Friday, September 12, 2008
In 1943, a professor of mycology at the University of Minnesota, Clyde Christensen, published a book called Common Edible Mushrooms in an attempt to popularize mushroom hunting. It contained a description of the “Foolproof Four” edible mushrooms which are easy for the beginner to learn. Each is distinctive and has no poisonous look-alikes. One of those four is the Giant Puffball or Calvatia gigantea.
When and where seen: On August 27, Carolyn Shohet of Bedford Road found one in her pasture. Also, Lynn Stuart of School Street found several in her lawn during the hot steamy days of August. I have never found one myself but occasionally I hear about a white soccer-ball - or beach-ball-sized “thing” growing in someone’s lawn. I have seen photos of them growing in open wooded areas but the ones I hear about in Carlisle grow in meadows and lawns.
Distinguishing characteristics: Large. If the mushroom is over four or five inches in diameter, white, smooth, and more or less spherical, it is probably a giant puffball. They are commonly eight to 15 inches across and there are many reports of much, much larger ones. The interior of the puffball is a spore mass which starts out white and soft. It changes color and density as the spores mature. The mushroom is edible when the spore mass is still white and relatively firm. If you make a dent on it with your fingers and it remains dented like a lump of dough, it may be too far gone. Better to cut it in half and make sure there are no yellow or green colors developing. Carolyn’s giant puffball was pure white inside except for a very small area where it had been attached to the ground.
Foolproof: There are worrying limits to the definition of foolproof. It would be dangerous to assume that a small puffball is a young version of a giant puffball. Some small puffballs are edible but others are poisonous and they also have poisonous look-alikes. One of the deadly mushrooms, in the Amanita genus, can resemble a puffball when it is in the early stage of development. A vertical slice through a developing Amanita will reveal the outline of a cap and stem – but you have to look carefully because it is white on white.
Alas, poor Yorick: Carolyn and I held this skull-sized puffball in our hands and contemplated its meaning. We thought it to be a mushroom of infinite options and most excellent fancy – but our musings had a distinct culinary tone. Carolyn kindly gave me half the mushroom. She cooked hers in a mixture of butter and olive oil, adding only salt and pepper and a dash of sherry. She found it delicious. What wasn’t eaten plain was added to a fish stew. I sliced mine like a sandwich loaf and sauteed the slices in butter. I then layered them lasagna-style with mozarella and fresh-made tomato paste and cooked it in the oven. I’m not a great cook - it tasted like cheese and tomato. A favorite recipe that others use is to dip the puffball slices in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and saute them.
References: University of Wisconsin web site at http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/aug98.html; Mushrooms of North America by Alan Bessette, Arleen Bessette, David Fischer (where the Giant Puffball is listed under its other name of Langermannia gigantea).
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito