Adirondack Mountain Lobsters
by Mary Thill
George Cook and I met at a mushroom field trip at Paul Smith’s College two years ago. He told me that one of the things he likes about the hunt is that it makes him slow down and notice life along the trail. Like many Adirondackers, he is accustomed to moving fast through the woods; we hike, ride and run with purpose, to get to a mountaintop or to get exercise. But to find wild mushrooms, it helps to scan up the trunks of old trees, or to look down in the duff.
I am the impatient naturalist, so most mushrooms come to me by luck rather than deliberation. Last year I found a sulfur shelf while driving. This year the plan is to find a lobster while mountain biking.
Lobster mushrooms push up the needly duff of conifer or mixed forests in late summer and early fall (things I’ve learned from field guides and from observing Susan Hopkins, who leads excellent mushroom walks at the Paul Smith’s College VIC). So I’m making an effort this season to take trail rides in piney places. No luck yet, but George says he found “a pretty nice collection” of lobster mushrooms while hiking an approach ridge to a mountain near Saranac Lake.
Lobster mushrooms are actually a combination of two fungi: Hypomyces lactifluorum forms a bright orange-red coating on the outside of a white-fleshed Russula or Lactarius mushroom. Most guidebooks caution that there’s no guarantee that Hypomyces will parasitize an edible species, so here is the usual advisory not to eat any mushroom unless you have absolutely confirmed the identification. Still, lobsters are prized throughout North America for their flavor and texture.
“Lobster mushrooms truly are one of my favorites,” says John Vargo, chef-owner of Eat ‘n Meet Grill and Larder, in Saranac Lake, technically the only place I’ve found the delicacy. “They are visually striking and extremely tender and flavorful when cooked properly. Yesterday while driving out in Lake Clear, I even pulled over and ran into the woods when I saw what I thought was a nice flush of lobsters. It turned out to be an orange plastic bag! Oh well, it was worth a try.”
With red-on-white color and firm flesh, the mushrooms really resemble lobster. And maybe it’s John’s cooking, but they really do taste like lobster. He offers a few tips:
“I like to wash them well, slice them about 5 millimeters thick and cook them slowly for about 30 minutes in butter. I usually turn up the heat and toss in some dry sherry, cream, salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. The cream takes on a beautiful pink/orange hue, and the flavor of the mushrooms permeates the sauce.
“To make my Newburg, I toss in some onions, tarragon and diced tomato. To make my risotto, I add the arborio rice instead of the cream, and cook with corn stock until creamy. I finish the risotto classically with aged Parmesan and a little more butter. Both dishes are a celebration of the richness of the lobster mushroom.”
For more on Adirondack wild mushrooms, read Adam Federman’s 2009 article for Adirondack Life, “Garden of Earthy Delights“.
It is legal to harvest mushrooms in New York State on public land if not for commercial use.