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 tried the hated puffball mushroom once more. 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 them, and even if I never cook puffballs any other way, I will now gather them whenever I find these little white orbs.
This recipe is based on classic ma po tofu. The only major changes I've done to it, other than switching puffball mushrooms for tofu, is to leave out the ground pork and substitute roasted peanuts. Why? It makes it a vegetarian recipe; the roasted peanuts give the dish even more of a contrast in texture than ground pork would have. You really need something crunchy to go with the soft, almost slippery puffballs. If you don't have puffball mushrooms, use regular mushrooms here. Or, if you don't hate tofu the way I do, use tofu and make this more authentic. And there is no law saying you can't make this with meat, either. I've made variations of this recipe before with shredded pheasant breast, and it's really, really good.
- 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.