Big bucks and fungi fun

Archery season is here and, frankly, there’s no place I’d rather
be than in a tree waiting for a nice buck to show up. However,
bucks aren’t the only thing I’m hunting because October means
mushrooms to many of us and the promise of their appearance
generates as much enthusiasm as does the opening day of deer
season. People often ask me if I’m afraid of being poisoned by the
mushrooms I pick and all I can tell them is I’m living proof of my
ability to do so. Fact is, I’ve been picking wild mushrooms as back
as I can remember.

Beginning in the middle of September, my parents would take my
brother and me on mushroom hunting expeditions in northeastern
Pennsylvania. We were there to hunt “Popinki” or, if you prefer,
“Potpinki.” Popinki are well known by just about any mushroom
hunter, but it’s those of us of central and eastern European
ancestry who find them most appealing. Once these mushrooms are
cleaned they can be eaten immediately or be preserved for future
meals. Most people freeze them, but if I get a large number I
prefer to can them because they last for years and won’t dry
out.

My grandmother used to preserve them by using a large needle to
string them onto a piece of heavy thread and then hang them by the
furnace to dry until needed. For many Poles, Slavs, Ukrainians and
Russians, it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without popinki on the
table.

Call them what you will – “honey mushrooms,” “stumpies” or even
“podpinkies” – there’s always a celebration of sorts when they
finally appear. After a morning hunt, I climb from my stand and
begin checking stumps. If I’m lucky, I can get enough for
breakfast, and if I’m really lucky I’ll find enough to can. After
cleaning them, I boil them and then sauté them in a little butter.
Served as a side with scrambled eggs, they make a breakfast fit for
a king.

Another one of my favorite fall mushrooms, and one just as good
as the popinki, is what’s often called “Hen of the Woods,” or
“Sheep’s Head.” The Hen of the Woods is made up of many fleshy
ruffles or wings and is usually dark gray in color. When I’m lucky
enough to find one it’s usually growing at the base of a large oak
tree, although I’ve found them around the decaying stumps of other
tree species as well. Sheep’s Head grow large and the one I found
last fall easily weighed more than 10 pounds.

In my opinion, the Hen of the Woods is one of the tastiest
mushrooms on the planet. When ready for the table this mushroom has
a pleasant, almost meaty texture to it. The problem with something
this good is that other critters find it appealing as well. The
many folds of this mushroom are perfect for sheltering a host of
small insects, so it’s important to soak it in some saltwater for a
short time before preparing it for the table. Take comfort in
knowing soaking in the salt brine will remove just about all of the
unwanted insect protein that may have found a home there. It’s an
additional step in preparing this particular species for eating,
but the results are well worth the effort.

Being in the woods in October is something I’ll always look
forward, and whether I come home with a deer or mushrooms I don’t
particularly care because deer season extends into November when
the mushrooms are gone. Over the years, I’ve found there’s plenty
of time to hunt both.

 

Categories: New York – Mike Raykovicz

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