A major part of living the homesteading lifestyle is being able to provide food for yourself from wild sources. Being knowledgeable on your local edible plants provides a huge advantage towards creating a sustainable routine of healthy, local, meals. A common forage is various types of mushrooms, but it is important to do your research before consuming anything you find wild. I’m only going to talk about a couple easy to distinguish and identify strains of fungus.
My first time in the woods, I was lucky enough to find a member of the Hericium family, known as “bear’s head tooth,” which is a coral-type fungus unlike any mushrooms you can find at the average grocer. My brother and I knew it was something special when we first laid eyes on it, but we were very fortunate. I now know better than to pick anything before I’m sure of what it is. After IDing it, we put it in a stir-fry with green peppers and broccoli, noticing it had a wonderful texture.
The second time I went out hunting, this time with a little experience and more research, I uncovered numerous caches of a few popular fungi, the most notable of which were several spots with oyster mushrooms. However, my approach this time was to simply take detailed photographs and commit the location to memory so that I could use the vast resources of the Internet to be sure of what I had found before harvesting. I found my best friend to be the Mushroom Expert website, with plenty of photos, descriptions, and identification “keys,” which are a series of yes-no questions that help clarify a specific species.
Once I was positive of what I had found, I headed back to the woods to grab as many as I could find, scoring some excellent specimens, in total a pound or two. I was very careful not to disturb any of the other plants in the area, including what I think was a young growth of “bear’s tooth head” I may be able to take advantage of later in the season. Letting them dry a little overnight, I washed each cap diligently and cut off the worst looking areas, which didn’t amount to much.
As it so happened, I had half a pound of Shiitake mushrooms from River Valley Ranch in the fridge next to half a pound of organic baby Bellas from the store so I decided to make a crazy mushroom stew in my crock pot. I chopped and sauted all three mushroom varieties in a liberal amount of olive oil & garlic salt with half an onion, though you could probably use an entire one if you have as much shroom weight as I was working with. I’m saving the other half for hummus.
Once this was well fried, after about a half hour, I put them all in the crock pot on low with a quart of vegetable broth. After another 90 minutes, I prepared half a quart of vegetable bouillon on the side and added it in with around 2 pounds of potato slices, letting it all slow cook together for the rest of the afternoon.
For anyone interested in mushroom foraging, there are a few species common in Northern Illinois that are generally easy enough to identify, but, again, never consume anything you are not 100% confident in. Other than the bear’s head tooth and Oyster mushrooms, you can find “Chicken of the Woods,” a member of the foolproof four, easily enough. Also, keep your eyes out for something called “turkey tail,” a stemless striped fungus that grows on dead logs and may boost the immune system as well as help fight cancer.
One last species of mushroom that is common in our region is known as the “honey mushroom,” but this one can be easily mistaken for a number of undesirable species, including the hallucinogenic cap known as “Big Laughing Gym.” Honey mushrooms are supposed to be rather scrumptious, some even describing the flavor as sweet, but require a trained eye to pick out of a crowded woods.