The giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) is a true beauty. In the meadows and on the hillsides in high hazy summer, they pop up in ones, twos, threes, sometimes in vast numbers. Coming across a ring of these fantastical mushrooms in a field, or spotting them from afar on the other side of a valley, is exciting and a little otherworldly.
Occasional in the UK and, for such large fungi, frustratingly hard to find, the giant puffball appears from mid-summer through to late autumn, often on ancient pasture and fields. Its large size, dazzling white appearance, and round shape make it almost impossible to confuse with anything else. It is the younger, immature fungus that is edible; as they age, they start to yellow and soften, until they sag inward and release trillions of spores into the air to be carried away by the breeze. If I’m lucky enough to come across some I will pick just a couple – they are so large that more is unnecessary anyway – and leave the rest to complete their cycle. Perhaps this way there will be more next year.
If your specimen is bright white and firm, it is likely to be good for the kitchen. Cut it in half before cooking – it should be pure white throughout. If it is yellowing or brown, it has started to spore and should not be eaten (leave it in a hedge somewhere to distribute its spores). If there is a discernible outline of another shape inside, it is the immature stage of a different fungus, and should not be eaten. If in doubt, don’t.
This mushroom has a pleasing soft texture, with a savoury, slightly sweet taste (with a hint of lemon). Peel some, slice it, fry it in butter, savour every mouthful. There will still be plenty left over for the recipe here; it will keep well in the fridge for a couple of days.
Marsh samphire (Salicornia species) is to be found from June to August on salt marshes and muddy estuaries. Take wellies, be aware of deep mud, be prepared for an aching back. To pick, just cut off the succulent tips with a pair of scissors, leaving the rest of the plant to regrow next year. Samphire does not keep all that well, so only pick what you will eat or, as I have done here, pickle it. It goes well with fish or lamb, and is great served up with charcuterie. It’s also a good excuse for a trip to the seaside and maybe an ice cream.
Giant puffball burger with pickled samphire, ginger, and miso mayonnaise
The savoury mushroom paired with the sharp, salty, sweet pickles, and the pungent mayonnaise, is a deeply satisfying lunch or dinner. The pickling needs to be done well beforehand, but once you have these jars in your cupboard you’ll be dipping into them to accompany all manner of things.
For the samphire (makes around 2 jam jars’ worth)
300g samphire (you can buy this in most good grocers this time of year)
3 baby leeks
80g demerara sugar
500ml white wine vinegar
3 bay leaves
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp turmeric
5 cloves garlic
Wash the samphire and remove any tough or woody stalks. Wash and finely slice the leeks, peel the garlic. Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the samphire, leeks, and garlic. Simmer for around 4 minutes or until the samphire is tender. Refresh under cold water.
In another pan, bring the vinegar, sugar, and spices to the boil, and simmer for 5 minutes to release and infuse the flavours. When the sugar has dissolved, set aside and leave to cool completely.
Drain the samphire, leeks, and garlic, and pack tightly into sterilised jars (use non-reactive lids or the vinegar will do odd things to them). Pour over the cooled vinegar and spices, close tightly, and place in a dark cupboard. The pickled samphire will be ready in a couple of weeks. It will keep, unopened, in a cupboard for up to three months, or open in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
For the ginger (makes about 1 small jam jar)
You can buy pickled sushi ginger in most good grocers, but it is satisfying to make your own.
2 thumb sized pieces of ginger
60ml rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tsp salt
Use a teaspoon to scrape away all the brown outside of the ginger (this method reduces the amount wasted dramatically). Then, using either a mandolin or a vegetable peeler, cut the ginger into slivers as fine as you can get them. Pop the ginger in a bowl, sprinkle over the salt, and give the lot a little massage with your fingers, working the salt into the ginger as much as possible. Cover and set aside in the fridge for an hour or so.
Meanwhile, bring the vinegar and sugar to the boil in a saucepan, and simmer until all the sugar has dissolved. Take off the heat and allow to cool completely.
When cooled, take your ginger from the fridge, squeeze out any liquid that has exuded from it, and give it a quick rinse in cold water. Pat dry with clean kitchen towel, and pack into a sterilised jam jar with a non-reactive lid. Pour over the vinegar solution, making sure it is totally covered, and seal the jar. Again, leave in a dark cupboard to do its thing – the flavours will become more complex over time. It’s ready to use in two weeks, and will keep, unopened, for up to three months, or opened in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
For the miso mayonnaise
Simply combine 2 heaped tbsp of mayo and 1 tsp of white miso paste in a bowl. If you want it a little stronger, or weaker, just play with the ratios.
For the burger (makes 4)
1 large (30cm or thereabouts) puffball, peeled and cut into thick slices – there will be leftovers for breakfast
200g plain flour
3 large eggs
100ml whole milk
50g salted butter
A pinch each of salt and pepper
4 large burger buns
4 large ripe tomatoes, sliced
A few washed mild-tasting salad leaves
Whisk together the eggs and the milk. Season the flour with a little salt and pepper. Take one of the puffball slices and place in a bowl with the flour. Give it a good coating, then transfer to a bowl with the egg. Turn it a few times to make sure it thoroughly covered with the egg mix, then place in the breadcrumbs and, once again, give it good coating. I tend to do this twice for each slice to ensure a good, thick, crunchy layer.
Once all your slices of mushroom are covered with breadcrumbs, melt the butter in a large frying pan on a medium-high heat. When the butter begins to sizzle, add the puffball slices and cook for six to eight minutes, turning regularly, until lovely and golden. You may need to add more butter as they cook, but this is no bad thing.
Slice and toast the buns, spread both sides liberally with the miso mayonnaise, and assemble your burgers, adding the tomatoes, salad leaves, and as much or as little of the pickled samphire and ginger as you wish (bear in mind the samphire is quite salty).
Serve whilst still hot, with a glass of something cold, light, and fruity.
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