A New-Found Sense of Mettle… and Mushrooms

You know that saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”? Whoever came up with this saying has clearly never been mushroom hunting…. Or perhaps I should say mushroom foraging. Hunting implies a level of effort that may actually count as working for your lunch, thereby compromising its “free” status.

While there are some mushrooms for which (I am told) you do actually need to hunt, the chanterelles I found in my parent’s yard this weekend were most definitely not in that category. In fact, against the mossy green backdrop from which they emerged, their vivid coral hue all but shouted HERE I AM – HAVE AT ME!!

And so I did.

Wait a minute, you may be thinking. Are you sure that’s what that color means?

Good question. Deep in the recesses of my once-hunter-gatherer brain, I was wondering the same thing myself. Because traditionally, organisms that advertise such bright colors are usually trying to tell us something much different — something more along the lines of, oh, I don’t know… I CONTAIN LETHAL TOXINS. EAT ME AND YOU SHALL SURELY PERISH.

So yeah, that was a possibility.

Add to this the fact that I do not have a whole lot (read: any) experience foraging or identifying mushrooms in the wild, and you’ve got the makings for one supremely stupid, awfully poor life decision. Well. Having just taken a wide flying leap into the wild world of unemployment, and on that same night spent money I didn’t have on a plane ticket I couldn’t afford to a place I’d never been — I could argue that the decision to throw caution to the wind and eat these fiery fungi was the least of the life-changing risks I took that day.

I could, and (depending on how rough the next few months are) I might. But the reality of the situation is that, gamble as I may with the quality and content of my life, I’m far too attached to the idea of life in general to gamble with its overall continuance.

(Read: I’m not that crazy.)

The reason I was so sure these were safe to eat is that twenty years ago my uncle had eaten them, and lived to tell the tale. I still remember the excitement on his face, as though he simply could not believe his good fortune, when he came into the house with a palmful of these wrinkly little orange things that he proudly dubbed “chanterelles”. My brother and I, having never heard this mysterious word before and having been raised with the understanding that you DO NOT EAT MUSHROOMS that you find yourself, looked at him like he had lost his mind. But he assured us that they were safe and (after sautéing them in a little butter), delicious too. He ate them. And he was fine — happy as a clam, actually.

And the next day he was out there scouting for more.

I was pretty sure these were one and the same.

Just to be sure, though, I consulted my trusty guide: The Internet. (Funnel-shaped? Check. White interior? Check. Grows in association with oaks? Check. False gills? Check… I think?) I had my doubts when I observed both that these would-be chanterelles didn’t have the apricot aroma I’d heard about, and that their color was far closer to red-orange than to the yellow-gold I was seeing in the pictures on Wikipedia… but further research yielded up a particular type of chanterelle — Cantharellus cinnabarinus — which fit both descriptions. “Red chanterelles” (as they are sometimes called) also apparently have a spicy taste when eaten raw, which these did.

Perhaps most importantly, I looked into the species that are sometimes confused with chanterelles, and found that while one of them (which didn’t look remotely like my little beauties) could cause a stomachache, neither were lethal.

Having sufficiently assured myself that I wasn’t going to keel over dead, I set to work. I decided to sauté them simply with a bit of butter, salt, and a few sage leaves, and serve them alongside a French herb omelette and a piece of toast for some crunch. (The omelette didn’t quite hit the mark, primarily in texture, given that I’d decided to cook it in the same cast-iron pan I’d used for the mushrooms and it stuck on the bottom… but otherwise, in flavor and appearance it was a very agreeable accompaniment.)

In short, these were spectacular — even more tasty than they were gorgeous. And the thrill — the unexpected thrill! — of having reaped such a gustatory gem in exchange for little to no effort was, well… inexplicably euphoric. Perhaps it was that the stakes were so high. Perhaps it was the thrill of the hunt (or lack thereof). Either way, it was so much more than just a free lunch.

As I sat there enjoying the striking color, the texture, and the taste of these fiery, velvety, buttery little beauties, I kept thinking how very glad I was that I had taken this plunge; that with equal parts research, recklessness and courage, I had not allowed myself to be dissuaded by (yes, a perfectly reasonable) fear of the unknown.

If my other life decisions turn out even half this well, they just may be the best I’ve ever made.

Red Chanterelles in Sage Butter

  • Red chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus), as many as you can forage (or afford).
  • A knob of butter proportionate to the number of mushrooms you have. (What this means is entirely up to you, but I’d say use roughly a tablespoon of butter for each heaping soup bowl-full of chanterelles.)
  • Sage leaves. (Again, I used 3 small ones for a heaping bowl-full.)
  • Salt & Pepper

Rinse or wipe clean your mushrooms to remove any sand, moss, or leaf litter. If you rinse them like I did, let them sit out on a towel to dry for 10 minutes.

Melt butter over medium-high heat. As soon as it’s melted and bubbling, toss in mushrooms and a pinch of salt.

Sauté, stirring gently, for about 2-3 minutes or until they’ve started to release some of their “liquor” or water. Then toss in sage leaves, whole or slivered. Cook for another couple of minutes until mushrooms are soft and liquid has just started to evaporate. (You don’t want to cook too much of it off.)

Remove from heat. Serve with a little finely-ground fresh pepper and/or a pinch more salt.

French Herb Omelette (and Toast)

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • Fresh herbs: I used a combination of 2 parts parsley to 1 part rosemary, oregano and sage
  • 1 slice of good bread for toast

Finely chop your herbs. Beat together eggs, milk, fresh herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a medium-hot, well-buttered or non-stick pan. Fold over as soon as just set — you don’t want yours to get dry and browned like mine did. Serve topped with a sprinkling of any remaining bits of fresh herbs you may have left on the cutting board and alongside a crunchy, crusty piece of buttered toast. (This crunch is a key accompaniment to contrast the softer textures of the eggs and mushrooms.)

Makes one omelette.


Note: It should go without saying that YOU SHOULD NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Heck, even I shouldn’t have tried this at home. Do as I say, not as I do, capisce?


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