Sichuan Stir Fry Puffballs
December 01, 2011 | Updated June 23, 2020
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Let’s get this out right at the beginning: I hate tofu. Hate it. Loathe is too kind a word for what I feel about tofu.
I hate tofu so much I even hold a grudge against their more pristine cousin, the edamame soy bean. So when I started learning more about eating puffball mushrooms, I kept hearing variations on this: “puffballs are like the tofu of the mushroom world.” Bleh. I’ll pass.
I cooked some perfect specimens I found on the prairies of North Dakota two years ago, but tossed them. It was like eating wet foam. Puffballs and I were done. Until last week.
So I got up early to drive to Fairfield, where I know a spot that will often have lots of blewit mushrooms. I happen to like blewits a lot, and wanted to pickle some the way I make pickled chanterelles. Sadly, no blewits. Not a one. Damn. But I kept seeing flashes of white in the grass. I stooped to see what they were.
Huh. A funny little puffball, no larger than a quarter. And there was another one, even smaller. And another and another and another. None were larger than ping pong balls, and most of them shone perfectly white, and were perfectly firm.
Incidentally, puffballs are among the easiest mushrooms to identify. If it is white, grows in grass and is completely firm when cut in half — with no sign of a baby mushroom in the cross section (that would be an amanita, which could prove deadly) — it is an edible puffball. Toss any that are discolored in the middle, as they are developing their spores, which are not good eats.
These puffballs were most likely some sort of bovista species, which are a group of small puffballs that rarely get larger than a racquetball. Most people know about the giant puffballs (this is what I found in North Dakota) and there are several other kinds, my favorite being the “wolf fart,” if only for the name…
Clearly this was a sign.
The Great Mycological Force had ordained that I was not to find my beloved blewits until I developed a puffball mushroom recipe I actually liked. They were the only edible in this spot, and believe me, I looked for others. So OK, then. Puffballs it would be. I was not about to have driven an hour each way and come home with nothing. But what the hell would I do with these mushroomy marbles?
And then it struck me. Puffballs are the tofu of the mushroom world, right? So I’d need to think tofu for recipe ideas. That one was easy. The only tofu dish I have ever liked happens to be a famous one: Sichuan ma po tofu, the fantastically named “Pock Marked Old Woman’s Tofu.” I love that dish for the name alone, but its combination of raging hot chile bean paste, the fermented umami bomb of the black beans, plus lots of garlic, baby leeks and an obscene amount of Sichuan peppercorns (which have a numbing effect) make that nasty ole’ tofu go down easy.
Happily I make lots of Sichuan food at home; it’s my favorite Chinese style, although Hunan is pretty awesome, too. So I had everything I needed to make this dish. And, thanks to the Great Mycological Force, I had enough puffballs to do it.
Cleaning puffballs is a cinch. Simply slice off the little rooty part, which will be dirty, use a stiff brush to remove any stray dirt, and slice in half. You need to slice small puffballs in half because you need to check to see that they are a uniform white mass inside, not yellowy, black or a baby amanita mushroom. Don’t wash if you can help it, as these things suck up water like a sponge.
Keep cleaned puffballs in the fridge for up to a week.
Morals of this story?
First, keep your eyes open when you are foraging. You never know what you will find.
Second, give things a second try: The first attempt might just have been a bad example. That was the case with the puffballs in my Sichuan “ma po puffball.” I loved this puffball mushroom recipe, and even if I never cook puffballs any other way, I will now gather them whenever I find these little white orbs.
Sichuan Stir-Fried Puffballs
- 3 tablespoons lard, peanut oil or vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons Chinese chile bean paste
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced into thin slivers
- 2 tablespoons Chinese fermented black bean paste
- 2-8 hot dried chiles, broken into pieces
- 1 pound puffball mushrooms or other mushrooms, or tofu
- 1/4 cup Chinese rice wine or sherry
- 1 cup vegetable, chicken or game stock
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 4-6 baby leeks or scallions, sliced diagonally into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons corn starch, mixed with 6 tablespoons cold water
- 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
- Slice all the puffballs in half, or slice other mushrooms into large pieces.
- Get the lard or oil hot over medium-high heat in a wok or large saute pan. Add the chile bean paste and the garlic and stir fry for about 30 seconds. Add the fermented black bean paste and the dried chiles and stir fry another 30 seconds or so.
- Add the puffballs and toss to coat. Add the rice wine and stock, then the sugar and soy sauce and bring to a rolling boil. Cook for 8-10 minutes. Add the baby leeks and cook 1 minute.
- Mix the cornstarch into the wok a little at a time, stirring all the while. You want the sauce to thicken a little and get a nice sheen on it. When it does, mix in the Sichuan peppercorns. Serve at once over white rice.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Admittedly, my version of this was not quite as-written; I substituted fermented soybean paste and fermented red pepper paste based on what I had on hand. I also used a giant puffball mushroom, diced into 1 inch pieces. The dish turned out really great. It was my first attempt at cooking (and first time eating) puffball mushrooms, and I will definitely be putting this recipe on repeat.
Preamble says peanuts are substituted for ground pork, but peanuts do not appear in the recipe!
Going to try this with Giant Puffball chunks and chuck in peanuts at some stage. Will report on result.
Chili bean paste and black bean paste both very very salty, so omitted the soy sauce. Added peanuts with puffball chunks. Still very salty but otherwise okay. Next time will omit one of the pastes and add some vegetables.
I am going to try this recipe as I just found a very large puffball mushroom and want to try something new with it. I can tell you that puffballs can taste VERY different depending on where and when they are picked. Some of them have really no flavor at all and some are delicious!
Next time you’re in Seattle, go to Seven Stars Pepper, a Sichuan restaurant, and order the spicy dry bean curd with peanuts. I guarantee you will have a second tofu dish to call you friend. I literally ate it every day for a week once. And I’m not a big fan of tofu either!
Mom Chef: Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against vegetarians — I just hate tofu. 😉
Up here in WA you can find Wolf Farts all over the place. (They were Lycoperdon pyriforme, or “Pear-shaped Wolf Fart”, until genetic testing made them Morganella pyriformis. I still think of them as wolf farts.) If you get skunked on everything else, look around where you parked and chances are very good there are some poking up around the broken ground between the road and the woods, on trails, etc.. I like them, sorta like little marshmallow mushrooms.
There are two things that hit me right off the bat. First, I was giggling like a grade schooler because you used the phrase ‘wolf fart’ in your post. See, there I go again. I’ll have to check out that link when I’m done with this.
Second, I feel the same way about tofu (and edamame for that matter). Exactly as passionately. So, thank you for eating healthy but still carrying venom toward the foundation of the vegetarian diet.
All that to say, I do love mushrooms and this looks fantastic. Hunan is my favorite Asian cooking, but I would eat this in a heartbeat. Go ahead, just offer it to me and see. 🙂
Ha, Ha! I love it! I remember eating puffballs as a kid and recently found a bunch, and of course, harvested them! After sauteing them in butter and slapping them down on the plate, we both went, huh… As hard as I tried, they were sort of mushy and, well, not too good. My husband described them as a salty marshmallow. Not yet discouraged, I decided I just needed to batter them…everything’s good battered, right? Next night…Alright, salty, weepy marshmallow with a crust… My husband also hates tofu. He will LOVE the comparison. Only thing is, tofu’s got to be better…because at least it gets firm when you fry it!
I’ve just started reading your blog. There’s some wonderful information here that I hope to use in the future, especially the info on cleaning game. (I have a dream of one day raising or hunting the majority if not all of my meat.) I really like reading the stories that you tell about hunting. Having never hunted, they really give me an idea of what it’s like.
I moved to Texas a little over ten year ago, and we don’t have puffballs down here, that I’ve found. I love them sauteed in a little butter with salt, pepper & garlic. Up in Kansas, I could find puffballs almost as big as my head! I miss them.
Here’s another tofu recipe you might try. It’s a dip or sauce, depending on how you want to use it. 1 package of medium or firm tofu, dark miso, pickled plum paste, & tahini to taste (I usually add up to 2 or 3 teaspoons of the plum paste & tahini, and about a 1/4 cup of miso.). Add some soy sauce if you want. Blend it all in a blender, adding water to thin it out if you need to. This is wonderful as a veggie dip, as a sauce on rice, beans, greens, anything that will hold still long enough to be drenched, or a spoon! Pickled plum paste is kinda hard to find and a bit expensive at around $8 a package, but one package lasts me about 6 months, so it’s an expense I’m willing to afford. I usually find it at Whole Foods or some other natural foods stores. If you have a good Japanese market, or an oriental market that has a good Japanese section, you could probably find it there as well.