Stalking the giant puffball

Mookie and the Puffball (photo by Mookie Forcella)

Mookie and the Puffball (photo by Mookie Forcella)

I glanced out the bedroom window one afternoon and saw something big and white and round tucked under a rhododendron near the shed. Instantly I remembered a photo that a friend had posted on Facebook recently: a soccer ball-sized fungus that she cooked and fed her family. A picture of one of her sons smiling above what turned out to be a giant puffball, a Calvatia gigantea, was meant to assure us all that the thing was edible. Evidently, Calvatia is commonly eaten in her family’s country of origin, Poland.

I’m not one to hunt for mushrooms; I just don’t know enough to feel safe consuming them. But seeing what the Earth had coughed up in my own back yard and knowing that it could be eaten thrilled me. It felt like a gift – like finding watercress growing in a wet ditch or wild blackberries on a hillside. It reminded me that edible vegetation abounds in the Catskills, and learning about what’s out there is good knowledge to have.

Found in fields and deciduous forests, giant puffballs appear in late summer and early fall. Large ones can contain several trillion spores, a rather mind-boggling fact. One source indicated that if the spores have already begun to form and the outer skin has become yellow or brown, eating the puffball can cause digestive upset. After consulting with my friend, I went online to learn whether this particular fungus growing here in New York was indeed plate-worthy. I read that when immature and pure white all the way through, it can be cooked, dried or frozen. There is another similar puffball that may be poisonous, and my research described how that one is different from Calvatia.

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Okay, so noted. I cut the thing in half, which was like slicing Styrofoam, and saw that it was all white. Then I carved two thick slabs and fried them in butter and salt. On a YouTube video, I’d heard that cooked puffball tastes like tofu. Unlikely, I thought. But it did indeed. I diced the rest of it and sautéed the rough cubes in butter and olive oil. This got tossed into a skillet of scrambled eggs the next morning.

I must admit that the whole experiment was more fascinating than scrumptious – to think that, with a little common sense and knowledge, I could actually forage and feed myself in the wild. Check out one of the many online sources, such as this one: www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/calvatia-gigantea-giant-puffball.