I was invited to tag along on a mushroom walk with the Boston Mycological Club last Sunday. It also happened to be my birthday. Coincidence? I think not.
A group of about 30 fungiphiles convened at that week’s meeting spot in Lincoln, then quickly disappeared into the woods, reappearing an hour and a half later, baskets full, to discuss their finds. I stuck close to the one who seemed to be the leader. He was rather casual about taking bites out of strange mushrooms as part of his identification process, spitting them out like a wine-taster. I had to remind myself not to get any ideas.
Before I left the house, I had promised Husband I wouldn’t collect anything on my first outing for everyone’s safety. I brought no basket so I wouldn’t be tempted. Good thing, too, because there were mushrooms everywhere: honey mushrooms, colorful russulas, turkey tails. I found I have a knack for honing in on the deadliest mushrooms in the vicinity. Why am I not surprised? Eight out of 10 cool mushrooms I found were amanitas. This will come in handy if I ever need to poison myself in dramatic fashion. I also found what was declared to be a tiny rose-colored Mycena pura. Again, poisonous. So if you ever need to be laid out flat in a hurry, I’m your woman.
I met lots of nice people, but there was one person in particular with whom I felt an immediate kinship. A grandfatherly gentleman with an unmistakably Italian name. Maybe it was the patient way he fielded my dumb questions or the fact that some of his relatives were from the same area of Italy as some of my relatives or that I shared a birthday with one of his daughters, but I felt like I could listen to his mushrooming stories all day. Like the time he found a giant 30-pound sulfur shelf growing 10 feet up in a tree. He did what any self-respecting citizen would have done. He brought back a ladder so he could cut off one section at a time and escort the unwieldy chunks downward, rung by rung, like a dedicated Sherpa. I assumed he was just being a typical Italian, exaggerating all the important details, but another club member corroborated his story so either he was telling the truth or they’ve all been eating too many mushrooms if you know what I’m saying.
I left the foraging site empty-handed, I swear. On the way back to our cars, my new friend showed me his collection of recently-foraged mushrooms in his trunk. He keeps some shallow crates back there because you never know when you might need to pull over and mushroom! They were all different shapes and sizes, but the one that jumped out at me was the rather large and ruffly hen of the woods, a dusky and delicious edible also known as maitake and Grifola frondosa. You may recall that I’m trying to grow these on oak logs, but I’ll have to wait a year or two to see if they take.
Well, he must have seen the look of rapture on my face because, the next thing I know, he wrapped up the nearly-2-pound specimen in a paper bag and presented it to me. Can you imagine that? I think I was supposed to say, “Thank you, sir, for the kind gesture, but I must politely decline,” but what came out of my mouth instead was, “I’M GOING TO PUT THIS IN A LASAGNA!!!”
If I didn’t believe in such things, I might think my deceased mushroom-foraging grandfather arranged this meeting from the beyond. If so, thanks, Poppi! What a great birthday present! And knowing that this mushroom doesn't have any poisonous look-alikes meant that I could rest easy eating it. (Convincing Husband was another matter.)
After painstakingly cleaning the hen, I sautéed the pieces in butter and Marsala, then folded them into an earthy white lasagna with sweet Italian sausage, celery root, leeks, fresh local mozzarella, and lots of grated Parmesan cheese. I was working off of this Food & Wine recipe by Marchegiano chef Fabio Trabocchi. And it came out so good, even my mushroom-suspicious Husband agreed it was worth the risk of possible death.
(Many thanks to the Boston Mycological Club for having me and, hopefully, letting me join.)