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Forest to Highchair Cuisine

Eliana + Judah

My daughter, at two-years-old, already understands where her favorite food comes from. “Papa, hunt mauk-mee,” (mushrooms) she says. “Hike.”

How can I resist? I take her in one arm, paper bag and mushroom knife in the other, and we hit the trails behind our house just before sunset.

She has the first find, a blood-red Boletus frostii, nestled beneath a dying beech tree. “Papa, mauk-mee, mauk-mee!”  This edible species is among the most brilliantly colored of all boletes, but its sour flavor and mushy texture can leave something to be desired.

“Nice find,” I tell her, “but we are looking for porcini.”

“Chee-nee!” she exclaims, not missing a beat, and for the first time it is clear to me that she understands the difference between a gourmet edible and the legions of bland, bitter, poisonous, or otherwise inedible species.

We march on, my eyes scanning the uphill side of the trail looking for the light-brown cap and swollen stem of Boletus atkinsonii, a member of the porcini group with an affinity for oaks and other hardwoods. But once again, Eliana proves her forager’s eyes are the freshest.

“Chee-nee! Papa, Chee-nee!” Call it beginner’s luck, but she had spotted a plump pair of kings by an old oak on the downhill side of the trail, where I was not even looking. The maggots had gotten them first, but that did little to sully the magic of the moment.

Eliana’s kings were flags, and soon the two of us were following an impressive fruiting of Boletus atkinsonii, climbing along ledges and pulling back leaf litter to reveal their pudgy caps. My daughter was finding as many porcini as I was, her appetite for the hunt as insatiable as my own. Each time we found another, she would yelp out in delight – “Chee-nee! Pick!”; then, “Papa, more!”, as we continued pursuing woodland royalty.  She ignored the more pedestrian fare – old man of the woods boletes, rotting milk-caps – in a single-minded quest for chubby, regal piglets.

For this devoted father and forager, it was a revelation, the richest find of the season.

As the sun went down and our bag filled up, I coaxed Eliana out of the woods. She knew exactly what the next step would be in this forest to highchair foraging adventure – “Papa, chee-nee! Eat! Papa, eat!”

When we arrived home, my little forager burst through the door with big pride – “Mama, chee-nee! Hunt, mauk-mee!”

We brushed and rinsed the mushrooms together, then let our porcini sweat off the moisture in a dry cast iron pan before adding a teaspoon of butter and, finally, a dash of heavy cream.

I did not even have time to throw a bib on Eliana. The pile of cooked mushrooms disappeared (with an audible “Mmmm”) as fast as I could spoon them into a bowl. I had to be assertive just to get a few bites, but porcini had never tasted so sweet.

Mountain Kings

IMG_5865

As I entered the woods with my childhood best friend on my 30th birthday backpacking adventure, my attention was fixed on the ground as we followed a languorous river. Lipstick­-red, vomit­-inducing emetic Russulas lined the trailside, and acrid peppery milkies were sprayed about the flat forest floor. Deadly destroying angels were everywhere, menacingly elegant and dangerous. Yet a three-­mile, flat riverside walk into the backcountry did not reveal a single gourmet mushroom, and the soil seemed drier with each step.

Then, the trail turned and we started climbing steeply. Our legs burned and we began to shed layers as the mid-­day sun beat down upon our shoulders. I was no longer looking as intently for mushrooms, my hopes of a hearty harvest shriveling.

The first hedgehog mushroom just presented itself to me, its distinctive pale peach cap leaving no doubt that I would find teeth, rather than pores or gills, below. A first find of the season is always glorious, and a quick scan revealed five more juicy Hydnum repandum within a ten­-foot radius. I pulled a paper bag out of my backpack and harvested a handful of plump hogs.

The hedgehogs were soon followed by my season’s first small lion’s mane (Hericium coralloides), and I began to realize that the cold nights and morning mountain mist had invigorated the mushrooms at the higher elevations. Often I look to low bogs and valleys in search of moisture during drought. But higher does not always mean drier, and it is easy to overlook the cool mushroom havens that can be found if you climb into the clouds.

Trailside porciniI had a smile to my face as I sauntered higher up the mountain, backpack on my shoulders and paper mushroom bag coddled carefully in my hand. Without even trying, I spotted the prettiest porcini (Boletus cf. edulis) I have seen since my Ithaca foraging days. It stood out like an alpine beacon, a quintessential King with massive, blemish-­free stem. The cap was firm and picturesque, and needed no preparation to make a nutty trailside snack. All mushrooms should be cooked as a general rule, but a notable exception is a bug-­free King. How could one improve upon such perfection?

As we marched higher still, the trees becoming stunted and misshapen, I was surprised to see the chunky hedgehogs continue to fruit along the trail, and I picked up another season’s first – yellowfoot chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) – just below treeline. We arrived at camp late, too tired to cook or set up a tent, and promptly fell asleep upon a bed of moss and rosy red Russulas.

The next afternoon, on our hike out of the forest, we cleaned and cooked the wild mushrooms (minus the porcini cap) along with sliced summer sausage. Though we had no oil, butter or salt, the result was outstanding and imbued with an exquisite mountain terroir. I typically don’t mix porcini (nutty, earthy) with chanterelles (fruity, floral) in the same pot, but for this wild backcountry one­-pot wonder, the medley of mountain mushrooms was balanced and delightful.

ForageCast: The Ox Tongue on the Oak Tree

Beefsteak mushroom

Like a crimson tongue shooting up from the scorched earth, scouring for moisture, the beefsteak polypore commanded my attention. Also called the ox tongue, the beefsteak (Fistulina hepatica) is a beguilingly beautiful polypore that I almost never find, let alone on a bone-dry August afternoon.

But there they were, two vibrant slabs of red meat at the base of a dead oak, undeniably resembling fresh cuts of their bovine namesake. Candidly, I have never tried the beefsteak – I rarely see it and, when I do, I typically prefer to leave it on the tree.

This time, though, the timing was just right, and I took an ox tongue home with me. Opinions as to the culinary merits of this species vary – I will be experimenting with a few different preparations and will report back.

In the meantime, the weather is shifting. Yesterday’s rains triumphantly broke the drought, and the coming week promises bucketsful of rain and mushrooms!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

 

ForageCast: Veins of Golden Chanterelles

Chanterelles

The forest is flush with veins of gold that cut through dark hemlock stands and weave their way around towering spruce. A week of powerful afternoon thunderstorms broke the early July dry spell, receding to reveal a bumper crop of chanterelles flanked by porcini. Watch your step, because lobsters are lurking underfoot, and baby black trumpets are sprouting between the beech trees. The slugs have already arrived at the great woodland feast, and I invite you to join them!

July hunting can be muggy, buggy, and inconsistent, but don’t let the horseflies keep you away from the harvest. If your favorite local forest proves fruitless, try a different patch of woods. You don’t need to go far to shake things up.

I led a private guided foray on Sunday that started slow as I crawled around beech trees scouring the moss for black trumpets still too tiny to reveal themselves. A flush of pristine oysters brightened the mood, but I knew we could do better. We crossed over to the other side of the driveway and found a glistening handful of chanterelles. But it was not until we reached the edge of a dense tangle of spruce and birch that a participant, taking a cigarette break, stumbled upon an inspiring flush. We left plenty of the chanterelles to spread their spores, and walked back to the camp with a brimming basketful.

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: Chanterelles, Boletes and their Brethren

Chanterelles - Hands

It rains as I write, a good slow and steady soak that is sure to summon great flushes of gourmet and medicinal fungi. After a dry start to the summer season, golden chanterelles and boletes – from painted to porcini – are poking their familiar faces up from the warm July soil.

Boletes and chanterelles can be divine, but these charismatic fungi should not be mistaken for beginner species.

The jack-o’-lantern is a common, highly poisonous mushroom that is all-too-easily confused for the supremely edible (once cooked) chanterelle. Though not deadly for healthy adults, a jack-o’-lantern dinner is likely to leave you clinging to the toilet bowl for well over 24 hours. The differences between jacks and chanterelles are obvious to experienced foragers, but can be indiscernible to beginners. Once you can have mastered recognition of the golden chanterelle’s attached, forking gills and scattered fruiting habit, you can enjoy a handful of equally delicious, vibrantly colored chanterelle relations as well.

Boletes, pored fungi that grow in mycorrhizal association with plants, are generally safer than gilled mushrooms. No North American boletes are recognized as deadly, but this can lend beginners a false sense of security. Boletes are fairly simple to ID to genus, but identifying to species can vary from straightforward to extremely difficult without microscope and spore print. There are myriad North American boletes known to be edible, a handful of which rank among the most exquisite and savory of all wild mushrooms (such as the Boletus edulis group). There also are “edible” (ie non-poisonous) boletes that are repulsively bitter, and mild-flavored boletes that are highly toxic. Be weary of any blanket rules – you have to know each mushroom, in all its nuance and wild glory.

I had an inspiring morel season, but the June mushrooming dry spell has left me craving the persistence, passion, and abundance of the peak season mushroom hunt. We have not seen peak yet, but I anticipate promising conditions and invigorating surprises for our guided forays this coming weekend!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

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