from the Aug/Sep 2016 issue of Paleo Magazine

Get Your Kicks with Puffball Mushrooms

I’ll bet you’ve seen puffball mushrooms before. As a kid, you probably gave a few of them a swift kick just to see their dust fly. I harbor an unproven theory that puffballs co-evolved with Stone Age kids busting these white balloons open to spread their spores far and wide.

A puffball full of dusty spores is certainly fun to play with, but it’s too mature to eat. You want to catch them early, before the spores have formed. Cut one in half, and if all you see is a soft white substance (like tofu), then your timing is right and your ID is confirmed. If you see colors other than white, or the outline of a conventional mushroom, it’s either overripe or it’s not a puffball. Toss it.

Puffballs (Lycoperdon sp.) are among the easiest edible mushrooms for novices to find and identify. Most of them like to grow from the soil and in the open—lawns, meadows and especially goat pastures. Depending on the species, they range in size and shape from that of a grape to a small watermelon. Most, but not all, have a plain, smooth white exterior. Rarely, you’ll find one with a bit of gray peach fuzz or short spikes. A few have a geometric, patterned surface, like a fungal braille message. Some resemble a hamburger bun with a flattened, toasted brown exterior; you’ll think, “manna from heaven” when you see them in a neighbor’s lawn. Most of them have no stem or stalk, but are linked to their underground mycelia by a dimple at their base. A few, called pedestal puffballs (Calvatia sp.) or purple-spore puffballs, do have plump stalks that flare up smoothly into a melon shape. But all puffballs have a very simple outline with no gills, no pores, no tentacles, no petals, no veil and no rings: a smooth, oblong ball.

In most climates, puffballs inflate during the latter half of summer, a few days after a good rain. Because the weather is warm, they can go from zero to dusty maturity in less than a week. When you harvest other species of mushrooms, they are mature and have had a chance to spread spores. (Functionally, spores are akin to seeds from flowers and fruit.) But when you harvest an immature, edible puffball, you’re keeping it from reproducing. So don’t harvest every puffball you see—let half of them “go to seed,” if you will.

Puffballs have a mild mushroom’s umami flavor and a texture not unlike tofu. Brush or cut off any dirt, as they absorb water too readily. The skin is edible, so small puffballs can be eaten whole with eggs or tossed into a soup. For larger puffballs, treat them like eggplant: Just slice your specimen into quarter-inch-thick steaks, dip in egg, drag through seasoned Paleo-approved flour and fry in butter until crispy and brown on the outside. Or dice into half-inch cubes, sauté with garlic and seasonings and serve as a side dish or tossed on a salad. “Wildman” Steve Brill’s The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook has recipes for puffballs in salads, marinara and lasagnas, and even a puffball Parmesan.

Puffballs stay fresh in a paper bag in the fridge for up to a week. If you have a surplus, slice into steaks and dry them at 110 degrees until they’re as crisp as crackers. Save indefinitely in a glass jar. Pulverize in a blender for mushroom flour with which to make gravy or coat cuts of meat. And then after dinner, go outside with the kids and kick a few mature puffballs to make sure there will be more for next year.

Foraging for Foragers

There are plenty of good foraging books that can help you with identification. Ethnobotanist Leda Meredith has written one called Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. It has very basic guidance on cooking and preserving these wild edibles. Your foraging library should also have a few ID books with recipes. Meredith’s newest book, The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather, and Prepare Wild Edibles, covers finding and preparing 47 wild edible plants and four of the easiest-to-identify wild mushrooms. She’ll blow your mind with some awesome recipes like dandelion beer, spanakopita with wild greens, and pesto made from invasive garlic mustard.

Stalking Samphire in the Salt Marshes

Beaches are a bit like deserts—there is so little fresh water that there are fewer species of plants than you’d find in most forests and meadows—and that means there are also fewer edible plants. But those few are choice edibles if you know when and where to look for them. Samphire (Salicornia europaea) was one of the first edible plants I learned about as a teenager who spent as much time as possible at the beach. With the ocean behind you, cross over the dunes until you reach a stretch of salt marsh. Look for what’s called “high marsh”: the parts of the marsh that don’t get flooded at high tide and are dry enough to walk on. There you’ll find samphire—also called glasswort, sea beans and sea pickle—amid other hardy salt marsh plants.

Samphire has succulent stems, and a patch of samphire looks like an ankle-high forest of jointed green fingers of sea anemones. With your pocketknife, cut a fistful of samphire stems. You don’t want to pull up the roots; that would kill the plant, and the tenderest part is the newest growth on each stem, anyway. Store the cuttings in a plastic bag out of the light until you get home. Then you can store your bagged samphire for a week or more in the fridge.

The stems turn reddish in winter, but I’ve found the most recent growth tender and edible year-round. They have a crunchy, cucumber-y texture and a salty, green bean taste. They make a great trail snack. Or a pickle. They also work well raw in salads or very lightly steamed or sautéed as a side dish with a wedge of lemon. Elizabeth Schneider’s cookbook Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide offers salad recipes and tips on using samphire to flavor a baked, whole fish.

Europeans have been eating samphire for centuries, and their supermarkets sell it at $20 a pound. Hopefully, it will become more common on menus and in groceries here. Until then, don’t let a beach trip go by without gathering some of this natural, salty snack.

Other wild edibles found in late summer:

beach plums, blueberries, chokeberries, pawpaws, hawthorn fruit, sumac berries, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, oxeye daisy, mountain mint, purslane, sassafras leaves, spicebush leaves, redbay leaves, sweet fern, chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, chanterelle mushrooms.