Late July-early August is peak chanterelle mushroom season here in the Mid-Hudson Valley and if there's enough rain there are usually plenty of these beauties for the table and often lots to preserve as well.
Chanterelles are among the most delicious and pretty fungi. Most people, if they know chants at all, think of the apricot-colored, vase-shaped, fragrant delectables that are so good cooked so many ways. There are other types and colors of chanterelles—some equally great—and they all are among the safest mushrooms for beginners to hunt.
Let's start with the classic golden chanterelle, Chantharellus cibarius, and the closely related smooth chanterelle, C. lateritius. Chanterelles grow best in wooded areas that are a mixture of trees and that are moist but not wet. They grow on the ground, often in ferny places and sometimes hide under the leaves. They are radiantly apricot-orange, irregularly vase-shaped, and rather than gills, like a supermarket mushroom, they have graceful shallow folds running down the sides, looking for all the world like the crinkles of a vintage Fortuny dress. They have a wonderful fruity fragrance, again, hinting of apricots (though that might be a matter of color suggestion). Cut only the mature ones, leaving the babies to grow up. Check the cut stem for tiny holes made by tiny worms. If there are lots, cut the chant open and see if it's wormy inside—sometimes the itty-bitty worms just travel through and out the top, so it's your call whether you find it clean enough to eat.
An important caveat: there is a toxic (not deadly) mushroom that somewhat resembles the golden chanterelles, the jack-o-lantern mushroom . Close observation will distinguish the two. Jack-o-lanterns are orange, they grow on wood, not on the ground (check to make sure the wood is not buried), they usually grow in bunches, like a bouquet, often quite big, and they have orange gills under their caps shaped like those of supermarket mushrooms, although the gills descend the long stalk a little. Don't eat these—but if you want to have some fun, try picking a few and taking them into a very dark place. After your eyes adjust to the light, you may see a faint glow of natural phosphorescence!
In your walk, you may also find tiny, brilliant red, vase-shaped mushrooms about an inch tall and growing on the ground called cinnabar chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus). These diminutive sweeties can be a colorful addition to an omelet or risotto, if you gather enough. Be sure that they have the classic vase shape with the folds rather than gills, as described above -there are other tiny orange mushrooms out there that are not cinnabars.
One of my favorites are the black trumpets, called by the French the trumpets of death! They are not poisonous, they are fragrant and yummy, but they are difficult to spot. They too are from one to three inches tall and vase-shaped, but the vase is hollow and there are no folds or gills—it's like a wrinkled piece of dark cloth, and so very hard to see amid the leaf litter on the forest floor. Luckily they tend to grow in groups and when you find one you will usually find many more. There are no toxic look-alikes for this one.
mushroom hunting know-how
Always pick your mushrooms into paper bags—plastic makes them slimy and turn bad quickly. Cut them with a knife and avoid bringing soil and stuff with them, you will be glad later. If you find a bounty, the golden and smooth chanterelles are good cooked and frozen and the black trumpets are wonderful dried and they keep forever.
Get at least one good guide to mushrooms—there are many out there. I prefer Gary Lincoff's Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms, and his wonderful introduction—Mushroom Hunter.
Don't eat anything you haven't identified in at least three sources (use trusted sources on the internet like mushroomexpert.com) and have ruled out toxic look-alikes.
The first time you eat a new variety of mushroom, just eat mouthful or two, and save some of it, uncooked, just in case. Wild mushrooms contain many complex compounds, so besides the possibility of a misidentification, it just might not agree with your stomach.
Don't eat any wild gilled mushrooms until you become more experienced. The four deadly varieties found in the northeast all have gills.
Always cook mushrooms—most of them contain compounds that are indigestible raw.