Caps Off for the Mushroom

Interest in mushrooms is, if you’ll excuse the expression, mushrooming, as growing numbers of people seek food from local, sustainable—and even foraged—sources. Thanks to a vibrant network of farmers’ markets and an expanded offering of mushrooms sprouting up in the produce section of grocery stores, most of us can lay our hands on an interesting variety of mushrooms without heading out on a mushroom hunt in the woods.

The most commonly available mushrooms are white buttons, baby bellas, and portobellos. Some wild varieties—such as oyster mushrooms with their wonderful almost fishy fragrance—are now being cultivated and sold in supermarkets, while others appear seasonally in open markets. I’m always happy to see one of my fall favorites—hen of the woods—among the autumnal produce at the farmers’ market, and local mushroom hunters sometimes supply the markets with morels in May.

PHOTO: farfalle pasta with mushrooms and herbs.
Farfalle with fresh mushrooms and a sprinkling of herbs hits the spot.
Photo: Kasey Albano

Mushrooms can add flavor and texture—and a surprising nutritional punch—to many meat dishes, but are robust enough to carry a hearty, vegetarian meal. Portobellos are a particularly good substitute for meat patties. Lightly brush the caps with olive oil and grill them, first on the gill side, then on the cap side. Remove when tender but still firm and place on a grilled burger bun. A slice of Monterey Jack or Swiss cheese can turn the dish into a “portobello cheeseburger.” When topped with tomato sauce and cheese, the grilled caps can also make a “mushroom pizza.” You can always add cream to stretch the mushrooms and make a creamy, filling dish without meat. Chopped and sautéed mushrooms can provide a rich and satisfying filling for puff pastry and quiches.

Many people mistakenly believe that mushrooms have little nutritional value, but they are a great plant source of vitamin D, and also contain high amounts of other vitamins and minerals, including riboflavin, niacin, and potassium.

PHOTO: grilled portobello mushrooms, covered in herbs and garlic.
A sprinkling of herbs brings out the natural flavor of portobellos.

Thyme or sage added to chives are my favorite herbs to combine with mushrooms. I enjoy seasonal fall and spring mushrooms sautéed and then added to vegetables or pasta. Especially good is the hen in the woods with butternut squash ravioli and sautéed sage.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Cadillac of Compost Bins

There are compost bins, and then there are AWESOME compost bins.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden carpenters Andy Swets and Brian Flood.
Chicago Botanic Garden carpenters Andy Swets and Brian Flood

When carpentry supervisor Andy Swets got the call to build a better bin in the compost area at the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, he pulled out all the stops: 2x4s, 2x6s, and 4x4s in Western red cedar…reclaimed 1x4s…stainless steel exterior-rated handles and latches…heavy-duty hinges…and 20#-rated hydraulic-assist lifts that open and close the lid noiselessly and safely.

The resulting 36-inch-square bins are terrific looking and solidly built: constructed with half-lap joints and routed slots, sloped in height from 40 inches to 28 inches for easier shoveling, and finished with plugged screw holes and a hinged front door for easy access.

PHOTO: Andy Swets routing a wood frame for a compost bin.
Carpenter Andy Swets routs a side frame for the compost bin. Slats will fit in the routed channel, separated by 1/2-inch wood block spacers, promoting air circulation.

Andy and assistant carpenter Brian Flood didn’t just build one—they built a set of three, the better for kids to lift the lids and compare how compost ages over time.

While kids love peeking into the bins (and throwing their banana peels in), we’ve noticed that adults are admiring their design and construction—so we’re posting this video of Andy and Brian in full construction mode. Get inspired—build the compost bins of your dreams!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Hunting for Gold in an Oak Woodland

Foraging for edible mushrooms is a treasure hunt that always yields a reward. You never know what you’re going to find. At the least, you’ve spent enjoyable time outdoors in nature.

PHOTO: Closeup of Mueller examining a mushroom.
Examining a woodland specimen

My tools are simple: a hand lens, knife, and a flat-bottomed basket that prevents any mushrooms I’ve collected from scrunching together. I like to wrap my finds in wax paper or wax paper bags. Paper bags can work too, but mushrooms tend to dry out after a while. (At the other extreme, mushrooms wrapped in plastic tend to sweat and can develop undesirable molds.) I typically head out in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt—protection against the poison ivy and bugs abounding in the woods.

I also carry knowledge that helps me discern among the more than 1,200 types of mushrooms identified so far in the Chicago metropolitan area. For more than 30 years, I’ve researched the vital role that fungi play in ecosystems around the world (but my interest in mushrooms and love of nature extends well beyond the laboratory).

Great finds: black trumpets, and more importantly—chanterelles!

PHOTO: Black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides)
A delicious find: black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides). Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont

Summertime is the fruiting season for two of my favorite edible mushrooms: chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides). Chanterelles are one of my very, very, very favorite things to collect.

I look for chanterelles in oak woodlands because chanterelles and oaks need each other to survive. The long fibrous root system of the chanterelle’s mycelium—the long-lived part of the mushroom comprised of microscopic filaments that grow through the soil—forms a protective sheath around the roots of the oak and provides the tree with water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients. The symbiotic relationship allows the chanterelle to take up excess sugar the tree has produced through photosynthesis. We wouldn’t have a forest without mushrooms like chanterelles, and we wouldn’t have chanterelles without a forest.

PHOTO: Chantarelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius)
My favorite discovery: chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius)

Chanterelles have a yellow-gold color that makes them somewhat easy to spot on the woodland floor, and they offer up a fruity, apricot-like smell when picked. They do, however, bear a resemblance to the toxic jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius), the second-most common mistakenly eaten mushroom in the United States. (The green-spored lepiota [Chlorphyllum molybdites] is the most common.) We can tell chanterelles from jack-o-lanterns when we turn them over and look at the underside of the cap: chanterelles are nearly smooth to strongly ridged, while the jack-o-lantern has well-developed gills like a grocery store mushroom.

Chanterelles are also getting a closer look from the scientific community. Until fairly recently, we assumed that the chanterelles growing around the world belonged to a single species. Subtle differences in color and size were attributed to normal variations within a species. DNA analysis suggests that the chanterelle genus contains myriad distinct species. My team of researchers has found three different types growing in the Chicago area alone, and we believe this is just the tip the iceberg. The findings have important implications for plant conservation. What are the threats to individual species of chanterelle? What will happen to local ecosystems if a unique species is lost?

PHOTO: A group of chantarelles found in the woods.
A group of chanterelles found in the woods

In early August I discovered my first chanterelles of the season growing in a nearby oak woodland. I won’t harvest these—it’s illegal to collect mushrooms in forest preserves in counties surrounding Chicago—but I can imagine the delectable mushrooms sautéed in butter or a little olive oil, and minimally seasoned (so I can enjoy the pure chanterelle taste). For a more substantial dish, a chanterelle omelet is just to die for.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Mud puddling…

Imagine this:

PHOTO: Monarch butterfly on scarlet bloodflower.
A monarch butterfly enjoys the nectar of plants in the milkweed family (Asclepias species).

You are a monarch butterfly. You weigh less than one gram. You are traveling 1,000…2,000…perhaps 3,000 miles on migration from Mexico to your northern breeding grounds. You are desperate for flower nectar; for the safety and shelter of shrubs and trees; for shallow, still water to “mud puddle” in; and for milkweed plants on which to lay your eggs. Suddenly you see a sea of color—a flower-filled yard in a yawn of lawns…

You are a hummingbird. You weigh less than a pencil. You have just flown 500 miles nonstop (not to mention crossing the Gulf of Mexico) in search of the perfect spot to build your walnut-sized nest. You need fuel: the nectar from tube-shaped flowers, and lots of it, as in sips from 1,000 flowers per day. Suddenly you see a mass of flowers below…

PHOTO: Hummingbird hovers for nectar from a pink turtlehead bloom.
Pink turtlehead (Chelone glabra) is a late-summer favorite of hummingbirds.

You are a homeowner with a yard. You are weighing a new approach to your landscape: you’d like to incorporate butterfly/hummingbird-friendly plants. You’ve heard about butterfly bushes, and you picture a yard filled with flitting and fluttering all summer long.

You need Tim Pollak. He’s the outdoor floriculturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and he’s our resident butterfly guy, who teaches frequent classes at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden on the subject of attracting butterflies and hummers to your yard. Consider this a mini-class: in the video below, Tim brings you up close to flowering plants that are both butterfly-attractive and visually attractive to you and your neighbors.

Click here for Tim’s tip sheet of simple steps for attracting all sorts of winged creatures to your yard.

Imagine that!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Tonight’s Tomato Sauce

tomatoes on the vineWhen Larry Aronson stepped in to substitute for a scheduled chef during a recent Garden Chef Series demonstration, the long-time Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer brought three important things with him:

  1. His chef son, Richard, who helped demonstrate alongside his dad.
  2. Decades of cooking and restaurant experience as the owner of My π Pizza Unique Pizza in the Pan.
  3. An awesome tomato sauce recipe that he had developed especially for the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden’s Heirloom Tomato Weekend.

Aronson knows tomatoes, and he knows that many of us are just starting to pick the first ripe tomatoes from the vine. (Cooler nights have delayed ripening.) What can a gardener do with just a few tomatoes from each plant, instead of a bushel full?

Make this sauce.

tomato_sauceThe flavorful sauce was a hit at the chef demonstration that day, and it was a hit with the volunteers and staff who got to sample it at a follow-up luncheon. At the latter, Aronson also served the “winter” version of his sauce—same recipe, but made with canned tomatoes instead of fresh. Both were tasty, in different ways: the “summer” version was light, bright, and refreshing; the “winter” sauce was thicker, richer, and heartier. 

Aronson will have copies of his recipe on hand and will be talking tomatoes when he volunteers at Heirloom Tomato Weekend this Saturday and Sunday (11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day). Stop by to talk tomatoes—and recipes!

We’re happy to share the recipe here, too—just in case you need it for tonight’s tomato sauce.

Click here to download a PDF of Larry Aronson’s marinara recipe.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and