Mushroom hunting in the Vail Valley |

Mushroom hunting in the Vail Valley

Sarah Mausolf
Vail CO, Colorado
HL Mushroom Hunt 1 DT 8-25-08

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” For Jay McCarthy, spotting chanterelles in the woods is a thrill.

“It’s like walking around finding diamonds on the ground,” he said.

McCarthy, the corporate chef for the Beaver Creek Chophouse, goes on a few mushroom missions each year, often returning with the ingredients for a strudel he makes at home.

For many foodies, eating mushrooms is more than a recreational blunder they made in college.

It’s a passion. Having fallen in love with morels and porcini, their idea of a bad trip is any journey to Whole Foods that requires spending $50 per pound on fungi.

Here in Colorado, about 10 types of tasty mushrooms grow wild, said Bill Windsor, a Boulder resident who led a mushroom foray near Tennessee Pass Monday. Knowing where to find them can give cooks an edge in the kitchen.

The roughly 25 people who attended the Vail Symposium forage learned that different types of mushrooms can taste fabulous in pasta dishes, cause hallucinations or even smell like shrimp.

“One of the nice side benefits of knowing where to find mushrooms is chefs invite you to their parties,” said Windsor, a board member of the Colorado Mycological Society

Edwards resident Susan Mackin Dolan sniffed a brown mushroom she found on the ground.

“It smells like gym socks,” she said.

This particular find is inedible. In fact, just 2 percent of mushrooms in the forest are truly good eating, Windsor explained.

After about an hour of foraging, Edwards resident Hans Willimann emerged with a mushroom the size of a large fist. The chestnut-colored cap, spongy underbelly and fine netting on the stem suggested it’s a king bolete.

“The most choice of the choice,” Winsdor said with an approving nod.

The king bolete ranks high with chanterelles and morels among the most coveted, edible wild mushrooms in the state.

Mushroom hunters tend to keep quiet about the best places to find fungi.

“If you ask mushroomers for a specific spot and they tell you, they’re probably lying,” Windsor said.

In general, mushrooms gravitate to moist areas like flatlands and ditches, he said. Others have symbiotic relationships with trees. For example, boletes can be found among pines.

Popular mushroom hunting areas near the Vail Valley include Vail Pass, Shrine Pass and Tennessee pass, Windsor said. The season stretches from May through early October, he said.

While some mushrooms are highly coveted, others are harmful. Luckily, only 2 percent of wild mushrooms in Colorado are poisonous, and they’re easy to identify, Windsor said. Still others are steeped in legend.

Such is the case with the amanita muscaria, a psychoactive mushroom with a red cap and white dots. Windsor said shamans in Eurasia believed urine containing the mushroom’s toxins attracted reindeer. The shamans would eat the mushrooms, save their urine, and use it during the winter months to attract reindeer, he said.

Tempted to try this at home? Don’t.

“It’s not a pleasant hallucinogenic,” Windsor said of the spotted mushroom. “So I wouldn’t recommend it for recreational use.”

When it comes to entertaining with mushrooms, few activities are more satisfying than cooking, foodies say.

People who attended Monday’s mushroom forage noshed on pasta tossed with the fungi they found.

Willimann, 62, said he grew up looking for black morels with his father in Switzerland. He has fond childhood memories of “mushroom toast:” toast topped with a mix of mushrooms, butter, bacon, heavy cream and a touch of cognac.

“I love to eat mushrooms,” he said. “I love to cook them.”

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or

Adam and Elli Roustom, owners of Blue Plate Bistro in Avon, enjoy finding and cooking wild mushrooms. Adam offers this recipe for local chanterelles with roasted chicken and Colorado corn.


1 whole chicken (3 to 4 pounds)

1 small yellow onion, chopped

1/2 orange

1/2 lemon

Fresh thyme, a couple of sprigs

1⁄2 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped coarsely

2 ears fresh Colorado corn

1 cup corn stock

1 cup chicken stock

Fresh butter

Sherry or Madeira wine

1 to 2 teaspoons fresh chopped garlic

Clarified butter

Salt, pepper

Clean the mushrooms. Roustom uses a paint brush to remove dirt from hard to reach areas. If the mushrooms require further cleaning, wash them in cold water in a bowl. Place the mushrooms in the water, swirl quickly and place in another bowl. Place the mushrooms on a sheet tray lined with paper towels and dry them. Refrigerate the mushrooms and let them dry a little more in the fridge.

Salt and pepper the chicken and stuff the cavity with the halved citrus and yellow onion. Roast the chicken in a 375-degree oven until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F, about an hour.

While the chicken is roasting, clean the corn and remove the kernels from the cob, reserving both.

Cut the corn cob with a heavy knife and place in a small sauce pot. Cover the cobs with cold water, bring to a boil and then simmer. The thinner the pieces of the cob, the faster the cook can extract the corn flavor from the cob.

At this point you can also prepare your accompanying vegetable or starch for this dish. Roustom recommends serving crisp asparagus or a German-style potato salad on the side.

Once the chicken is done cooking, remove it from the pan and deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup white wine, chicken stock and the strained corn stock. Use a wooden spoon to remove the golden-brown juices stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Strain everything from the roasting pan back into a sauce pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the roasting jus slightly.

Have all the ingredients close at hand when cooking the mushrooms ” it is vital to be ready and fast. Use a large- to medium-sized heavy saute pan over high heat. Do not overcrowd the pan with mushrooms and be sure your pan is hot enough. Once your pan is hot, add a couple of tablespoons of clarified butter. Let the butter get hot and lightly start smoking before you add your cleaned chanterelles. This is very important: Spread the mushrooms out evenly and leave them alone. Fight the urge to shake or move the pan. Salt and pepper the mushrooms.

Cook the mushrooms for about one minute or so then add one teaspoon fresh butter and, again, do not shake the pan. As soon as the fresh butter melts and starts to foam, add a teaspoon of fresh chopped garlic.

Shake the pan and toss the mushrooms around. The garlic should just be cooked enough to lose its raw bite, but not be brown. Do not to overcook the mushrooms or they’ll be soggy.

Using a slotted spoon, remove all the mushrooms from the pan.

Remove the saute pan from the heat and add two tablespoons of dry sherry or Madeira to the sauce left in the pan.

Cook the alcohol out. It takes about 10 seconds. Add the chicken and corn stock to the saute pan and reduce. Add one to two tablespoons of fresh butter to the stock. Add salt, pepper, parsley and thyme. Add a couple drops of fresh lemon juice if needed. Add corn kernels and chanterelles to the sauce and serve over or alongside the chicken.

Serves 2.

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