Harvesting Alaska: Morels

For my third segment of “Harvesting Anchorage,” I decided to go beyond city limits and venture out to the Kenai Peninsula in search of morel mushrooms.

My family and I have always been avid boletus mushroom hunters, but we’ve never looked for morels. I heard they tend to pop up in areas where there have been forest fires. After last year’s Funny River fire consumed more than 155,000 acres of land, I decided to keep an eye on this area through a secret informant. Ok, I have a friend who lives out there and is also a gatherer like myself. She gave me the news last week that the morels were up so my mom and I set out on a tiny road trip to Soldotna in search of these pristine, delicate, flavorful fungi.

Harvesting Alaska: Morel Mushrooms on Funny River Road

Much like boletes, my friend told us morels tend to grow near birches. We pulled off to the side of Funny River Road and hiked about 1/4 mile into the burned spruce tree forest in search of patches of birch trees.

Harvesting Alaska: Morel Mushrooms on Funny River Road

The hunt wasn’t wildly successful, but I was thrilled even to find a few because these little suckers are hidden! Unlike boletes, which stand prominently and proud, morels look like burnt spruce cones and are about the same color as the earth. I had to get low to the ground to see any at all, but on the plus side, when I found one morel I usually found at least two more in the same area. It truly felt like a treasure hunt.

False morels look really different from the real deal.
False morels look really different from the real deal.

Harvesting Alaska: Morel Mushrooms on Funny River Road

We immediately spotted some false morels, which looked completely different from the real things. Most of the real morels were pointy and brown. The false morels looked like misshapen blobs and were much lighter brown, like burnt sienna.

We spent a good three hours yesterday and today hunting. There was competition. Lots of cars were parked along the road and I saw one fellow with a tall laundry basket fashioned into a backpack that was half full. Another man had a full trash bag of morels, so it was obvious there were some experienced hunters among us.

Harvesting Alaska: Morel Mushrooms on Funny River Road

I’m happy with our small haul. I sent my mom home with the majority of our pick because she has the dehydrator. I took home a couple of dozen, cleaned them, sliced them and sautéd them in butter. They had an earthy, mushroomy flavor (surprise!) but an altogether different taste from boletes.

Harvesting Alaska: Morel Mushrooms on Funny River Road

 

Harvesting Alaska: Morel Mushrooms on Funny River Road

I’ve heard morels grow here in Anchorage and I’m now confident in what they look like so I can add them to my list of foods to search for when I’m out in the woods.

Have you ever picked morels in Anchorage? Tell me about it!

Harvesting Anchorage: Devil’s Club Pesto

As Part Two of my summertime Alaska blog series, I tried to harvest a few things such as fiddlehead ferns and fireweed shoots, but I only successfully cooked something using devil’s club.

You’ve probably encountered devil’s club in any Alaska forest. It’s pretty much the last plant you want to encounter because it’s covered top to bottom in sharp thorns that can easily embed themselves in your skin; but in the spring the plants produce short buds covered in premature, soft thorns. This part of the plant is edible. Is it good? That’s what I aimed to find out.

I embarked on my devil’s club hunt on a sunny spring day after the birch trees had started budding. I had no trouble finding a thicket of devil’s club up on the hillside. They all had 1-to-3-inch buds emerging from the dry, wheat-colored stalks. I used a gardening glove to pluck them and collected them in a bucket.

Harvesting Anchorage: Devill's Club Pesto | A free recipe from AlaskaKnitNat.com
This one isn’t quite ready yet. There should be an inch or two of green coming out of the brown sheath.
Harvesting Anchorage: Devill's Club Pesto | A free recipe from AlaskaKnitNat.com
This one is ripe for the plucking!

After getting stuck with thorns a few times I felt as though I had enough to work with. On the drive home my car started smelling like an Alaska forest. The devil’s club buds had a spicy, celery-like scent.

Continue reading Harvesting Anchorage: Devil’s Club Pesto

Lazy Lasagna

My family requested lasagna for dinner yesterday, but I didn’t get home till 5 p.m. so it would have been a mad dash to get lasagna on the table by 6:30.

Here’s what I made instead. Although it’s about the same ingredients as lasagna I didn’t have to take the time to layer everything out. I just threw it all together, topped it with cheese and stuck it in the oven. Easy peasy.

Lazy Lasagna | A delicious and simple recipe from Alaskaknitnat.com

Lazy Lasagna

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

  • 12 oz. lasagna noodles
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 8 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 lb. loose Italian sausage
  • One bunch of fresh spinach, roughly chopped
  • 1 large jar of spaghetti sauce
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When the water boils break up the lasagna noodles into irregular pieces and add to the pot. Cook according to box instructions, about 12 minutes.

In the meantime, heat oil in a large, ovenproof skillet. Add the mushrooms and sauté until some of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the spinach and a pinch of salt. Sauté until spinach is wilted, another minute. Set mushrooms and spinach aside.

Without cleaning the pan, add the sausage and brown. Add the sauce, mushrooms and spinach. Combine well. Drain the noodles and add to the skillet. Add half the cheeses and mix well. Top with the remaining cheese, cover and bake for 35 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes.

 

Lazy Lasagna | A delicious and simple recipe from Alaskaknitnat.com

Harvesting Anchorage: Birch Tree Tapping

This summer my goal is to gather or harvest at least one plant a month. Usually I gather fiddlehead ferns and fireweed shoots in May, pick wild strawberries in June (I can’t disclose my secret spot!), hunt for boletes in the mid/late summer and harvest berries in the fall.

When UAF Cooperative Extension Service tweeted about birch tree tapping in mid-April, I knew I had to start my harvesting season early. I texted my good friend Ivan, knower of all things apian, and he told me I could find spiles, or birch tree taps, at Alaska Mill & Feed. I have several big birches in my yard, so it was worth a try!

With just a little hardware and a whole lot of stove time, you can have your own homemade birch syrup (I still haven’t reached syrup state, but you’ll see what I came up with in the meantime if you read below). I didn’t take step-by-step photos only because they would be pretty boring. It’s a lot of boiling. Follow this handy guide for a complete explanation.

Please keep in mind that I’ve never done this before, so I have no idea whether I’m doing it incorrectly. The instructions below is what worked for us. Let me know if you use a different/better technique!

Birch tree tapping | Make your own birch syrup | Alaskaknitnat.com

Birch Tree Tapping in Anchorage

Materials:

  • 2 or more 7/16″ birch tree spiles ($5.99 each at Alaska Mill & Feed)
  • 7/16″ drill bit
  • Power drill
  • Rubber mallet
  • 2 or more 2-gallon buckets
  • 3 or more 5-gallon buckets
  • Tall kitchen bags
  • Pushpins
  • Wire sieve
  • Two large soup pots
  • Small saucepan
  • Cheesecloth
  • Lots of freezer space
  • Candy thermometer

Continue reading Harvesting Anchorage: Birch Tree Tapping

DIY mini greenhouse: A quick kids craft

Last week was our son’s third birthday party. He requested it be Lorax themed, which is fitting because his birthday is on Earth Day. Although I consider myself of the crafty variety, birthdays are overwhelming to me and going all out is too exhausting. So I choose activities and decorations with minimal prep work.

One of the save-the-trees crafts I put together was a miniature greenhouse where the kids could plant a seed, create the greenhouse, take it home and watch it grow. It was a hit among two partygoers and that’s a success in my book for a 3-year-old birthday.

DIY mini greenhouses || a quick kids craft from Alaskaknitnat.com

DIY mini greenhouses

Materials:

  • Clear plastic cups
  • Potting soil
  • Dry beans
  • Painter’s tape
  • Knife

Directions:

Fill a plastic cup halfway with potting soil. Wet the soil so it’s moist, but not sopping.

With a knife, poke three holes in the bottom of another cup. Set aside.

Let your little one plant two or three beans in the soil. There’s no wrong way to do it. Jack barely put them beneath the soil and they still sprouted.

DIY mini greenhouse || a quick kids craft from Alaskaknitnat.com

DIY mini greenhouse || a quick kids craft from Alaskaknitnat.com

Place the other cup on top and affix a few pieces of painter’s tape to hold the cups in place.

DIY mini greenhouses || a quick kids craft from Alaskaknitnat.com

Set in a sunny window. No need to water it. About three or four days later your beans should sprout. You can transfer your sprout to a small pot if you like. Be sure there is a drainage hole.

DIY mini greenhouses || a quick kids craft from Alaskaknitnat.com

Mini meatloaves with mushroom marsala sauce

Growing up I rarely had the chance to eat classic dinner foods such as tuna noodle casserole and meatloaf. I absolutely love these dishes. My mom started making meatloaf after I had moved out of the house and it quickly became a favorite. I don’t know what magic she puts into her recipe, but I’ll never know because, like me, my mom just throws stuff together and doesn’t keep track. Well, tonight’s meatloaf was worth remembering.

I doubled the recipe so there’s plenty of leftovers for meatloaf sandwiches, which are almost better than fresh-out-of-the-oven.

Mini meatloaf with mushroom marsala sauce | An easy recipe from Alaska Knit Nat

Mini meatloaf with mushroom marsala sauce

Serves 8

Ingredients:

  • 1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios or cashews (optional)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 slices of good white bread
  • 2 Tbs. milk
  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped pimiento olives (optional)
  • 2 Tbs. dried parsley
  • 1 Tbs. dried basil
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs
  • 2 Tbs. butter
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil

Mini meatloaf with mushroom marsala sauce | An easy recipe from Alaska Knit Nat

For the sauce:

  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup Marsala wine
  • splash of beef broth
  • up to 1 cup of reserved mushroom liquid (read recipe for details)
  • 2 Tbs. chopped parsley

Mini meatloaf with mushroom marsala sauce | An easy recipe from Alaska Knit Nat

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Place dried mushrooms in a small bowl with hot water. Cover and let sit for 20 minutes. In another small bowl, tear up the bread and add the milk. Let sit for a minute and mash up with a fork.

In a Kitchen Aid bowl add the meat, nuts, yolks, soaked bread, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, onion, garlic, cheese, olives, dried herbs, salt and pepper. Finely chop the mushrooms and add them to the mixture, reserving the mushroom liquid for the sauce. Use the paddle attachment on a low setting until well combined.

Pour the bread crumbs on a tray or pie plate. Heat butter and oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Form four small loaves and dredge them in the bread crumbs. Brown the loaves in the pan two at a time.

Place the loaves in a casserole dish. Top each loaf with decorative olives if you’d like them to resemble a 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook.

Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes or until the center of the loaf reads 140 degrees on a meat thermometer. Remove from oven, transfer loaves to a cutting board and let sit, covered, while you make the sauce.

The sauce: Reheat the pan that you used to brown the loaves. Pour any drippings from the casserole dish into the pan. When the pan is hot add the marsala and tomato paste and whisk until everything is well combined. Bring to a simmer and turn down the heat. Add about 1/2 cup of the mushroom liquid and a splash of beef broth. Add more mushroom liquid if it’s too thick. Add parsley just before serving.

Mini meatloaf with mushroom marsala sauce | An easy recipe from Alaska Knit Nat

Slice loaves into thick slabs. Serve with egg noodles and green beans. Slather with delicious meat sauce.

mini meatloaves with mushroom marsala sauce
Yay, leftovers!

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