By Jenny Neyman
Chances are that those who bought $40 tickets to go to a mushroom-themed banquet Sept. 12 — the culmination of the two-day Mushroom Mania event put on by the Southcentral Alaska Mycological Society — were already edible fungus fans.
So maybe they weren’t particularly surprised by the versatility and delectability of the dishes, each course involving mushrooms of some sort, from salad to soup, the entrees and even dessert.
But for those who were still developing their interest and skill in mushrooming — learning to find safe, wild edibles and figuring out what to do with them once harvested — the meal was an eye-opening, taste-bud awakening feast for the senses.
“It was a culinary delight. It was really, really good. I knew that we had really great potential, but to sit there and actually eat them and have them prepared like that was just great,” said Harry Pierce, one of the organizers of Mushroom Mania, and a budding mushroom hunter, himself. “Everything we had had mushrooms in every entrée. It was just gorgeous. It really looked good and really tasted good.”
Even seemingly simple dishes, like a cream of mushroom soup, got rave reviews.
“That was the best soup that I ever had,” Pierce said. “It was thick and had lots of mushrooms in it. It was great.”
Pierce’s wife, Mary, said it never even occurred to her to have mushroom soup all by itself.
“Ooohh, the mushroom soup was unbelievable. I’ve used the canned stuff in casseroles, but I never wanted to eat it just by itself. But it was really good,” she said.
Entrees were seafood and mushrooms in cream sauce, and chicken with mushrooms. The salad course had mushrooms sprinkled on top. Even the dessert, a caramel pecan tart, had mushrooms. It may have sounded a little strange, but won many converts.
“It was — oh, it was awesome,” Mary said.
“Oh, wow,” Pierce said. “I bet in each slice there were probably a million calories, but it was great.”
The meal left the Pierces, well, stuffed, for one thing, but also resolved to expand their efforts to cook with wild, local mushrooms. So far, Mary has had success with a simple idea she got from some friends — stuffed mushroom caps.
She sliced in half an entire cookie sheet full of the prized, spring morel mushrooms Harry gathered in the Skilak Lake burn area, filled them with low-fat Jimmy Dean sausage and popped them in the oven until the sausage was done
“When he got home with the morels I thought, ‘Well, we’ll try it.’ He just joined the club (the Southcentral Alaska Mycological Society) this year, so I don’t know anything about wild mushrooms. That was my first and only experience so far. He was kind a leery when I was making them. He had this look on his face like, ‘Uh, you’re making way too many.’ But we didn’t have any left.”
At the mushroom fair, Mary bought a cookbook compiled by Carol Burdick, of Soldotna, containing wild mushroom recipes, including the tart served as dessert at the banquet. She’s ready to expand her repertoire, especially as Pierce brings more specimens home.
“I’m not a gourmet cook. I’m pretty much a plain old, meat-and-potatoes kind of person. But I bought the cookbook and plan on trying several of the recipes in there,” Mary said. “They look pretty good. The ones I picked looked very easy. One used frozen bread dough. I can probably manage that.”
Cooking with mushrooms does not have to be a grandiose undertaking to get gourmet results, said Ken Gill, president of the mycological society, and a professional chef for 25 years in Reno. He and his wife have lived on the central peninsula for the last 20 years, owners of Eagle’s Roost Lodge out Funny River Road. He does some cooking for the lodge and family and friends, and prepared most of the mushroom banquet meal.
The most difficult part of cooking with wild mushrooms has nothing to do with the actual preparation or cooking process — it’s learning what’s safe to eat and what isn’t. Join the mycological society to go on guided fungus forays, buy a reliable field guide or ask someone in the know to help you learn positive identifications of what’s safe and what isn’t.
And if there’s ever any doubt, don’t risk it. Alaska has poisonous mushrooms along with edibles, and some look like the others. So if you don’t know, let it grow and pick something you are sure about.
Or do like Gill, and grow your own. He gets most of his cooking supply of mushrooms out of his garden, but he still enjoys mushroom hunting in the woods, as well.
“There’re some awfully good edibles around here. Every year I pick up a few more that I learn to ID and eat. It’s a lot if fun and good exercise to get out in the wild,” Gill said.
Morels grow in the spring, but fall is prime mushroom time. Recent rains have been spurring new growth, so now is a good time to get out and mushroom hunt. Mushrooming should still be good for the next few weeks, until the first hard frost hits, Gill said.
“You want to get them fairly young, where they’re still fairly firm,” he said. “With those, you’re competing with the bugs. The older ones are definitely going to have bugs in them. If they have bugs, I figure the bugs got them first and I don’t mess with them.”
Once mushrooms are identified, picked and brought home, it’s time to clean them. Gill recommends using a mushroom brush and removing the outside layer of firm stems with a vegetable peeler, rather than washing them with water. Mushrooms are like sponges and will absorb water, he said.
Wild mushrooms can be cooked right away or dried and stored. To dry mushrooms, clean and slice larger varieties, like king boletes, and lay them on a screen in sunlight. Smaller mushrooms, especially the hollow morels, don’t have to be sliced first, Gill said. Depending on humidity, mushrooms should sun dry in two days, or a dehumidifier could be used for faster results. Dried mushrooms can be rehydrated and used just like fresh ones, and sometimes drying mushrooms intensifies their flavor and texture, Gill said.
Mushrooms can be eaten raw, sprinkled on salads or other dishes, but Gill recommends cooking them. It brings out their flavor and is safer for diners who may not tolerate mushrooms as well as others.
“Some people sometimes have a gastric reaction to the raw mushrooms. That seems to go away if you cook them,” Gill said.
To cook, slice mushrooms into 1/8- to 1/4-inch slices and sauté in butter with a little garlic.
“From there, you can put them in any recipe that you have. They will have a lot more flavor than the button mushrooms you’re used to using from the store. Those are pretty bland,” Gill said.
Palates differ, of course, but for Gill, the firmer the mushroom, the better.
“I prefer the mushrooms that stay firm. I don’t like the ones that get black and slimy when you cook them,” he said.
Gill’s local favorites include:
- King bolete.
“They’re nice and firm, very good-tasting and retains their white color fairly well. They have a good texture when you cook them. King boletes are probably the best ones we have around here, in my opinion,” Gill said.
- Orange delicious.
“It’s not as good as the name implies, but it’s good. It’s fairly firm and turns a little more orange when you cook it.”
- Shaggy manes.
“They’re a little soft, but they’re a good, common one. When you see them and get them young, they’re good,” he said.
- Hedgehog fungus. These come in brown and white varieties.
“A white hedgehog, I think, tastes better. You don’t find them in as great a number or as big as the brown ones, but they’re not as bitter. They’re pretty good,” Gill said.
- Honey mushrooms.
“We’ve had tons of them around here this fall, just an amazing amount of them. They get a little softer, but they’re a good one.”
“There is quite a bit of difference in flavor, but any of these can be used pretty much interchangeably in any recipe you have,” Gill said.
For his cream of mushroom soup, Gill used dried king boletes and simmered them in water to plump them up again. He strained the mushrooms out of the liquid and used it as stock, tightening it up with a butter roux and whole milk to make a cream sauce. He chopped the mushrooms and sautéed them with onions and added them back to the sauce with a little ground thyme. He topped the soup with chopped, smoked almonds and a little smoked paprika.
If would-be mushroom chefs are hoping for exact measurements, sorry, that’s as close as Gill gets.
“As far as a cup of this, a cup of that, the first time I try a recipe, yeah. After that, I’m on my own,” he said.
He did estimate that starting with two, nice-sized king boletes would make enough soup to serve four to six people.
Sweet side: Caramel Pecan Shiitake Bites and Bars
From “Just Add Mushrooms,” by Carol Burdick
- 2 1/4 cups oats, uncooked
- 1 3/4 cups flour
- 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
- 1/2 cup shredded coconut
- 1/4 cup shiitake mushrooms, diced fine
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 2/3 cup butter, melted
- 1 1/4 cup pecans, chopped
- 1/2 cup shiitake mushrooms, diced fine
- 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/3 cup caramel ice cream topping
- 1/3 cup mini chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Line baking sheet with two dozen silicone mini muffin cups. Lightly oil a 9-by-9-inch glass baking pan with cooking spray. If you do not have silicone cups, make only the bars in a 9-by-13-inch glass baking pan. DO NOT use paper muffin cups, as this is a sticky mixture, and after baking the sugars harden and you will not get the paper off.
In large bowl, combine oats, flour, brown sugar, coconut, mushrooms, baking soda and salt. Mix well.
In small bowl, combine egg, vanilla, maple syrup and melted butter. Mix well. Add to oatmeal mixture and mix well.
Press dough firmly into the bottoms of the silicone muffin cups, filling only halfway. Press remaining dough into bottom of prepared baking pan.
For the topping, in a small bowl, combine pecans, mushrooms, dark brown sugar and ice cream topping. Mix well. Spoon topping lightly into each muffin cup and sprinkle remaining topping onto the dough in the baking pan. Sprinkle 3 to 4 mini chocolate chips into each muffin cup and the remaining chips over the topping in the baking pan. Press topping down lightly.
Bake muffin cups for 20 minutes, and the bars for 30 minutes.
A half batch makes just the bites. For variety, try different flavors of ice cream topping, different flavors of chips or add toffee bits.
“Just Add Mushrooms” is available at Burdick Enterprises in Soldotna, and the Southcentral Alaska Mycological Society. It’s also soon going to be available at Alaska Botanical Gardens in Anchorage, and online at alaskachilipepper.com.