows on Pilot Knob. Although the trees are still mostly green, a smudge of red can be seen in the distance where a maple tree stands in solitary splendor. The dogwoods are turning also, and it won’t be long until our hills are garbed in their autumn finery.
The air is crisp as a Winesap apple, and just as refreshing. Nights are nippier now, with a hint of frost to come. Recent rains have brought the green back to lawns and meadows, and also brought out fall mushrooms.
Delicate meadow mushrooms pop up through the damp soil and wait, tender and tasty, for the lucky hunter to find them. They can be sautéed in butter, or rolled in flour and fried in hot oil or butter. We are especially fond of them with our breakfast meal. These mushrooms are easy to identify, with their pink gills that turn chocolate as they age. The immature ones resemble the button mushrooms that supermarkets offer, but the flavor is far superior to the cultivated ones. My mushroom book states that this variety is probably better known and gathered more than any other wild mushroom in North America. There seems to be an abundance of them this fall, and they can be preserved for future use. They can be dried, or sautéed and then frozen. Don’t freeze mushrooms before cooking them; they lose their flavor and texture. I remember one year when we gathered so many that Mom made and canned mushroom soup. It was delicious.
Many people have the idea that they don’t like the puffball mushroom, but it is one of my husband’s favorites. I beat an egg with some milk, then dip the puffball slices in the mixture, coat with flour, salt and pepper, and then fry them crisp in hot oil. Garlic powder, soy sauce or hot sauce can be added to the egg-milk mixture.
Wild mushrooms may be used in place of commercial ones in almost any recipe. I fixed cube steak in a slow cooker yesterday, then sautéed a mixture of chopped onion, garlic, sweet peppers and three kinds of wild mushrooms (chicken, meadow and puffball.) When it was softened, I poured it over the steak and cooked it slowly. Criss is usually leery of my concoctions, but he admitted it was good.
We gather the purpled-spored puffball, which resembles a nicely browned biscuit with minute cracks on its tan skin. All puffballs must be firm and white inside to be edible. If the inside is soft or discolored, discard it. These may grow as large as a softball, but most of the ones we find are smaller. Our son Michael found some of the giant species, and brought home three that were large enough to feed the entire neighborhood. One of them was the size of a volleyball, and some grow larger than that. We fixed a few slices of this giant puffball, but found the texture was coarser than the smaller purple-spored ones, and not quite as good.
I found an easy recipe for puffballs in my wild food cookbook, called “Butter Fried Puffballs”. You merely melt half a stick of butter (real butter is much better than margarine with mushrooms) in a heavy skillet, dice one clove of garlic into pan and add puffball slices. Sauté with salt and pepper until golden.
The Lord has blessed our hills with a rich harvesting season, which is just beginning. Hazelnuts are ripe; they hang in their fuzzy pods waiting to be picked. They are small and tedious to harvest, but so delicious in cookies and candies. There seems to be plenty of black walnuts, and hickory nuts in some places. My mother remembers with longing the native chestnuts that abounded when she was young, and stomping the satiny nuts from their prickly hulls. That was before my time, but I have memories of going up Hick’s Holler with Mom and Daddy (and all the kids!), harvesting the soft, sweet persimmons, and gathering the thin-shelled shagbark hickory nuts by the bucketful.
I’ll bet you miss the mountains; come visit us, soon.
Cousin Alyce Faye