I was selling mushrooms at a farmers market in Upstate New York last summer when this happened: “Forest gold!” said a self-proclaimed “old hippy” as he grabbed a few golden chanterelles off my table. “I used to do all the purchasing for a famous restaurant in San Francisco,” he said, “I won’t tell you which one.”
I let him talk while I made change for another customer. The old hippy was not a customer, though he was a regular. He always stopped by our table, always had a story, and never bought a thing. “I use to buy miner’s lettuce from the flower children, and chanterelles,” he said. “There was a time when we got our mushrooms from one of those big distributors. This was the Cold War, and they didn’t want us to know that the mushrooms actually came from the Ukraine. But do you know how I knew? Do you know?” he asked. “I’ll tell you; at night I saw the boxes of chanterelles glowing with an eerie green light. They were radioactive because of Chernobyl! You kids know about Chernobyl, don’t you?”
Us kids do know about Chernobyl, but the chanterelles he spoke of weren’t radioactive. In fact, they weren’t even chanterelles! They were a poisonous look-alike, of which there are several. With a little research it’s easy to tell the difference, and rewarding to find your own delicious chanterelles. The hills of Iowa City are rich with “forest gold,” if you want to find your own safely, here’s how:
Chanterelle season is mid-summer through fall, when they are most often found in beech, oak, and conifer forests. I have had especially good luck finding them on mossy paths. Chanterelles range in color from yellow to gold to orange with the interior flesh being white, and they have a distinct sweet odor that many liken to apricots. All chanterelles belong to the genus Cantharellus, with the most common (and tasty) species being the yellow chanterelle (C. cibarius). Chanterelles have forked folds under the cap that travel the length of the stem, but these are not true gills—they have no ring around the stem and the stem is hollow. The cap is smooth with curved ridges and an interior dimple at its center.
There are two notable poisonous look-alikes for chanterelles, the aptly named False Chanterelle and the Jack-O-Lantern Mushroom. False Chanterelles are easy to differentiate from the real thing since the poisonous imposters do have true gills, which don’t extend down the stem. Jack-o-lanterns, meanwhile, grow in dense clusters on rotting wood, and are significantly larger than chanterelles. Jack-o-lanterns are also subtly bioluminescent and will glow green in a dark enclosure—even without the help of radioactive poisoning.
Chanterelle, Mozzarella, & Sweet Corn Grilled Cheese
• Six slices of NewPi Farm Loaf
• 1 lb chanterelles,rinsed and shredded into strips
• 2 tablespoons of butter
• 2 ears worth of sweet corn, with the kernels cut off the cob
• 8oz of fresh buffalo mozzarella,, sliced
• Paprika for sprinkling (smoked or not smoked, but I dig the smoked)
• Salt for sprinkling
• 1 tablespoon of olive oil
Toss the shredded chanterelles and sweet corn in salt and olive oil and place on a cookie sheet.
Cover in foil and bake in the oven for 15 minutes at 375. Remove foil and bake uncovered for an additional 5 minutes. Mushrooms and corn should be slightly caramelized to pan.
Place butter in a cast iron pan and turn the heat on high. When the butter is frothy, add buttered sourdough bread (two at a time) to pan.
Top bread with slices of mozzarella, mushroom and corn mixture, a sprinkle of paprika, and another slice of bread.
Lower heat to medium. When the cheese appears melty, turn heat back up to high and flip sandwich. If this lunch does’t impress your friends, reconsider the basis of said friendship.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 182