Thanksgiving is the perfect time to revisit the year past, particularly for a wild foods enthusiast. This last foraging season was a doozie in my little corner of the Rocky Mountain region. It was a hard year for the plants, even harder for the people who endured the natural disasters, which only increases my gratitude for the wild foods I was able to pick, including porcini mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner.
Rough year for wild food
Despite what was, in nearly every way, an unusually hard year for foraging, I was still able to harvest foods throughout the growing season.
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This year there were regular snows and hard freezes right up into May, which meant that nearly all of the tree fruit crops were lost, including wild plums and apples. Summer looked to be a repeat of the previous years’ droughts, complete with destructive forest fires. Then, just as summer was about to end, a flooding rainstorm hit the area, shredding the landscape and forcing people from their homes.
I won’t forget my joy in finding the first green tops of wild onions in the spring, and preserving them in butter kept safe in the freezer. High summer scented my fingers with Monarda fistulosa, also known as beebalm or wild oregano. As summer started to drag its heels, I made my annual trek into the forest to chase down Boletus edulis, porcini mushrooms.
Even now, in what I’ve taken to calling “the year without fruit,” months past the first freeze, and having endured many snow storms, the land still provides. Some hardy greens still cling tightly to the ground, and I’m looking forward to a quiet snowy day in the coming months when I can pick black walnuts out of their shells. My pantry is wonderfully well stocked.
Foraged Thanksgiving classics
I will revisit my year of foraging at Thanksgiving with dishes tickled with wild ingredients. They will taste distinctly of this place I love and cement my foraging memories. It is possible to make a nearly all-wild Thanksgiving meal, and I’ve done so in the past. But because the holiday is a time to be surrounded by friends and extended family, many of whom are unfamiliar with wild cuisine, I usually restrain myself from making an all-wild meal. Instead, I prefer to make a wild twist on traditional dishes — cranberry sauce mixed with highbush cranberries, turkey basted with wild allium butter, or pumpkin pie made with a black walnut crust.
Among my most successful wild-infused Thanksgiving dishes is a stuffing loaded with foraged porcini mushrooms, which can also be purchased from a store if you aren’t lucky enough to find your own. Stuffing made with porcini mushrooms tastes at once wild and luxurious, but also comfortingly familiar. Using the porcini soaking water in place of the traditional broth adds an extra dimension of mushroom flavor to the dish. The eggs in this recipe add extra binding power to the bread cubes, but they may easily be omitted if you are serving vegans or those with egg allergies. This Thanksgiving stuffing may also be made gluten-free by using gluten-free bread.
Wild Porcini Mushroom Stuffing
Serves 8 to 10
1 pound sourdough bread, cut into ½-inch cubes
3½ cups boiling water
2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
8 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves, sliced
8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped off the stems
½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed
10 fresh sage leaves, chopped
Freshly cracked pepper
2 eggs, beaten (optional)
3 tablespoons Italian parsley leaves, chopped
1. Evenly spread the bread cubes on two baking sheets, and toast them in a 350 F oven until they dry out and the edges begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over the dried porcini mushrooms. Set it aside.
3. In a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, celery, thyme. Salt to the skillet and cook them until they turn soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
4. Use a strainer to fish the mushroom slices out of the soaking water. Let the water drip out of them for a few seconds before adding them to the skillet with the onion and celery. Continue to cook the vegetables and mushrooms for another 5 minutes. Stir in the sage, and add cracked pepper, plus more salt if necessary, to taste. Remove the skillet from the heat.
5. Gently pour the mushroom soaking water into the skillet full of vegetables and mushrooms, taking care to leave behind any dirt that has settled in the bottom. If you are using eggs, whisk them into the liquid.
6. Transfer the bread cubes to a large bowl. Pour the contents of the skillet over the bread cubes and toss until the bread cubes have absorbed all of the liquid. Stir in the parsley.
7. Transfer the mixture into a greased two-quart baking dish, and bake at 350 F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is heated through and the top looks crunchy and brown.
Top photo: Wild porcini mushroom stuffing for Thanksgiving. Credit: Wendy Petty