Tag Archives: Alaska

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: Devil'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: Devil'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

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

Ravioli Nudi and the End of Summer Camp

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend End of Summer Camp, which proved to be a unique bonding experience for Anchorage grown-ups. I met bloggers, event planners, printmakers, food critics, photographers, storytellers and other local professionals all while enjoying nostalgic campy activities. The campers were fed by Fork Catering, and I took every available moment to enjoy their meals and chat with chefs Rob and Dave.

Chef Rob Kinneen taught a cooking workshop, which I eagerly signed up for. Turns out he was going to demonstrate homemade pasta-making. I’m familiar with making my own pasta, such as comb pastas, basil fettuccine and Russian pelmeni, but I was interested in learning techniques from a professional chef.

He led a hands-on lesson on tortelloni and ravioli nudi. The tortelloni, which were essentially large tortellini, were familiar to me, but the ravioli nudi were entirely new. The nudi are like ravioli without the noodle, literally naked ravioli. Instead you incorporate cheeses, flour, herbs and egg into a sticky, soft dough and create small dumplings, which are then boiled. They are sort of like gnocchi, but with cheese instead of potato.

Chef Rob Kinneen (left) instructs campers on how to roll out ravioli nudi dough.
Chef Rob Kinneen instructs campers on how to roll out ravioli nudi dough.

My only attempt at making gnocchi in the past was a complete slimy failure and Rob’s technique for making nudi could be easily translated to gnocchi. I had to try the recipe myself when I got home.

And I did.

Ravioli Nudi | Alaska Knit Nat

Ravioli Nudi with Spinach, Ricotta, and Parsley

Serves 3

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. red chili flakes
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 8 oz. part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 Tbs. chopped Italian parsley
  • 2 Tbs. chopped frozen spinach, thawed and well drained
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour plus about 1/2 cup for coating dough

Useful utensil: spider strainer

Directions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water and set beside the pot. Meanwhile beat together the eggs, yolks, garlic, chili flakes, nutmeg, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Incorporate the ricotta till smooth. Add the parmesan, parsley and spinach. Slowly add the 1/4 cup flour till a super sticky dough forms. It should be the consistency of thick, lumpy pancake batter. Heavily flour a large cutting board. Gently turn the dough onto the board and work in enough extra flour for it to be very soft and sticky inside, but coated on all sides in flour. Form the dough into a 1.5-inch tall rectangle.

Cut the dough into 1.5-inch strips and gently roll each strip around, dusting with flour, till coated evenly on all sides. Cut each strip on a diagonal into 1-inch pieces so you have small, oblong dumplings. Gently roll each dumpling around in your floured hand till they are each coated and no sticky dough is exposed.

Ravioli Nudi | Alaska Knit Nat

When the water is at a rolling boil, gently add the ravioli in batches so the water doesn’t cool down too much. Boil for just a few minutes, until the ravioli float to the surface. With a slotted spoon, strain out the ravioli and add to the ice water bath. Repeat with remaining ravioli.

Ravioli Nudi | Alaska Knit Nat

Now that you have made your ravioli nudi, there are lots of ways to serve them. Use them in any ravioli recipe, or fry them up with butter till lightly browned and crusty.

Ravioli Nudi | Alaska Knit Nat

Thanks again, Chef Rob, for your excellent instruction. I’m happy to add this technique to my repertoire.

Ravioli Nudi with Spinach and Parsley | Alaska Knit Nat

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke

If you live in Southcentral Alaska then you’re probably keenly aware it is sockeye salmon season. My husband is getting his hipwaders and dipnets all ready for the coming week where he will camp out on the shores of the Kenai River and make the most of the everlasting daylight by fishing into the wee hours of the night.

We still have some vacuum-packed filets in the freezer from last year so to make way for this year’s bounty we are trying to find creative ways to use it up. Sure, there’s nothing better than simple grilled salmon with a drizzle of lemon, but my dad started preparing poke out of the frozen filets that tops any store bought ahi poke.

Poke is a Hawaiian salad made of cubed sashimi such as ahi tuna, soy sauce, sesame oil, onions and hot chili sauce. It’s a bit like spicy tuna sushi without the rice and seaweed.

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke | Alaska Knit Nat

Here’s my dad’s recipe, which uses fresh-frozen sockeye, a.k.a. red, salmon. Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration recommends freezing fresh fish and thawing it before consuming it raw because this kills any parasites. This is how sushi-grade fish is prepared in America. The FDA also says cooking seafood is the safest way to consume it, so prepare poke at your own risk. If you are pregnant or are at risk for food-borne illness, then please be cautious about consuming fresh-frozen fish.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s my dad’s recipe!

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke

As featured on Anchorage Food Mosaic

makes about 4 cups

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke | Alaska Knit Nat

Ingredients:

2 pounds red salmon, previously frozen and thawed in the fridge overnight

1 bunch of green onions, finely chopped

1/2 cup finely chopped white onion

2 Tbs. Nori Komi Furikake rice seasoning (optional)

2 Tbs. soy sauce

3 Tbs. sesame oil

2 Tbs. chili garlic sauce

2 tsp. sugar

1 Tbs. sesame seeds

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke | Alaska Knit Nat

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke | Alaska Knit Nat

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke | Alaska Knit Nat

Directions:

Using a sharp filet knife, remove the skin from the salmon filets. If there are any pin bones, carefully remove them with needle nose pliers. Cut the salmon into bite-sized cubes.

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke | Alaska Knit Nat

Add all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix thoroughly. If you are not using the rice seasoning, add salt to taste. If you like a little more kick, add an extra tablespoon of the chili garlic sauce.

Wild Alaska Salmon Poke | Alaska Knit Nat

Serve immediately or refrigerate for later. Serve with sesame or rice crackers.

For more tasty Alaska recipes, check out my dad’s website.

 

Lina + Bill: A Midsummer Kaleidoscope

Last year my knitting friend Lina asked if I would design the flowers for her wedding. When she described the colors she wanted there was no way I could say no. She envisioned a wild, rainbow bouquet.

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat

 

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat

 

I created a slightly unkempt bouquet of peonies (from her own garden), Japanese asters, mini sunflowers, green trick dianthus, bupleurum, gerber daisies, spray roses, wild daisies, wild grass cattails and wild yarrow.

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat

Lina had saved pussy willow branches from the spring, which I used on the boutonnières.

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat
The groom’s boutonnière mimics the bridal bouquet with a small band of lace wrapped around the fuchsia stem.

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat

 

 

Billy balls are the perfect accompaniment to fuchsia spray roses and iridescent fuchsia ribbon gave everything a polished look with great pops of color.

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat

Because the bride selected so many types of flowers I was left with an excess of product. I decided to make flower crowns for her daughter and niece who were flower girls. My mother models it here.

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat

Marigolds and pale pink rosebuds from my garden were a necessary addition to the garlands.
Marigolds and pale pink rosebuds from my garden were a necessary addition to the garlands.

I had yet even more product, including a full peony (no way I was wasting that!) so I created a draping arrangement in an antique orange vase, which I left on the dining table in the wedding party’s bed and breakfast.

Midsummer Kaleidoscope Wedding | Alaska Knit Nat

Pink, fuchsia, orange, green, purple and yellow — a magical array of color for a perfect summer day.

Congratulations, Lina and Bill!

I was lucky to find pale pink yarrow growing wild in field by my local grocery store.
I was lucky to find pale pink yarrow growing wild in field by my local grocery store.

Alaska Guide to Boletus Mushrooms

It’s nearly mushroom season in Alaska so I thought I’d repost my boletus mushroom guide from my old blog. With a little knowhow, you can join the foraging movement and become a mushroom hunter.
Alaska Guide to Boletus Mushrooms | Alaska Knit Nat

Here is my DISCLAIMER: I’ve been foraging for mushrooms my whole life and I am positive that what I’m picking is edible. I am not a mushroom expert but I can give you great advice on how to discern boletus mushrooms from inedible ones. Pick at your own risk! Some people experience gastric upset after eating boletes even though they aren’t poisonous. Never eat a bolete unless it’s been thoroughly cooked. When in doubt, throw it out!

Feel free to contact me and e-mail me photos of your finds if you ever have any questions. There are quite a few edible mushrooms in Alaska, but I’m only knowledgable about boletus.

So here we go:

Alaska Guide to Boletus Mushrooms

There are several types of boletus mushrooms and you can find many of them in the Anchorage area. Most are edible and the ones that are poisonous will let you know by their scary color.

The U.S. Forest Service has a great Alaska mushroom guide. I highly recommend taking a look at it.

The only inedible boletes I’ve come across in Alaska are boletus ludiformus  and boletus coniferarum. Ludiformus is red, which to me is a signal to not eat it. The coniferarum has yellow flesh that when bruised or cut will rapidly turn inky blue. Keep in mind that many edible types of boletus will oxidize, but not nearly as quickly as the coniferarum turns from yellow to blue. It looks pretty cool, but tastes extremely bitter (but will not kill you if eaten).

*Note: a mushroom enthusiast commented on my old blog that the mushroom in the photo below is edible. I would just avoid it if you find it. I’ve never seen one before, but my father took the photo below so it’s definitely out there in Southcentral Alaska.*

Boletus ludiformus

Ok, now that we have the inedibles out of the way, let’s start becoming mushroom detectives. Before you go out and pick these mushrooms, let me prepare you…

  • You will probably encounter bugs
  • You will probably encounter little maggots (baby bugs!)
  •  You will probably get dirty and wet

You’ve got to get over these factors if you’d like to carry on.

OK? ok….

First, all edible boletes have sponge under the caps instead of gills. Boletes are the only mushroom in Anchorage forests that have sponge instead of gills besides the hawks wing mushroom, which has hedgehog-like spines underneath (and it’s edible if you boil it). You can exclude any mushroom with gills because it will not be a bolete. This one fact makes bolete hunting reassuring because there is so much you can rule out. There are deceptive mushrooms that really look like bolete caps, but when you turn them over and see gills, just let them be. They tricked you!

Here are the common types of boletes you’ll come across in Anchorage forests:

Aspen Scaber-stalk — these are found in birch and spruce forests, typically around moss, low-bush cranberry and crow berry bushes. They have sienna-colored caps with dirty-looking stems (almost looks like the texture of a terry-cloth towel). The flesh also tends to oxidize and turn black when cut.

*Note: a person commented on my old blog post that the scaber-stalks can cause gastric upset. I have been picking and eating this mushroom most of my life and never experienced upset stomach, but I thought I should let it be known.*

Aspen scaber-stalk
Stem of most forest boletes

Alaskan Scaber-stalk — these look a lot like the Aspen scaber-stalk but darker with a narrower stem.

Alaskan scaber-stalk

Boletus Miribilis — I have never encountered this bolete, but thanks to the folks at the Girdwood Fungus Fair, they have provided me with a lovely photo. I’m so excited to try and find some next summer!

image

King bolete — this is the purest, most prized bolete and is the equivalent of a wild porcino mushroom. These have light brown caps and white stems with no terry-cloth look to them. The sponge will turn yellow with age.

Freaky melded-cap king bolete. Still delicious
King boletes

In addition to the U.S. Forest Service, here is another great site about Alaska boletes.

All right, now let’s set out to find some mushrooms! But where, might you ask? Well, boletes like to grow near spruce roots, birches and in mossy areas. You can often find boletes growing in people’s yards. You usually won’t find them in areas with long grasses and ferns or anywhere with tall vegetation. The trail system in Anchorage is a great place to start. You could also try Thunderbird Falls, Bird Creek and Girdwood.

The best time to pick boletes is from late July to mid-September. Over the years I haven’t found a true rhyme or reason to how boletes grow. Sometimes you’ll have a summer with hundreds of pounds and others you won’t find any. Usually they grow during the rainy and damp times of Alaska summers.

Boletes can grow to be pretty huge, but it’s best to pick them when they are just a couple of days old because bugs love boletes as much as humans do. They will flock to them pretty much as soon as they surface. It’s rare to find a bolete that hasn’t been lived in by a beetle or some sort of fly eggs, but if you pick them early on it doesn’t affect the quality or taste of the mushroom. I’ll show some photos later.

This large bolete was literally teeming with insects and maggots. Didn’t take this one home!

Fresh boletes should have firm stems and caps, but it’s ok if the cap is slightly soft. If you find a really squishy bolete, let it be because the bugs have laid claim to it. Sometimes you’ll find a bolete that’s firm on the cap, but when you look underneath it looks like bugs have taken it over. Not always true! Sometimes the bugs just get into the sponge part of the mushroom, which can be easily removed. Break the cap in half. If the flesh is white and has no holes in it, then keep it. Baby boletes are the best. Their cap and stem are both firm and delicious. They also look totally phallic. I just had to put that out there.

I recommend field dressing your mushrooms as you go. This means bringing a pocket knife along and whittling away the dirty root. I’m lazy and usually don’t do this. It just means I’ll have more trash to throw out at home.

Boletes are sturdy so you can collect them in plastic grocery or garbage bags, five-gallon buckets, or if you’re feeling whimsical, in a lovely basket. It’s up to you. Most will say that mushrooms should never be stored in plastic bags (I can see Laurie Constantino shaking her head). I find it easier to tote large quantities of mushrooms around the forest in a plastic bag and it doesn’t seem to affect the quality of my mushrooms. Do not store your boletes in plastic bags for long periods of time. This will create too much moisture and cause them to rot.

When you find a good bolete, pick it by the base of the stem, not by the cap, as you will probably break off the cap and tear away the flesh by accident.

The great thing about picking mushrooms is they literally pop up overnight so many people could pick the same spot and still find a good share. You can usually tell if another bolete hunter has been in the area by the discarded caps and overturned trickster mushrooms. On a recent quest we covered the same ground as another hunter and still came out with nearly 40 pounds of mushrooms!

Once you’ve collected your mushrooms, you’ll have to process them. Here’s how it goes:

Start by whittling away the root of the mushroom to remove any soil. If you come across any bug-eaten mushrooms, either toss them or cut into the stem or cap to see if it’s salvageable. Sometimes the bugs will have only gotten to half the mushroom, so why waste the whole thing? Once you’ve removed the big pieces of dirt, you can run each mushroom under cold water and lightly scrub with a nail brush to remove excess dirt. Only rinse them if you plan to use them right away. Rinsing them and then storing them in the fridge may cause them to rot.

Now comes the part where you need to figure out what you’re doing with your mushrooms. They can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, but you’ll want to prepare them as soon as you can. If you must store them, be sure to keep them in paper bags so they can breathe.

Boletes should not be eaten raw. They will probably give you an upset stomach. If I’m not cooking with them right away I either sauté the mushrooms in butter, vacuum pack and freeze them or put them in a food dehydrator for a couple of days, bag them up or grind them into porcini powder.

Either way, you’ll need to slice them up. This is where you do most of the work. You might find that lots of your mushrooms are bug eaten. I tend to toss caps that are eaten even in the slightest, but really it’s not gonna kill you so this is a matter of personal preference. You’ll be able to tell if the mushroom is too rotten to eat cause it will look totally gross. But as I said before, you can always try and cut away the nasty bits and keep the good bits. I mentioned before that you can remove the sponge. I do this with most mature boletes because the sponge ends up becoming slimy when cooking. With really new boletes, the sponge is firm and doesn’t need to be removed. It’s a bit like getting to an artichoke heart — the sponge will peel off easily and you’ll be left with the yummy cap.

This king bolete stem has been eaten by bugs. Not salvagable
This aspen cap is nasty. Didn’t keep any of it.
This Alaskan stem was soft and dark as soon as I cut into it. It was not good.
This stem was deceiving because it felt great from the outside, but was eaten up on the inside.
This cap had maggots in the sponge, but the actual flesh was just fine.
See? Looks great! Peel off the sponge and you’ll be fine.
This is the inside of a good king bolete. Some parts have been eaten by a  bug, but I wasn’t horrified by it so I kept it.
This Alaskan bolete has oxidized. It’s fine to eat!
This is a fresh king cap. The sponge is thin and firm. It doesn’t need to be peeled off.

Once your boletes have been processed the world is your mushroom! Boletes are great in soups and sauces, but your best bet is to do a Google search for recipes for porcini. If you’ve decided to dry your mushrooms, they will need to be reconstituted when you’re ready to use them. Boil a couple of cups of water or chicken broth and pour over the dried mushrooms in a bowl. Let sit for 20 minutes and reserve the steeped water for your soup. It’ll deepen the flavor even more.

So, that’s my guide to Alaska boletes. Please contact me if you have any questions, comments or even corrections.

And remember, if you’re not extremely positive about a mushroom, don’t eat it. Better safe than sorry!

For more Alaska mushroom information, check out this short film produced by the Alaska Teen Media Institute for the U.S. Forest Service and this terrific article by Laurie Constantino for Alaska Dispatch.