Wood ear mushroom, jelly ear
While the trees are still bare and the woods are bright, is a good time to harvest wood ear mushrooms, Auricularia auricula-judae. These wood growing jelly fungi are wide spread, easily identified, and grow year round, but early spring is my favourite time to pick them. First of all, without lush green leaves obscuring them, they are easier to spot. Then, they grow nice and plump in cool wet weather, pair well in recipes with other early spring forageables, and, finally, gain relative importance by being about at this time of year when the selection of wild growing fungi is at its smallest. They prefer dead elder, but can also be found growing on the wood of other deciduous trees such as beech and sycamore. As the name suggests, they look (and feel) like floppy brown ears, which makes them easy to identify.
They have been used historically as food and medicine, and in some areas of the world, Auricularia species are still highly priced and commercially grown and marketed. Medically, they are showing some promise due to anticoagulant, antiviral and antibacterial properties; culinarily, they provide an interesting texture, and due to being quite neutral themselves, but readily absorbing other flavours, lend themselves to both sweet and savoury uses. Sautéing them is risky business, since they explode and propel hot mushroom shrapnel through the kitchen, but they are great in saucy, soupy things, especially with Asian flavours. They dry easily and rehydrate beautifully; I like to clean them after collecting, slice them into strips and then just let them dry on a tray on the windowsill. When completely dry, I store them in jars, and they keep that way for years. To use, I throw the dried bits straight into the cooking liquid to allow them to absorb maximum flavour. They expand a lot, so a small handful of dried mushrooms goes a long way. They are excellent in hot and sour soup, but they also make an interesting sweet treat soaked in a fruity liqueur, like sloe gin, and covered in chocolate.