Anyone who has braved the rain-soaked outdoors of late has seen the bounty and variety of wild mushrooms around. Fan-shaped shelf fungi bedecking trees, clusters of shaggy mane standing at the roadside, rotund little puff balls, thin fingers of strap coral - there are hundreds of species found in Southeast Alaska, many of them edible.
Come fall, my mouth starts to water for chanterelle mushrooms - a golden trumpet-shaped delicacy. Fresh ones are spottily available at various Juneau grocers this time of year (I've seen them at Fred Meyer recently), and dried chanterelles are always easy to come by, but I began to wonder if I might find some here in our own backyard. Being a less-than-novice mycologist, I sought the wisdom of Bart Watson, a local mushroom enthusiast. He assured me that a quest for chanterelles this time of year might be worth getting some mud on the old XtraTufs.
Not one, but two varieties of chanterelles grow here. Cantharellus cibarius, commonly known as the yellow chanterelle, can be found in earlier summer months. Cantharellus tubaeformis, a smaller variety also known as yellow foot, winter chanterelle or funnel chanterelle, begins appearing in late summer to early fall and up until the first freeze. According to Watson, the funnel chanterelle favors mossy carpets, especially under big, mature trees.
I had always assumed that the abundant fall rains would be of detriment to wild mushrooms, but apparently chanterelles are quite hearty and can be found in good condition even after a soaking. Watson often picks and immediately freezes them.
"It works really well for these," he reported. "They don't break down. You can thaw them out and it's almost like you just picked them."
Watson became interested in mushrooming by way of deer hunting.
"Eventually I noticed that the gun in my hand was just getting in the way of my looking for mushrooms," he said. Watson has expanded his wildcrafting hobby with the help of local mycology workshops and classes.
No discussion on wild mushroom foraging can fail to address the importance of using caution. Invest in a thorough reference book, and consult more experienced mushroomers for help with identification. To Watson's trained eye, chanterelles are easily identifiable by certain characteristics, like the firm, ridge-like quality of their gills, but there are look-alikes out there, such as the false chanterelle, that can be poisonous.
He suggested that even with a positive ID, it's a good idea to cook any and all mushrooms before eating them, as heat can help break down toxins. Also, eat just a little bit when trying a wild mushroom for the first time, as even some edible varieties can cause a reaction in sensitive individuals.
Cooking wild mushrooms? Now that's an area of expertise I can claim. If you're lucky enough to come by some chanterelles, whether store-bought or foraged, here's what you can do with them:
Sautéed Chanterelles with Pancetta and Pine Nuts
(makes about 2 cups)
Pancetta is an Italian salt-cured bacon, but regular bacon also works nicely, and adds a touch of smokiness. When chanterelles are unavailable, cremini mushrooms make a fine substitute.
Sautéing chanterelles over moderately-high heat with little if any moisture, helps to ensure a toothsome, meaty mushroom. A sprinkle of salt upon adding to the pan helps draw out the moisture.
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced small
½ pound chanterelle mushrooms, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon freshly minced garlic
1 teaspoon freshly minced rosemary leaves
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
Brown the pancetta or bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once it has reached a crisp-chewy texture, remove from skillet and set aside to drain on paper towels. Discard drippings, leaving a thin sheen of grease in the skillet. Return to medium/medium-high heat and add sliced mushrooms and a sprinkle of salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, 5 minutes. Add garlic, rosemary, and pine nuts, and sauté 1 minute more. If mixture seems too dry, moisten with a splash of olive oil, chicken stock, sherry or white wine.
Use this scrumptious and versatile mixture as a topping for bruschetta or pizza, or as an accompaniment to fish, poultry or wild game. Add a bit of heavy cream to make a mouth-watering sauce for linguine or cheese-filled ravioli, or serve plain as an appetizer. Find my recipe for Pine Nut Crusted Chicken Cutlets with Chanterelles at: www.ginnymahar.blogspot.com.
Ginny Mahar is a trained chef and food writer who works at Rainbow Foods. She writes about all things "food" in Juneau, from cooking with local ingredients to restaurant news and food events. View more of her food writing at ginnymahar.blogspot.com.
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