Hunting for mushrooms is like looking for chameleons—the first one is almost impossible to find. But as soon as you spot your first, it’s all downhill from there…if you’re a mushroom, that is. That goes for plants, berries and nuts, too, if 27-year-old chef, professional forager and Commack native Kyle Fiasconaro is anywhere in sight. Having cooked in notable farm-to-table restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the Kitchen of Boulder, Colorado, and First and South in Greenport, his execution in harnessing the Earth’s natural complexity of aromas and showcasing their delicacy is ingenious. Whether it’s wild ginger, watercress or morels, he knows where to find it and how to cook it.
While the prospect of finding your own food is exciting, like any art it takes time to master. Before you learn the secrets that Kyle generously divulged on how to forage for mushrooms, recite the following rule like a life or death mantra: practice identifying before indulging. Kyle stumbled into foraging seven years ago when he picked up an old guide on a rest stop along the Appalachian Trail. Only after three years of repeatedly devouring reference books and collecting specimens did he start feasting. An unfortunate run-in with some poisonous goat’s rue that he mistakenly identified as beach peas served as a good lesson on the importance of knowing a species’ native growing conditions. He explained that, “there’s just telltale signs of things you should and should not eat. If you break a stem and a milky white sap comes out, it’s a pretty good indication that you probably shouldn’t eat it.” One of the best ways to identify a mushroom is by examining its gills, or the thin flaps underneath the cap.
In a rainy year like 2013, Kyle’s favorite mushroom, chicken of the woods, is still widely available through October. Strikingly orange, these perennial mushrooms should be spongy, moist and oddly resemble cooked chicken growing in a basketball-like mass at the base of hardwood trees. You’ll also find them budding off of tree trunks. Remove carefully when harvesting, leaving a little behind to ensure its regrowth next year. One of the golden rules of foraging that Kyle stresses is leaving enough for replenishment. “Harvest it, preserve it, and go back next year for more.” While his patience in instruction and eagerness to share are impressive, even more noteworthy is the road map of Long Island’s native edible species embedded in his memory. He is constantly on the lookout for new species and spots, which often means stopping short on the highway for the sake of a mushroom. “I know it sounds sacrilegious, but when I’m driving I’m usually also looking for strands of oak trees,” where he finds his favorite fungus. Kyle stresses scoping out the rules of the spot you are sweeping, as many parks and forests are protected preserves.
If you’re hiking through the forest the day after it rains, you might also stumble upon the bright, unworldly oyster mushroom. Oysters are much more sporadic than chicken of the woods and often hide in the cracks of damaged or dead hardwood trees that Kyle describes as “in some state of disrepair.” Scan the woods for spongy, moist white dots. Store them in an open brown bag with a damp towel in the fridge.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find any your first time out. Let the simple act of mindfully observing the forest in a new perspective be your indulgence. As I watched Kyle swiftly scan a seemingly bare patch of dirt to reveal the honesty of a delicious wild carrot, I felt utterly human in experiencing the connection he draws between food and terroir. Watch out for this freshly picked young star, as he will continue to be an active leader in redefining humanity’s relationship with gastronomy through the rediscovering of what was once lost.