The rains of the Yukon summer made us sad but then they made us happy...
...by delivering a glorious burst of mushrooms. Lactarius, Agaricus, hawk wings, hedgehogs, oysters--all the edibles we love, plus a stunning array of mysterious inedibles we try to identify and sometimes succeed
A beautiful batch of Agaricus mushrooms (note: please don't use the photos on this page for identification purposes; use field guides, consult knowledgeable friends and always be 100% certain of identification before you eat a wild mushroom.)
We have become a territory of mushroom lovers. From July to October we walk through the forest with knives and baskets, seeking treasure. We learn about habitat, marvel at mycelium, and share photos and knowledge on a Facebook page called Yukon Shroomers. We follow mycologist Sam Skinner through the woods in awe-struck groups of 150 as he guides us on mushroom walks for the Yukon Conservation Society or the Yukon Government’s Wildlife Viewing program. (Pre-Covid-19, of course. Sam hopes to resume his walks and talks in 2021).
Our love is intense for edible and inedible species; it’s the world of mushrooms that is enchanting, not only the prospect of a delicious meal. The rains of the summer of 2020 brought forward a spectacular harvest of known and unknown species, and the season went on and on. I came this close to finding King Boletes, tipped off by a friend who shared the location of her secret patch, but alas, we were too late. I've never found Kings, though many old hands regularly post pictures of their treasures. But my favourite King feast was in Dawson, at Klondike Kates, when chef Jefferey Mickelson was in the kitchen. A server arrived at our table with a plate of glistening sauteed mushrooms in her hand. She presented it to my friend and I with a flourish. "Jefferey says to tell you, 'Kings for the queens.'"
The old hands among us remind us to be careful about taking on new species. Probably the two critical maxims for mushroomers are conservation and safety: being careful not to trample, uproot or destroy in the haste to discover, and making sure we are 100 percent certain we’ve identified a mushroom correctly before eating it. The consequences of eating toxic mushrooms range from gastric discomfort to, you know, death.
Sam Skinner would add a third maxim: Enjoy yourself. He says “getting down on your hands and knees and really looking at a mushroom” is one of the great pleasures of Yukon life. As we observe different mushrooms along the trail, “it paints a picture of how everything is related.”
For those who shudder at the idea of eating a wild mushroom, take heart. Several delicious cultivated species are available in our grocery stores, and are worth exploring. The following recipes can be made with wild or cultivated mushrooms.
Sam Skinner’s Tips for Safe and Enjoyable Mushrooming
1. Go slow. Don’t start picking a whole bunch and think you’ll be able to figure it out in a day.
2. Go with a friend. Find somebody experienced who can teach you things, or someone as interested as you, with whom you can compare what you’re seeing and reading.
3. Get two guidebooks that cover the Yukon and cross-compare. David Arora’s All the Rain Promises and More is accessible and fun. The Mushrooms of North West North America by Helene M. Schalkwijk-Barendsen is another good one, and The Wildlife Viewing Program’s pamphlet, Common Yukon Mushrooms, focuses on 10 species or so.
4. Focus on two or three species and get a feel for what they’re like over the course of a season or two. It’s good to see them in different contexts until you’re confident you’re consistently identifying them.
5. Once you think you are consistently identifying an edible species, cook it and try a little bit. It’s a wild food, new to your body, and you want to make sure you’re not allergic to it. Up your dosage as you feel comfortable.
6. Attempt to identify other species and add to your repertoire over the season and over the years. Be guided by what you’re seeing, consult your guide books and narrow it down.
7. When you’re out picking, it’s a good practice to carry species you don’t know separately from the ones you do know and plan to eat.
8. Cook wild mushrooms before eating. Different species are mildly or severely toxic raw.
9. When serving wild mushrooms, tell your guests which species, just as you would with nuts. Different people have sensitivities to different mushrooms, and it can vary from occasion to occasion.
10. At a social gathering there can be peer pressure, but don’t eat wild mushrooms unless you’re comfortable. Rely on a combination of your own judgment and your host’s experience.
Wild Mushroom Pâté
I made up this pâté on the fly a couple of weeks ago while trying to preserve the crazy Agaricus augustus (“The Prince”) harvest. My husband just kept coming home from dog walks with armfuls of Princes. I finally had to ask him to stop.
6 large, wild Agaricus Augustus mushrooms or 6 Portobello mushrooms, quartered and sliced
2 Tbsp butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp soya sauce
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 tsp butter
1 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs such as marjoram, thyme, or rosemary
½ cup walnuts or pumpkin seeds
¼ cup salted butter
2 Tbsp 35% cream
¼ cup Marsala or sherry
Pinch of cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
1. First, cook the mushrooms in a dry frying pan over medium-high heat. (You don’t need to do this with Portobellos, it's just that fresh wild Agaricus are so juicy. Cook the Portobellos in butter over medium heat until they're beginning to brown, then proceed with step 2, stirring in garlic and soya sauce.)
2. Once all the liquid has evaporated, add butter. Let sizzle for a couple of minutes. Stir in garlic and soya sauce, and cook for another 2 minutes, or until mushrooms are brown and beginning to stick to the pan. Remove pan from heat, transfer mushrooms to a bowl and cool to room temperature.
4. In the same pan, melt 2 teaspoons butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 7 minutes. Stir in fresh herbs and cook for another minute. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
5. Put nuts or seeds in the bowl of a food processor and grind to the consistency of coarse crumbs. Add mushrooms and onions and grind until only pea-sized pieces of mushroom remain.
6. Cut butter into cubes and add to the processor in batches, pulsing after each addition until butter is completely incorporated. With machine running, pour in cream and Marsala and process until pate is smooth. (If it seems dry, add a touch more cream.) Add seasonings and pulse to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings.
7. Store covered in the refrigerator and eat within one week. Alternatively, freeze for up to three months.
8. Warm up to room temperature before serving, accompanied with crackers or toasted baguette and pickled radish or gherkins.
Makes about 2 cups.
Fettucine with Oyster Mushrooms and Arugula
Inspired by a recipe from Mario Batali
This is an unusual mushroom dish, mild and sweet. The oyster mushrooms are braised, retaining their meatiness, and the browned garlic has a texture like roasted potatoes.
¼ cup olive oil 12 large cloves garlic, peeled, trimmed and halved lengthwise ½ cup sweet red vermouth 8 oz fresh wild or cultivated oyster mushrooms, trimmed, the larger ones torn in half lengthwise 4 Tbsp unsalted butter Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper 6 oz. arugula, washed, dried and chopped 1/4 cup pecorino romano shavings
12 oz fresh or dried fettucine
1. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt.
2. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a 10 to 12-inch frying pan until it shimmers. Add the garlic and sauté, watching closely, until lightly browned, 6 to 7 minutes. Don’t let the garlic burn or it will be bitter.
3. Remove pan from the heat and add vermouth. Return pan to burner, add the oyster mushrooms and butter, and increase the heat to medium high. Bring to a bubbling boil and cook until liquid is reduced by half. Season with salt and pepper. Remove pan from heat and keep warm.
4. Drop the pasta into the boiling water and cook until tender; for fresh pasta, 2 to 4 minutes, and for dried, following package instructions. (Start dried pasta while mushroom mixture is still cooking.) Drain.
5. Add the hot pasta to the mushrooms and stir gently over medium heat to coat the noodles. Add the arugula and toss until wilted. Transfer to a warmed serving dish, top with cheese, and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
This intensely-flavoured soup is a great way to start off an elegant dinner party, whenever that next happens. But it would also be lovely served at a physically-distanced bonfire.
4 cups boiling water
½ cup 2% milk
1 oz dried morel mushrooms, divided
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, divided
1 lb. fresh wild Agaricus or cultivated crimini mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and coarsely chopped
8 oz. fresh wild Lactarius deliciosus (orange delicious) mushrooms or cultivated shiitake mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned and sliced
1½ cups 35% cream
Coarse salt and cayenne pepper, to taste
1. In a small bowl, soak ¼ oz. dried morels in milk—the milk will become the cappuccino “foam”. In a medium bowl, soak remaining morels in 4 cups of boiling water.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add Agaricus or crimini mushrooms and cook until they release their liquid and begin to brown, about 7 minutes.
3. Remove dried mushrooms from soaking water and milk, squeezing out excess moisture, chop, and add to cooked mushrooms. Sauté briefly. Meanwhile, strain milk through cheesecloth, cover, and refrigerate.
4. Strain soaking water through cheesecloth and add to the saucepan. Bring to the boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until liquid has reduced by one quarter, about 10 minutes.
5. Remove mixture from heat. Puree in a food processor or with an immersion blender until smooth; the smoother the better.
6. Return the broth to the heat and add cream. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until flavours blend, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and a pinch of cayenne and keep warm on low heat.
7. Heat remaining butter in a cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Add orange delicious or shiitake mushrooms, and sauté until tender, from 6 to 8 minutes. Spoon mushrooms into 8 teacups or small bowls, reserving 8 small slices.
8. Scald reserved milk and froth with an immersion blender in a measuring cup, or by using the steamer on a cappuccino machine, or with a hand-held milk frother. Whizz mushroom broth one more time to incorporate lots of air and pour into teacups or bowls. Top with frothed milk and mushroom slice, and serve immediately.
Makes 8 servings of about ½ cup.
The arresting hawk wing mushroom (Sarcodon imbricatum)
A basket of orange deliciousness (Lactarius deliciosus)
From the Vault is a series of stories and recipes that originally appeared in Yukon, North of Ordinary Magazine, in my cooking column, Boreal Chef. They have been modified and updated.
Food shots by Archbould Photography. Thank you Cathie!