Monday, September 15, 2014

wild alaska! hunting for edible mushrooms

My enthusiasm (read: obsession) with foraging has not abated, despite the falling leaves and crisp autumn temperatures here in Southcentral Alaska.  Despite many years of fishing, clamming, picking berries and other wild Alaska edibles, one edible in particular has eluded my harvest: mushrooms. 
I've been intrigued with the idea of hunting for wild mushrooms for years, but I thought I would need to hunt alongside an expert so that I didn't, well, DIE from ingesting a poisonous mushroom.  As my Dad is fond to say, "Have you read the book 'How to Tell Mushrooms from Toadstools' by the late Dr. Johnson?"  Sigh.
Still, I wasn't entirely deterred.  I read books, pamphlets, and numerous articles on the internet.  I kept thinking, "I can do this on my own, right?"  And then THIS happened:

King Bolete/boletus edulis/wild porcini = delicious!!!
I picked the most perfect, beautiful King Bolete you ever saw a few weeks ago in the Alaska wilderness.  A boletus edulis according to my mushrooming friend Laurie Constantino.  The problem was, I didn't know it at the time.  I had a hunch, but didn't feel confident enough just then.  I took some pictures, admired the pretty mushroom, vowed to check with friends when I returned to an area with cell service, and chucked it in the woods.  CHUCKED IT IN THE WOODS.  Like a piece of (completely compostable and Earth-friendly) trash.  It was only later that I discovered what I had found.  And I was crushed.  Devastated.  Sickened by what I had innocently done.
And so, I vowed to make up for my rookie foraging mistake ever since.
Since then, I've scoured my books and the internet for articles about mushrooms.  Online articles by local foragers Laurie Constantino and Natasha Price have been immensely helpful, and I've relied on them heavily.  I've also used this booklet on Alaska Mushrooms by Harriette Parker, as well as this online pamphlet from the USDA
I've decided to heed the advice of my friend Laurie and avoid any mushrooms with "gills."  Edible gilled mushrooms, where the underside of the cap looks similar to fish gills (just like your typical button mushroom or Portobello mushroom from the grocery store), are tricky to spot in the wild.   Instead, I've focused on two edible varieties that are the easiest to identify and the most delicious:  king boletes (which have a sponge-like texture under the cap and a smooth stalk, as pictured above) and puffballs (which must be creamy white all the way through in order to be edible- no spores!)
I've been out and about in the forests near Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Denali hunting for these tasty edibles and found dozens of beautiful mushrooms along the way.  I even discovered a few edible Alaskan scaber-stalk boletes in the woods behind my old elementary school, which I cleaned up and sautéed with butter, garlic, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme from my garden.
I ventured out last week in Anchorage in the rain with my friend Dave Waldron from Alaska Public Media.  (Check out the article and the radio segment here!)  We had a great time tromping along the soft, mossy forest floor looking for edible mushrooms.  Pickings were slim, but we spotted these puffballs and a soggy lil' bolete.
There are seemingly endless varieties of mushrooms in Alaska, and even if I can't eat them I can't help but admire their beauty and individuality.

DON'T EAT THESE!  Just admire the bounty. :)

If  you are brave enough to venture out on your own, I URGE you to exercise caution and check out the links I've included in this post, as well as doing your own research.  I do not claim to be an expert- far from it.  I'm an amateur forager eager to share my experience with others!  Foraging for mushrooms on your own is doable, as long as you arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.  The window for mushrooms is coming to a close, but I plan on venturing out this week to see if I can spot any gems.  In the meantime, I've searched the internet and found some delicious recipes that I hope to try with my bounty.  Fingers crossed!
Happy foraging!
xo H

Thursday, August 28, 2014

wild alaska! blueberry cornmeal skillet cake

I have a massive issue when it comes to foraging.  Some would call it my gift.  Others (like my berry-picking friends) would call it my curse.  You see, deep in the incomprehensible double-helix thingy of my DNA structure, I have an unmistakable gene for hunting and gathering.  I LOVE it.  But not in the way you love your favorite sweater or lasagna on Fridays.  I mean, I love foraging in a way that were I left to my own devices I would gather to my heart's content and never come home.  You would find me 4 days later up on a mountain picking berries happy as a clam but desperately needing a shower.
As I've said before, I don't have an "off" switch when it comes to foraging.  Which is one of the main reasons I always bring a friend with me whenever I embark on my little gathering excursions.  Because someone has to be there to make me stop.

I'm not sure exactly what it is that drives me to harvest Alaska's wild bounty.  I suspect it's a mixed bag of reasons, one being simply: FREE FOOD.  But it's roots are much deeper than that.  There is something so satisfying about hitting the jackpot and discovering a trove of currants, or that Devil's Club buds are at the perfect time for harvesting.  And I wouldn't engage in a single foraging expedition if the results weren't also delicious.  I am continually amazed at the plentiful variety of edible plants growing in our own (enormous, massive, breathtaking) Alaskan backyard. 
I also believe that I'm most at peace in nature.  And we have a lot of that in Alaska.  I mean, just look at the scenery from the berry-picking expedition with my friend Erica from last week!

This blueberry skillet cake is nearly fool-proof, which is perfect for those of us that are slightly baking-impaired.  It comes together in very little time and I love bringing the whole skillet to the table for serving.  Delicious with homemade whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, it's also perfect on its own and makes a great breakfast treat.  Lately, my taste buds have been craving desserts that aren't super sweet, and this cake fits the bill.  It's not nearly as sweet as your standard cake, which is due in part to our tart Alaskan blueberries.  I've made it with raspberries from my backyard and it's slightly sweeter, but equally delicious.
And so, I encourage everyone to get outside, pick some berries.  And see if the foraging bug bites you, too! 

Alaska Blueberry Cornmeal Skillet Cake
Serves 8-ish (Adapted from Martha Stewart)

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, plus an extra 1/4 cup for sprinkling
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
2 large eggs
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus 1 extra tablespoon for skillet
2 cups Alaska blueberries (fresh or frozen)**

(1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Whist together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and 1 cup plus 2 tablespoon sugar in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and whisk just to combine.

(2) In a 10 inch oven-proof skillet (I used my trusty Lodge Cast-Iron), place one tablespoon of butter in the skillet and pop it in the oven until it's melted and the skillet is hot (3-5 minutes).  Take the skillet out of the oven and swirl the butter to coat the bottom.  Pour the batter into the skillet, and scatter the blueberries on top.  Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar.

(3) Bake in the middle of the oven until it is golden brown, about 40-45 minutes.  Let cool before slicing it.  This is great served either warm or at room temperature. 

**Substituting Alaska raspberries for the blueberries is equally delicious.

xo h