In 2008, Nat and I opened our first restaurant. It was the start of a new life phase, and for good or for bad, it’s definitely been that again in 2020.

What does any of this have to do with food? Well, it’s simple — this year has been a doozy of a year
for foraging mushrooms. The opportunistic man I am, I have been on the receiving end of literally hundreds of pounds of beautiful, wild and free chanterelle and black trumpet mushrooms.

This spring we had the opportunity to take on a new restaurant and grocery store in Ontario’s North, just on the doorsteps of Killbear Provincial Park — a true jewel, boasting the most beautifully windswept shores Georgian Bay has to offer.

We lept at the chance to expand, and in doing so, hired a wonderful chef, Cody, who has a passion
for foraging wild mushrooms. It seems we have been blessed with good fortune, enjoying a great first season of business, and our chef has rewarded us with his dedication to the kitchen, incredible cuisine and the mushrooms he found, literally, on the doorstep of his cabin near the woods — incredible.

After repeatedly sending me photos of fields and fields of mushrooms, I encouraged Cody to get all available staff and schedule them for as many hours as they can work to pick mushrooms until the source ran dry.

For all the “sustainability” folks out there: first off, I’m one of you, secondly the fruit of a mushroom that we see above ground is a small part of the larger mycelium that lives underground. So long story short, picking mushrooms is good, and only helps spread the spores.

What’s it all mean to us fellow food (and full circle story) lovers? Well, I suppose that there is good in everything, and 2020, this cloud in need of a silver lining has definitely brought lots of good.

In the literal sense, it has brought us a boat-load of exceptionally good mushrooms, and not just the “hey neat I can eat these” edible types, but the “holy shit these are amazing and usually wildly expensive” variety. Cody’s menu has been rife with wild-caught fish and foraged mushrooms, among other gems. It has been amazing to watch a chef in his element and be the benefactor of his efforts both in and out of the kitchen.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to find myself working the line at Killbear, I was cooking up a mess of mushrooms to introduce our restaurant family to this local but foreign (to them) ingredient. I chose a simple preparation and served roasted chanterelle mushrooms over ridiculously buttery mashed potatoes, topped with minced green onion.

I loved this dish and I loved this moment of sharing our gifts from the forest, and our passion for food and ingredients. I’ll forever be grateful to be continually blessed with these little moments in life.

Check out my recipe for this dish below, and please only forage your own wild ingredients if you know exactly what you are doing. A person can get quite sick taking risks with wild foods — leave it to the experts or become one.

Roasted Chanterelle Mushroom Recipe

This recipe is broken into two parts, the mushrooms and the mashed potatoes, both require more salt and butter then you are likely used to cooking, so please turn back now if you aren’t prepared to break your own rules! I also only make this dish as a three-four bite appetizer, so the richness from the butter and the elevation of flavour the salt provides is welcome — it’s merely a moment pure indulgence often followed by a splash of great Ontario Pinot Noir — so don’t hold back on this. Enjoy this once a year opportunity to turn the volume up to 11.

This recipe will serve four to six small portions

Mashed Potatoes

2-3 small Yukon gold potatoes peeled and cubed

Bay leaf

Salt

1 cups butter cubed

Apple cider vinegar

Place the cubed potatoes in salted cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer until the potatoes are tender and cooked, drain the potatoes and return to the pot to allow to steam off for three to five minutes without a lid — we want to rid our potatoes of as much moisture as possible so we can replace it all with butter.

Next, toss in all the butter and simply use a wooden spoon to mash the potatoes and butter until almost smooth. Don’t over mix them — I’d rather have a few lumps than gluey overworked potatoes. Next, we season with salt and a dash of apple cider vinegar. I’ll let you decide how much salt, but I wanna taste the butter, taste the bay leaf, taste the potatoes and I really want the whole party to sing — so don’t be shy. Now set these aside while we prepare our mushrooms.

Roasted Chanterelles

2 cups chanterelle mushrooms

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

As far as wild mushrooms go, the chanterelle is one of the easiest to clean, however, don’t rush this step as a gritty mushroom is the quickest way to ruin an otherwise otherworldly epicurean experience. Start with a clean dry mushroom, and cut off any bad spots, brushing away the pine needles and other undesirables. Then proceed with a few cold water washes to get rid of any sand or dirt or bugs. Yucky work, maybe, but well worth it, so carry on. Next step is to dry them as good as you can, either paper towels or a salad spinner will do the trick.

Get a frying pan warmed up, add you butter and oil and allow that to slightly brown. Add our mushrooms and saute for two to three minutes. When you first add the mushrooms, a lot of liquid will come out and it will look a bit sad and messy, so don’t overcrowd the pan — simply show a little patience. Once that liquid cooks out, we will once again see the beauty we expect. Once that happens, and the mushrooms are sizzling and browning, add salt and pepper to taste and remove from the heat.

The Plate

I like a little saucer type dish for this, but I imagine anything could work — after all, in the 2000’s we plated on everything except traditional plates, but that’s a story for a different day.  Simply place a small scoop of the mashed potatoes down, and make a small well on top with the back of your spoon. Top with mushrooms, and pan drippings and some minced green onions.

Enjoy right away.

Nick Benninger is a local chef and restaurant owner.