Wild Mushroom Hunt In Rockies Unearths Family Recipe
Unusual things start popping up in the quiet forests of the Rocky Mountains following the late-summer monsoon rains. First, all manner of berries, from strawberries to raspberries to huckleberries, make their presence known. Next, mushrooms emerge in an astonishing array of shapes and colors, followed closely by the appearance of equally colorful wild mushroom hunters. Known to be an eccentric bunch, people who hunt mushrooms are almost always characters.
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When I first learned to find mushrooms, people would remark to me that most of the mushroom hunters in Colorado were of Eastern European descent. I dismissed this as some sort of myth. Over the years of listening to other mushroom hunters in the woods, it turned out that I did, indeed, frequently hear accents that had a distinctive European lilt.
Most years, Colorado is dry, painfully dry, with an arid climate that skirts disaster. In the good years, the rain blesses the land in late summer. It is my hallelujah season, when I arise at 4 a.m. and make my way up the treacherous canyons in the dark, to arrive at a trailhead at daybreak, ready to chase mushrooms. Most days, I’m happy to wander the mushroom trail alone. I watch my fellow mushroom hunters. Some bounce up the trail with bulging sacks in hand, asking every person they cross if they’ve seen any mushrooms. Others quietly weave in and out of the edge of the forest, averting their eyes when they sense oncoming hikers.
Occasionally, I confront the trailwalkers whose eyes scan the ground. I play ignorant, and ask what they are doing. Most of the time, they are generous in letting me peer into their bag. I exclaim with genuine wonderment, “They’re so beautiful! Can you eat those?” One old-timer joked, “Every mushroom is edible … once!”
Wild mushroom hunters old-world charm and smarts
One day this last mushroom season, eating my snack while sitting cross-legged on a big rock, Mik Hrabovsky and his father, also Mik, both sporting newsboy hats, emerged from behind a stand of Engelmann spruce trees and raised their gnarled walking sticks in greeting. Feeling relaxed and friendly, I asked, “Did you find any mushrooms?” He lifted his basket, the same one that was lovingly carried over from Ukraine when his family immigrated to the United States, for me to see.
“Oh, yes! The forest has been a generous lady.” In the younger Hrabovsky, I heard that touch of Europe. I peered into his basket, which contained far more species than the singular porcini I was collecting.
Both Hrabovkys leaned in close to the rock where I sat, though the elder only twisted his mustache as he stared out at the distant peaks.
I inquired of Mik Jr., how he knew about mushrooms. He explained that the mushroom knowledge was passed down from the women in his family, his grandmother being the most knowledgeable, “She was our living encyclopedia, our wise woman. During the wars, knowing how to feed our family without outside help made her a kind of superhero.” Hrabovsky went on to explain that while his grandmother’s ability to find mushrooms seemed nearly magical, she always taught her grandchildren that mushroom hunting was a very practical way to celebrate the bounty that the forest can provide.
Now that the entire Hrabovsky clan is situated in America, the mushroom hunting tradition continues, with knowledge of mushrooms in the new land gathered from mushroom clubs and guidebooks. “I do it because it’s fun! The way some families watch their football team play every year, my family hunts mushrooms,” explained the younger Hrabovsky as he proudly held up a large Boletus edulis, also known as porcini. “I do it to connect to the old country and this land, too. There is something essential to who we are that we can only know by putting our fingers into the dirt where we live, and picking food from the land and taking it into ourselves.”
Curious about whether the newest generation of Hrabovsky children also enjoy finding mushrooms, I asked whether they ever join the hunt. “It’s hard to convince them to look away from their iPhones,” Mik Jr. said. “But once they get out here, they’re just kids, no different from kids in Ukraine, and they enjoy the treasure hunt.” Hrabovsky placed a hand on his father’s back, “I want them to know that our food is our history, and that they can reach back through time by cooking the same food as their grandparents and great-grandparents.”
Hrabovsky Family Mushroom-Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
1 head of cabbage, leaves separated
4 tablespoons lard
2 pounds of edible wild mushrooms, finely chopped
1 large onion, diced
1 teaspoon dill seeds, crushed
½ teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed
½ teaspoon celery seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons flour
1 quart crushed tomatoes and their juice
1. Blanch the leaves of cabbage in a large pot of boiling water for 1 minute each. Pat each dry, then stack the cabbage leaves so that they are ready to roll.
2. In a large sauté pan, melt the lard over medium heat. Once the melted lard has started to ripple in the pan, add the mushrooms, onions, caraway seeds, celery seeds and salt. Stir the contents of the pan continuously just until the water starts to emerge from the mushrooms.
3. Sprinkle the flour over the mushrooms and onion, and continue to stir them while they cook for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for 10 minutes.
4. Stuff each cabbage leaf with a few tablespoons of the mushroom mixture. Spoon the mushroom stuffing onto the stem-end of the cabbage leaf, then carefully roll it, folding in the sides of the cabbage leaf halfway, so that you end up with cylindrical-shaped packages of mushroom-stuffed cabbage.
5. Nestle the cabbage packages into a large Dutch oven. Pour the crushed tomatoes over the mushroom-cabbage rolls. If needed, add water so that the liquid in the pot comes within a half-inch of covering the rolls. Cover the pot.
6. Braise the mushroom-cabbage rolls in a 350 F oven for 2 hours. Serve over buttered egg noodles or mashed potatoes.
Top photo: Colorado porcini mushroom. Credit: Wendy Petty