Growing up in inner-city Chicago, food, when it wasn’t of the fast variety, came from grocery stores. And more often than not, from cans, boxes or the freezer section of those grocery stores. There were no plush community gardens with mountain views, no weekly farmers’ markets, no farm-to-table dinners.
I even recall staring in awe at a blackberry shrub one summer while vacationing with the family on a tiny lake in Michigan around 8 years old. I was both mesmerized and afraid. “Do people really just reach out and eat food that’s been growing outside,” I thought? Didn’t someone have to come along and disinfect it, package it up, label it, and ship it across the country to my neighborhood Jewel-Osco before it was good to eat? Apparently not.
It wasn’t until college that I really started to think about where my food came from. And it wasn’t until Aspen that I started to care. But old habits die hard. So when I found myself at the beginning of the summer on a hike up toward Independence Pass with my chef-friends Mark and Gonzalo searching for mushrooms and edible plants, it was with great trepidation that I actually stuck one of the many lime-green edible spruce tips we had collected in my mouth and chewed. A little grassy, a lot pine-fresh scenty, but not too bad.
Fast-forward a couple of months to late-August. I’m off on a trip, but I see on Facebook that Mark has found, in a location he still refuses to reveal to a chatty food columnist, more than 30 pounds of chanterelles. My first reaction was to tell him not to eat them all until a got back, an assertion I quickly realized was ridiculous given the sheer size of the bounty. Fortunately for me, the day after my return he already had a small dinner party planned for a couple of friends in town for the weekend. (If you don’t already have a good friend that’s a chef, go find one now. Start looking in the forests around Aspen.)
That night, we had a mushroom feast: a soup made from chanterelle stock and buttermilk whey, small chanterelles, a soft-poached egg and parsley oil; a Swiss chard salad with watercress emulsion, forbidden rice, melted onions, chanterelles and lamb bacon; and homemade tagliatelle with chanterelles, Parmesan-reggiano and butter. It was a meal foraged in heaven.
And if I weren’t already serendipity’s biggest fan, the same week I enjoy this delicious home-cooked meal (though home-cooked certainly belies the quality of the meal — I often refer to Mark’s house as the best restaurant in Aspen,) I read that Hotel Jerome executive chef Rob Zack is hosting a foraging and cooking seminar at the iconic Aspen lodge tonight, Friday, Sept. 6, from 4-6 p.m. The seminar, taking place inside the hotel’s Prospect restaurant prep kitchen, will showcase how to clean, prepare and cook indigenous mushrooms. It is free and open to the public.
Maybe I’ll attend and return the favor. But, more likely, I’ll bring over another bottle of wine and watch while Mark whips up his culinary magic.