If you never miss reading a Delaware SWCD column in this newspaper, then you may recall several foraging articles last spring regarding wild edibles. Consider this article the autumnal version of foraging over hill and dale for tasty treats.
Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantean) abound in the early fall, particularly after a soaking rain. These fungi are aptly named, as they are quite large, growing to the size of a volleyball or soccer ball. Mature puffballs emit a brownish cloud of spores when stepped on; hence the balls go up in a “puff.” This fungus is one of the most easily identified since there aren’t many large, white orbs that are encountered in the field. Giant puffballs can be found in a variety of habitats, from deciduous forests to meadows and fields. Two years ago, I found one growing in our mowed lawn in a shady spot.
Giant puffballs are a delicacy when picked at the right time. Some liken the texture of a puffball to that of a steak. Pick when the puffball is young and firm to the touch (older puffballs contain powdery spores that render the mushroom inedible). Remove the leathery puffball skin, slice in one-half inch slabs, sauté in butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Given their size, you’ll likely have puffball leftovers, which can be frozen or dehydrated for later use in mushroom soup.
For the more adventurous, another great recipe is puffball mushroom crust pizza. Brush olive oil on each side of three-quarter inch-sliced puffball and grill until a slightly crispy edge is achieved. Place the mushrooms on a metal sheet, top with your favorite pizza toppings, and bake at 400 degrees. Baking duration is variable, depending upon how many toppings are used. Finally, go easy on the sauce for the pizza since puffballs contain a lot of moisture.
Another easily identifiable wild edible can be found in woodlots in the fall – nuts. So, make like a squirrel and gather black walnuts for your next baking feat. But, be advised – these hardwood nuts are not easily cracked and have tamed many traditional nutcrackers. Additionally, the green husks that surround the nut of black walnuts can prove tricky to remove.
Appalachian folks invented an elegant way to overcome the difficulty of removing the outer husk from walnuts. They simply placed them in the driveway. As cars entered and exited the driveway, eventually the husks would disintegrate. In southeastern Ohio, it’s not uncommon to see a gravel driveway stained black from the hulls of walnuts. Using this method, I collected dehulled walnuts along my graveled township road last weekend.
As the husk of the walnut ages, it turns black; thus, wearing gloves is mandatory when dehusking the nuts due to staining. Hubby shared a story of dehusking walnuts as a child with his grandmother. His hands were stained black for weeks after the event! Some people make use of the hulls by creating a natural walnut dye. Walnut dye, colorfast with a rich brown hue, comes from the colorant, juglone, a compound produced by the tree. Search the internet for directions regarding making walnut dye.
Once the husk is removed and the nut dried in the sun a bit, the nut can be cracked with a rock and hammer or with a motorized cracker specifically designed for black walnuts. Picks are useful for removing the nutmeat from the walnut catacomb, and eye protection is a must. Finally, enjoy the fruits of your toil by making walnut fudge or pralines, old-fashioned walnut cookies, or Pennsylvania Dutch walnut cake. Search online for recipes.
Forests provide many benefits, including nut production, wildlife habitat, stormwater abatement, carbon sequestration, medicines, and timber products. So, the next time you venture over hill and dale (or enter a forest), think about foraging for a treat and give thanks for nature’s bounty.