Last Sunday, I set out with my sister Shannon, brother-in-law, her friends and a gaggle of kids for an afternoon of mushroom hunting. Yet not just any mushroom: the golden chanterelle.
In our party, we had a town planner, a biologist and eco-tour guide, and a woman from a local First Nations group focused on sustainable fishing practices. There was a woman who dries her own winter food using a state-of-the-art food dehydrator and who brought along some scrumptious raw snacks, another who has a CSA business, and a guide who runs adventure-loving tourists to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Given our combined backgrounds, I figured if we got lost in the deep woods that we would somehow come out okay—probably even healthier than when we set out.
At the start of our expedition it was difficult to locate the beautiful mushroom that many chefs the world over love to cook and eat. It was fall, there were many yellow maple leaves scattered on the ground that were the exact color of the mushrooms, and so we really had to examine the ground where we tread. After a while we came upon a patch of chanterelles by some looming cedars. And then, after that first time, it became easier to spot the yellow fellows. I think that’s because the more we looked, the more our eyes became attuned to the differences in earth tones.
Instead of seeing moss, lichen, more moss and some tree bark, my eyes began to differentiate between the shades of green, yellow, brown and so on. I realized that mushroom gathering was not only about finding mouth-watering fungi, it was about becoming more aware of our surroundings. In nature, being more aware can mean the difference between surviving and not surviving. For example—as with many species of mushroom—there’s a lookalike chanterelle that’s poisonous in some parts. If you look real close you can tell the real chanterelle because it has wavy gills that run down the stem instead of going directly to the stem. In the forest, the more aware you are, the less likely you’ll, well, poison yourself.
When picking, gently remove mushrooms so you don’t disturb the soil. That way there’s a greater chance of them growing back in the same spot next year.
Chanterelles are best eaten fresh. It’s better not to wash these mushrooms as they can lose some of their flavor. I would recommend brushing dirt off with a toothbrush or your fingers. Make sure there are no insect larvae on them. If there are, then dip them in salt water before cooking.
I like to cut fresh mushrooms into fairly large chunks to appreciate their unique flavor. Often I cook up mushrooms in omelettes or make a simple pasta dish. This time I made a chanterelle and leek soup from some of the ingredients I bought at the local winter market.
Chanterelle and leek soup
I feel I should add a disclaimer given that this recipe contains whipping cream, butter and cheese. I rarely cook with cream. And butter, well, let’s just say he and I have a love-hate relationship. Most things that taste too good to be true usually have one or both of these ingredients. I recall a guest of mine saying once, “This is so amazingly good; what’s in here?” To which I was forced to reply, “It’s all low-fat stuff.” Of course it wasn’t true, yet I had wanted her to enjoy every bite, not worrying about the pounds. Unfortunately dear reader, the best-tasting meals are often high in fat and calories. Please don’t eat this everyday, unless you are a marathon runner or mountain climber. Okay, there’s my disclaimer.
Chanterelles are very tasty on their own and so you don’t want to pair them with a vegetable or spice that overwhelms their flavor. Some feel potatoes don’t mix with chanterelles, though I tried them with potatoes and really enjoyed the combination. You might want to pair this recipe with a wintertime cheese that melts well such as raclette. Whenever possible I go for local cheeses, and our local cheese producer Little Qualicum Cheeseworks just happens to offer a raclette that I can’t get enough of.
5 or 6 chanterelles, chopped into different sizes
4 small (new) potatoes, cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons butter
Dash of garam masala
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Fresh ground pepper
½ cup whipping cream
3 or 4 cups water
1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable bullion
Chop the mushrooms into chunks. Finely chop the leeks and sauté in butter with chopped garlic. Add a little garam masala and sea salt. Cut potatoes into small cubes and toss on a baking sheet with some olive oil, salt and pepper to broil until brown. Add mushrooms to leeks in pan. Stir often and cook until soft. Remove from stove. Boil about 3 or 4 cups of water in kettle. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of vegetable bullion to medium size pot. You could also use chicken bullion. I tend to buy the Better Than Bullion pastes as they sell organic and vegetarian mixes, and don’t have harmful additives. Once the water has boiled then add to the pot with the bullion mix and stir until dissolved. Add the vegetables to the liquid and cook for a few minutes, not too long. Add the whipping cream at the very end and simmer for 5 or so minutes. Pepper and serve with grated raclette (or other local favorite).