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Foraged Mushrooms: Bounty of the Forest

Produce expert James explains the differences in foraged mushrooms, shares his favorite recipe and describes why he treasures this fleeting forest bounty every year.

Foraged wild mushroom lovers are a dedicated group. Like fishermen, we are constantly swapping stories of perfectly prepared dishes or texting the location of the most beautiful specimens in area markets. Stand in front of a display at your local market long enough and chances are you will run into a foraging enthusiast. It seems I do every year right before Thanksgiving whereupon I happily burn five minutes gathering new techniques for cleaning (a 1” stiff artist paintbrush being the best) or a new recipe twist. I also don’t mind that most foraged varieties of mushrooms are messy, expensive and unreliable — this makes that moment when you find the truly perfect ones all the more satisfying.

We don’t buy foraged mushrooms at the global buying office where I work and even at the regional or local level it is almost impossible to predict what will be available from week to week. Foraged mushrooms need cool moist conditions to grow so supply is driven largely by the weather and the ability of the foragers to get out and harvest. Conditions that are too cold or wet will also affect supply (and quality). The winter and spring rainy seasons are when we are far more likely to see them, so chances are good that foraged mushrooms will be available during Christmas and into the spring. Varieties will change but here is a rundown of what is commonly available.

Chanterelle: the most commonly foraged mushroom and perhaps the most versatile, the common Chanterelle can be a pale white to a brilliant orange-yellow and is a delicate, mild-flavored mushroom that is trumpet shaped. Their size can vary from as small as a quarter to as large as desert plate and they can be roasted (my favorite), sautéed and baked. A popular way to prepare them is with scrambled eggs or omelets since the mild flavor blends well with eggs. Another less common but similar mushroom is the Black chanterelle (or trumpet) – this is a smaller, earthier-flavored version of the larger cousin. Chanterelles can be available year round but we see a peak in the US from late November through January, weather permitting.

Morel: in the early spring the morel emerges and for a few precious weeks we see sporadic availability of this exceptional foraged mushroom. Morels are varying hues of brown with a white stem and are shaped like a Christmas tree with a woody, robust flavor. I like a Morel as a simple sauté with just about anything- dried Morels are also commonly used in sauces. Available dried year round- fresh generally in March and April. Another noteworthy aspect of the Morel is the more active the forest fire season the year before, the larger the morel harvest.

Porcini: the king of the wild mushroom, porcini mushrooms have a strong distinctive flavor and have the iconic shape we generally associate with mushrooms (a thick stem with a large umbrella shaped cap). The porcini also has an inedible veil (the stringy underside of the cap) that must be removed prior to cooking. Porcinis can be prepared in many ways and are a common ingredient in spaghetti sauces.I often combine cultivated and foraged mushrooms when I cook for large groups of people — foraged alone can be quite expensive. Here is my favorite recipe for a large gathering:1 pound Chanterelle (or combination of foraged mushrooms), cleaned and sliced into 1½ inch pieces (left whole if small)2 tablespoons butter, melted (optional)

2 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 shallot, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano, divided

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, divided

1 tablespoon freshly grated parmesan

1 pound Crimini, cleaned and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to high broil; place oven shelf in the center of the oven. Combine in a mixing bowl the melted butter, cream, half the olive oil, half the oregano, the thyme, and shallots with the foraged mushrooms and gently mix with your hands, coating them completely. Then place on a broiling pan and sprinkle parmesan on top. Broil for 8-9 minutes checking frequently; the mushrooms are done when the edges start to brown.

In the meantime in a large sauté skillet over high heat, pour the rest of the olive oil and wait a few seconds for it to warm. Toss in the chopped Crimini and stir until the mushrooms are coated. Add the parsley and remaining oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Sauté until tender (about 4- 6 minutes).

Place the Crimini mushrooms on the bottom of a medium serving bowl. Add the roasted chanterelles on top, making sure to include the pan juices (yum). Taste and adjust salt and pepper if necessary. This dish is best served immediately but can also be prepared in advance and reheated.

Foraged mushrooms are part of the holiday food season for me because like the turkey and stuffing of Thanksgiving and whatever savory foods my family prepares for Christmas, mushrooms are a special dish. The patient act of cleaning and carefully preparing them takes me into the world they grow and the journey that brought them from the dark, moist forest floor to my family’s beautifully decorated holiday dinner table. A brief and fleeting forest bounty I treasure every year.

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