Foraging for Fungus

As I’ve mentioned previously, Alaskan summers are so short that when a weekend is rained out we feel robbed. To turn the frown upside down (one of Jon’s favorite sayings, BTW,) there’s no better time for mushroom hunting than in the days following a cool rainy weekend.

Last weekend was just such a weekend, sadly, though the inclement weather did manage to hold off until we completed a charity bike ride (Bike for Sight) on Saturday morning. I never cease to be amazed at the rapidity with which fungus grows. Nothing one day and a full-fledged mushroom the next. Once it rains we start watching the usual spots for signs of fungus formation as we walk the dogs each evening. (No time for such dilly-dallying during the morning walks, there’s work to think about.) When fungus begins to appear here and there we plan our foray to the best spots for a day or two hence and hope for the best.

Today was a fairly successful forage. There is a rather large field across from our house that has been for sale for years. We often walk our dogs there when the weather is nice. In the winter people run their snow machines there. There are several spots in the field where wild strawberries and high bush cranberries and fungus flourish. We’ve been there often enough that we know where to look – and we’ve gotten some amazing photos of some huge poisonous Amanitas over there, too. wpid-20140806_181219.jpgThere’s even a patch of clover that has lots of four-leaf bits. Pretty awesome. But, as usual, I digress.

A critical point when it comes to mushroom hunting is that you must know what you’re doing. I mentioned the poisonous toadstools in the paragraph above. They are great to look at and photograph – the people down the street had a really cool fairy-ring of them growing in their front yard a few years ago – but you wouldn’t want to eat them. The fun hallucinations aren’t worth the potentially fatal after effects. We have 2 mushroom hunting guides that focus on the local mushrooms and if we ever have any questions about the mushrooms we’ve found, we throw them away. The beautiful Red -Pored boletes in the picture were some we had never seen before. The other boletes here that we’re familiar with wpid-20140823_182301.jpgare not only edible, they are delicious and feature in the Alaskan Risotto recipe that we’re sharing with you. When we got these home and checked them out, however, we found out that they were “Poisonous, causing gastrointestinal distress.” Needless to say, we tossed them away.

The photo may appear as if we were greedy, as there are only 2 humans in our household and only one of our dogs would ever consent to consume fungus, but the reality of the situation is that many of the wild mushrooms that we collect have entomological inhabitants. This new idea that bugs have lots of protein and that we should consider eating them – ewwww! And the argument that shrimp are the bugs are the sea? Sigh – I’m not here to argue. To each their own. Suffice it to say that if the mushrooms are infested with insects, we don’t eat them. We do our best to recognize the infested ones when we’re still in the field and leave them behind so that they can spread their spores and create more mushrooms. A good rule of thumb is that the old ones are most likely to be infested, and you probably don’t want to try and eat those. If you feel the same way, then you probably want to gather more mushrooms than you intend to eat. If you are spectacularly fortunate, and all of your mushrooms are healthy and free of infestation, share with some lucky friend or neighbor, or save them for your next meal.

Inevitably, we find far more inedible fungi than good stuff. Fortunately, with practice, we’ve learned to recognize most of the things we can’t eat and leave them behind. Our best advice is to never eat anything you’re not sure of. Always err on the side of caution.

If you find the right mushroom guide, you’ll even get tips on how best to use and prepare the different mushrooms you gather. Some are best sautéed and enjoyed by themselves – the Shaggy Mane comes to mind – while others are best when dried, or in soup, or in a lovely risotto, like the one we’re encouraging you to try. We have even used our wonderful Alaskan Boletes wpid-20140823_182934.jpgwpid-20140824_193831.jpgto make an Alaskan version of Gordon Ramsay’s Beef Wellington. We couldn’t help but wonder what the man himself would have thought of our results.

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