We’ve been foraging for gourmet wild mushrooms for about five years now. Living at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in Greenville, South Carolina puts us in the heart of one of the best hiking and mushroom foraging regions in the US, and we try to enjoy this geographical attribute throughout the year.
Outside of gardening, mushroom foraging is our favorite outdoor activity. It’s like going for a treasure hunt, but we get to eat the treasure at the end of the day. Even better, we get to exercise while learning about the amazing interspecific relationships that are taking place underfoot in our local forest ecosystems.
What Exactly Is a Mushroom?
Many people don’t realize that mushrooms are just the small fruiting bodies of very large organisms, similar to apples growing on a tree. How large can they get? Well, the largest living organism on earth is a four square mile wide honey mushroom. That’s pretty big.
Fungi play an essential role to an ecosystem’s health. Every inch of soil in a forest is loaded with various species of fungi, some of which help form the “internet” of the forest, connecting plants together into a resource and information swapping network that survives more through collaboration than competition.
Other fungi are saprobic or even parasitic, infecting sick and dying trees and hastening their death, after which other species of decomposing mushrooms come in to help recycle the tree’s components into soil. Thanks to Kingdom Fungi, there is no waste in a forest system – everything is reused and recycled. In fact, if modern fungi species had been around during the Carboniferous period, we’d have almost no fossil fuels today, because the mushrooms would have consumed the wood and plant materials that would eventually form our coal and oil deposits. It’s hard to imagine how different human civilization might be if fossil fuels had never been a possible energy source.
You Might Get In a Wreck, So Don’t Ever Learn to Drive
But can’t wild mushrooms kill you? Sure. So can driving a car if you haven’t learned the rules before you get behind the wheel. For beginning foragers, we highly suggest joining a local mushroom club or going out in the woods with a veteran mushroom forager (and/or a regional edible mushroom guidebook). Once you learn the rules, there is virtually no risk of getting sick from mushroom foraging.
The upside? You get to enjoy some of the best flavors on earth, flavors that you can go pay $30-$50/pound for at your local fancy grocery store. Or you can go into any nearby forest throughout the year and pick a few hundred dollars worth of gourmet fungal goodness while enjoying a nice walk.
Seasonal Mushrooms, Including the Indigo Milk Cap (Lactarius Indigo)
Over the years, we’ve found and sampled dozens of varieties of gourmet wild mushrooms. Like plants, each variety of mushroom fruits “seasonally,” e.g. at certain points during the year. We feel that the corresponding seasonal fluctuations in our diets further connects us to our little blue planet’s annual journey around the sun. Every season tastes different and there is always something new to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead.
Our favorite winter mushrooms are blewits and oysters.
In the fall, we enjoy lion’s manes and maitakes.
In the spring, we disappear during the four week window when morels are fruiting in our secret spots.
In the summer, the forest floor comes alive with chanterelles, boletes, chicken of the woods, black trumpets and other delicacies.
Recently, we’ve gotten to enjoy a new summer treasure: indigo milk caps (Lactarius Indigo).
We’ve enjoyed other varieties of lactarius over the years, such as the delicious “Bradley” (Lactarius volemus), but the Indigo Milk Cap is stunningly beautiful in comparison. There aren’t many things in our woods that are vibrant blue (other than Bluebirds and Indigo Buntings), but this mushroom nearly glows with a vibrant blue that rivals anything in the Avian family.
What Do Indigo Milk Caps Taste Like?
The flavor of Indigo Milk Caps is supposed to vary more than other mushrooms, depending on the trees they’re associating with, the soil and other aspects of their growing environment. Last year, we cooked a small batch whose flavor ended up being too peppery to finish. However, the patch we found growing in a grove of beech trees on our mushroom hike last night met the descriptions we’ve read from other mushroom enthusiasts: mild, sweet and nutty with a hint of cracked pepper on the finish.
Indigo Milk Cap Recipe
There’s no right or wrong way to cook a mushroom, Indigo Milk Caps included. During our hike, we also found two beautiful chicken of the woods (Laetiporus cincinnatus) mushrooms, that have the exact taste and texture of chicken. We’d planned to fry these up as “chicken fingers” to be dipped into a homemade barbecue sauce we’d made with some of our heirloom tomatoes. So, we decided to go ahead and fry up our Indigo Milk Caps at the same time. It turned out to be a great decision – they were delicious!
So we thought we’d share our indigo milk cap recipe in case any of you other mushroom enthusiasts out there were searching for a recipe to try with your indigos:
- 1 cup flour (organic all purpose) for frying mix + ½ cup for "dredging" your mushrooms (explained in instructions)
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon fine ground sea salt
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika + ½ teaspoon regular paprika
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- dash of chili powder
- dash of fresh ground black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon mustard powder
- 1 large egg (we use duck eggs)
- ⅓ cup milk (we use organic whole or raw milk)
- enough organic sunflower oil or other frying oil to cover your mushrooms in whatever pan you're using (we use a flat-bottomed wok)
- 5 big lactarius indigo mushroom caps or 10 small mushroom caps
- Chop mushrooms into the desirable sized chunks. We quarter or half them.
- Put ½ cup of flour in a medium sized bowl. This is your "dredging" bowl. You'll want to get a light dusting of flower on the entire outer surface of each mushroom before you dip in the milk/egg mixture.
- Add your egg and milk into another mixing bowl, and whisk together. You'll dip your dredged mushrooms into your egg/milk mixture before placing them in your frying mix.
- Prepare your frying mix by putting all dry ingredients (flour, spices, etc) into a large bowl. Whisk them together until evenly blended. Once your mushrooms have been: 1) dredged, and 2) dipped in your egg/milk mixture, you'll drop them into the big bowl of dry ingredients and cover them evenly.
- Once uniformly covered with fry mix, shake off any extra fry mix. We like to place them on a drying rack on top of a cookie sheet until we're ready to put them in the fryer (you can just use a plate if you'd prefer).
- Heat your cooking oil. Our stove top doesn't cook particularly hot or cold, so we put it on about 4.5. You'll know your oil is hot enough when you drop a bit of flour in and it starts sizzling.
- Go ahead and get a drying/cooling sheet ready before you start frying your mushrooms. We like to use a cookie sheet with a drying rack on top. On top of the drying rack, we put down paper towels to soak up any extra oil.
- Next start frying your mushrooms to golden-brown and crispy perfection. It should only take about 4-5 minutes to cook each mushroom if the oil is in the ideal temperature range.
Serve and enjoy!
Note: Lactarius indigos will lose some of their blue color when cooked, turning grayish-blue. When fried, they’re wonderful served straight or with a bit of sauce (we dipped some in a homemade tomato-based bbq sauce).