preparing puffball

Gerald Owen Coburn, the man who first set foot to the path that led to The Quarry Farm as we know it, was, at his very core, an artist. It was with an artist’s eye that he looked on absolutely everything, particularly the natural world; a recurring theme in the body of work that he left, whether in paper, canvas, wood or stone. He was relentless in his desire to understand the world that he took to representing, primarily with brush, methodical and nearly clinical in his efforts to that end. And why not? It’s a fundamental truth that among the very many things that art is, it is most certainly science, peeled and filtered and laid out sideways so as to permit viewing from a different perspective.

One of the first Coburn paintings I had the opportunity to see was a watercolor. It depicted a young boy carrying in his arms what I first mistook to be a large stone, bigger than the boy’s head. It wasn’t a stone, though. It was a puffball, a fungus in the division Basidiomycota. To put an even finer point on it, it was probably Calvatia gigantea, the giant puffball, specimens of which commonly grow to a foot or more in diameter. Even more impressive, when they’re immature they’re not only edible, but supremely tasty. Be sure, though, that you are indeed in possession of an edible mushroom before taking a bite. If you have any doubts whatsoever, caution is the word of the day.

While puffballs are agreeable to most types of preparation, I have a fondness for them cut thick, breaded and sautéed. It’s simple, it’s quick and the results are noteworthy. Here’s how:

  • sliced puffballCut the puffball into ½ to ¾ inch slices. An immature puffball, when cut, will have a uniform white appearance. If they’re turning yellow on the inside, they’re too far gone to eat. Make a slit in the tough, outer skin and peel it away. It should come free quite easily.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil (each imparts its own flavor; choose to your taste) in a skillet over medium heat. Alternatively, use melted butter, but do not brown it. Dependent on the amount of puffball you’re preparing, you may need to add more oil or butter to the skillet as you go.
  • breaded puffballIn a pan large enough to accommodate the puffball slices, combine one egg with 1 ½ tablespoons of milk. On a different plate, prepare a bed of breadcrumbs. I’ve developed a preference for making my own, but store bought will do nicely.
  • Dip both sides of the puffball slices in the egg mixture, then dredge them through the breadcrumbs.
  • Sauté each side until golden brown, then drain momentarily on paper towels. Serve hot.

sautéed puffball

Just add paint

117Watercolor is too real painting. As a painter who prefers this two-dimensional medium to most others, I have been in the position to argue this point. My argument accuses oil snobs of decorating their walls with off-the-rack roadside numbers that match a couch.

Boyfriends are broken-up with because of statements like this. But that was providence, it turns out, and a long time ago.

118And painting in oils is fine, if that’s what you like. But don’t tell me that a water-based work, one which requires the painter to give a measure of control over to their chosen medium, allowing light and whims of water, air and pigment to have their way, isn’t real painting.

So, with 94 percent humidity and a forecast of sun, the second “Watercolor for Beginners” workshop took place today under the earth-red roof of the Seitz Family Pavilion. Heavy fog kept a few distant registrants away, but hot black coffee, herbed shortbread and apple oatmeal cookies revived those that took up a brush.

146I love it when watercolor novices tell me, “I have no artistic talent.” These are the ones that are the first to let go; to pool water on their paper and break the surface tension of that pool with a loaded brush. It’s the ones that have painted before, using slow-to-dry, opaque, malleable mediums, that are reluctant let go of control. Because, in my opinion, that’s what you have to do with watercolor. You have to let go and see what water, paint, paper texture and weight and gravity can create when kind of, sort of left to their own devices. Once you have witnessed that, you can begin to take the reins and shape your work.

The seven people who floated through this morning’s fog, included some of the above. They chose their subjects from the Red Fox Cabin gardens, vegetables, flowers and leaves. You can see in the photos the tentative steps, the light lines of paint on cold press paper (I wouldn’t let them sketch their subjects with pencil first). Two hours later, we had a marvelous body of work, each of them showing promise and more than one worthy of exhibition at any art festival.

Of course that, along with my thoughts on how to begin painting with watercolors, is my opinion. I could be wrong.

But I don’t think so.

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