When we first met Kathy Yerich, the semi-professional forager had turned up at the Corner Table restaurant at more or less the exact same moment that our group was raving about the nightly special, a fresh pasta served with an enigmatic mushroom called “chicken of the woods.” It was a happy accident — having the restaurant’s forager on hand turned a delicious meal into a highly educational (and even more entertaining) one.
The chicken of the woods is an orange, exotic-looking, coral reef-esque fungus that is one of Yerich’s favorite things to forage. Thinking back to her first experience with the mushroom, she reaches right back to childhood:
“It grew on the tree in my grandma’s yard that was standing until 2005,” she recalls. “My aunt remembers that when she was a kid in the ’40s, it was growing there. People would drive by, stop, and ask: ‘Oh, can we have that?’ My grandma would say sure, and chuckle at them, and say, ‘I guess it’s a delicacy!'”
With a texture and even a flavor that recalls good old-fashioned chicken, chicken of the woods is a good gateway mushroom — easy to forage and, when properly prepared, excellent to eat.
Late last month, we joined Yerich and Chef Scott Pampuch of Corner Table for a picnic on Minnehaha Creek. In between bites of Pampuch’s four-mushroom fresh pasta (prepared with chicken of the woods, lobster mushrooms, black trumpets, and chanterelles foraged by Yerich, plus a dash of fresh cream — see recipe at the end of this story), we sipped soda made by our hosts: an almost Hubba Bubba-tasting plum watermelon flavor, a rich wild grape, and a sophisticated maple syrup-sweetened ginger ale.
The soda was a perfect accent to the summer weather, as were the flavors of the mushroom pasta — each mushroom contributed a different distinct but harmonious note to the dish as a whole. The robust, meaty flavor of the chicken of the woods was accented by a mild seafood note from the lobster mushrooms, the earthy taste of the black trumpets, and the mildly peppery chanterelles.
Pampuch is working with the guys from Fulton Beer to develop an in-house craft soda menu. But while you’re waiting for that gastronomic step forward, you can, in the meantime, savor the edible fruits of his restaurant’s collaboration with Yerich and Fred, her husband and co-forager.
HEAVY TABLE: How and when did you get started as a forager?
KATHY YERICH: Five or six years ago, [Fred and I] tried the Chicken of the Woods. It’s pretty easily identifiable and there’s nothing else that looks like it that could be poisonous. We tried it, although we were kind of scared to.
HT: How’d you prepare it?
YERICH: I made a pasta with a cream sauce and added the mushroom… if you tear up the mushroom, it kind of looks like chicken. It has its own distinct flavor, but the texture is like chicken, as well. My husband was eating it — and he’s way more squeamish than I am — and he says, ‘All right, there’s chicken in there, and somewhere in here there’s some mushroom as well, right?’ And I’m like, ‘There’s no chicken!'”
HT: Is there any challenge to cooking chicken of the woods?
SCOTT PAMPUCH: With the amount of sulfur that’s in Chicken of the Woods, you have to cook that out before you can give it to someone — same for lobster mushrooms — else it’s going to be a train wreck in someone’s stomach. You have to know how to cook them — you have to know the mushrooms you’re dealing with.
HT: So, different mushrooms call for different techniques?
PAMPUCH: The chicken of the woods mushroom, for example, is different than the chanterelle. It’s super meaty and the fibers are super dense, and that’s where the sulfur is and you have to cook it down. But the chanterelle is very delicate, and will wilt quickly. Just because you have wild mushrooms in your restaurant and you give them to your cooks and say, ‘Go for it,’ if they don’t know what they’re doing, they could do some damage to a customer.”
HT: Kathy, you’ve got to have a lot of confidence about what you forage. How do you pick up your mushroom knowledge?
YERICH: After that first meal [of chicken of the woods], I just wanted to know a lot more, I wanted to know about all the mushrooms out in the yard. So I started going to the Minnesota Mycological Society meetings at the U of M. There are people there who are total experts.
HT: Books only take you so far?
YERICH: It’s one thing to look in a book… but once you have something in your hand, you feel it, you smell it — it’s a whole different thing.
HT: How did you connect with Scott and Corner Table?
YERICH: My husband sells pottery through Tangletown Gardens. When we were doing the Tangletown [Gardens] Garden [and Art] Tour a few years ago, Scott was doing the food. We brought a chicken of the woods mushroom to the Tangletown guys, and they were like, “Nah, give it to [Scott.]” He cooked it up on a pizza that night. And we kind of just said, “Hey, would you ever want any other mushrooms?”
HT: So there’s a real appeal for diners, huh?
PAMPUCH: Yeah — it’s quite ridiculous, especially when Kathy is in the restaurant. Just the idea that… “Wait a second, that was foraged two days ago and that is what I’m eating right now? That’s crazy!”
Maybe that should be the true definition of “farm to table” — when you can actually meet the people responsible for the food and they join you at the table.
HT: Flavorwise, how do you use what Kathy brings you?
PAMPUCH: Hands down, pasta’s a great way to go. The reason I say that is because it shows off the mushroom more than anything else. Of late, we’ve been making a flan. A savory chanterelle flan — it was amazing to say the least.
Also: Think about sauteed mushrooms and green beans; that goes back all the way to hot dish — they work for a reason, and they’re good. Mushrooms, onions, and beef works really well. The thing about using a wild mushroom is that it takes an everyday dish you’ve been doing forever with store-bought traditional mushrooms, and it all of sudden becomes that much better.
HT: Kathy, where do you forage?
YERICH: Fred and I live in Forest Lake, and we’re near a lot of accessible public land. We’ll also visit nearby places like Scandia and Marine on the St. Croix, and so on.
HT: Any final tips or thoughts?
YERICH: Check out the Mycological Society. All the summer and fall meetings are about identification, so you can bring in a bag of what you found, and they’ll identify them and tell you why they’re identified that way.
If you do get inspired to go mushroom hunting, keep these simple rules in mind as you get started.
1. Be Safe
Stick to mushrooms like the “Foolproof Four” (morels, puffballs, chicken of the woods, chanterelles) that are easy to identify and unambiguously safe when properly cooked. Research your cooking methods. Yerich recommends the guidebook Edible Mushrooms by Clyde M. Christensen and also more general foraging guides by author Teresa Marrone. “Her book Abundantly Wild is one of my favorites,” she says. Hike carefully, too. Falls and other terrain-related accidents killed 18 mushroom foragers in Italy this year.
2. Know the Law
“It is legal to collect mushrooms from Minnesota state parks for personal use, but NOT for sale, especially mass amounts,” notes Yerich. “It is also OK to collect and give away or barter (which is mostly what Scott and I do), but again, the selling part is considered poaching.” Yerich mostly forages on private land with permission.
3. Respect the Land
Mushrooms are a gift from nature and should be respected as such. Pampuch says he works with Yerich because he trusts her and her methods. “There are mushroom guys out there who could be stealing from private land or looting public land, and that’s not the land stewardship ideal we’re working toward.”
Wild Mushroom Pasta
by Chef Scott Pampuch of Corner Table
4 oz. fresh pasta
1 tbsp. butter
1 clove garlic crushed, rough chopped
1 tsp. shallot
2 oz. white wine (drinkable)
Sprig of thyme, leaves picked
3-4 oz. assorted fresh wild mushrooms
2 sprigs flat leaf parsley leaves rough chopped for garnish
2 tbsp. Cedar Summit cream for garnish
Salt and pepper
Bring water, salted, to boiling. In a sauté pan, sauté garlic, butter, shallot, & mushrooms (see sauté times below) together until mushrooms are wilted and tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Deglaze sauté pan with wine. Drop fresh pasta into boiling water. Remove floating pasta directly into sauté pan to complete pasta sauce. Toss pasta until sauce coats the pasta. Toss in parsley and serve in warm bowls. Garnish with Cedar Summit cream.
Wild Mushroom Sauté Times
Lobster, Chicken of the Woods, & Hen of the Woods 5-7 minutes
Chanterelles 3-5 minutes
Black Trumpets 2-3 minutes