Fresh from the forest:: Penne with Mushrooms
Kelly Larson of Bagley, Minn., calls herself a fanatic forager of fungal fruits.
She's not kidding. When we met at the third annual Fall Mushroom Camp recently put on by White Earth Tribal & Community College (WETCC ) Extension Service, Larson was shocked. "What are you doing here?" she asked. "I thought you didn't eat mushrooms." Again, the wild mushroom wizard was not kidding.
Although we'd never met in person, Larson clearly remembered a column I wrote several years ago about morel mushrooms, confessing I'd never developed an appreciation for edible treats from the forest floor. Though prized by many, I was reluctant to eat the morels harvested by a group of foragers I knew.
That was five years ago. An unexpected hunt for chanterelle mushrooms near Duluth in August, and a fortunate new friendship with a farmer who raises shiitakes have completely changed my attitude about the earthy fungus.
After harvesting chanterelles with an experienced forager, I realized that mushroom gathering is not an activity for the uninformed. As I learned from Tom Peterson, one of the very experienced mushroom gatherers at Fall Mushroom Camp, there are incredible edibles growing in the forest. They are joined by other wild mushrooms that are edible and taste fine, some that are mildly poisonous and a few that are deadly. Peterson began hunting for wild mushrooms as a child, accompanying his grandfather on forays through the forest. Now he is a professional mushroom cultivator and sells them every week at the St. Paul Farmers Market.
The Fall Mushroom Camp was held at Little Elbow Lake Park on the White Earth Indian Reservation. The campground is located in a very remote area of the reservation surrounded by a forest inhabited by black bears and wolves and a plethora of wild fungi. WETCC Extension Service staff members set up a well-organized kitchen on the primitive campground with no electricity and no running water. A creative chef from the Twin Cities prepared all of the meals using mushrooms the 25 hungry campers brought in from their forays.
The weekend was an immersive, hands-on, casual outdoor learning experience as the expert team of Larson, Peterson and WETCC Extension Service Director, Steve Dahlberg led campers into the forests they'd scouted earlier in the week. The three teachers displayed an evident love and respect for nature as they showed campers where to look for wild mushrooms, how to identify them and how to harvest them.
I've become hooked on freshly harvested wild mushrooms. They need no packaging, no chemicals to force them to grow, no pesticides, they can be picked locally, and, when I harvest them myself, I don't have to pay for them. What could be any better for the mind and spirit than hiking through the woods on a sunny fall day to hunt for mushrooms?
As I gathered my bags of bright orange lobster mushrooms and little brown honey mushrooms to take home with me, I saw Larson, the well-seasoned mushroom enthusiast, smile and shake her head. "You're hooked on mushrooms," she said. She wasn't kidding.
On my second day back home, I found a large, healthy growth of honey mushrooms right under an oak tree in my yard. I added them to an easy-to-prepare creamy penne pasta dish. If you aren't so fortunate, use shiitake mushrooms as a substitute. I've tried that. The penne is luscious either way.
Penne with Mushrooms
1/2 pound penne pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup chopped onions
2 chubby cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces fresh honey mushrooms or shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Put a large pot of water on the stove over medium heat. When water begins to boil, stir the pasta into the pot and cook according to package directions, being sure penne cooks to al dente, an Italian phrase meaning "to the tooth." It's a fancy way of saying the pasta should be firm, but not hard.
While pasta is cooking, heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onions and sauté until tender, but not brown. Add minced garlic and sauté for a couple more minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté for 2 minutes. Add white wine and broth. Simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Stir in the heavy whipping cream and reduce slightly to thicken. Drain pasta and add to sauce in skillet. Season with salt and pepper.
Top with Parmesan cheese and parsley when serving. Makes 3 or 4 servings.
Tips from the cook
--Toasted pine nuts sprinkled over the top of each serving of Penne with Mushrooms are a flavorful addition. Chopped, toasted walnuts would also be good.
--If you'd rather not cook with white wine, use more broth to replace the wine.