"What is that?" J. asked in astonishment as we turned a corner on the trail, after helping ourselves to ripe huckleberries, harvesting a baggy of them for a sweet n sour supper.
It was an overcast day and the forest was dark and damp. But up ahead an alien sunburst appeared on the side of a rotten hemlock stump and mossy deadfall below it.
"Chicken of the Woods," I said, giving the name I'd always heard growing up, though I've since heard it called Sulphur shelf. It's called one of the "foolproof four" of edible mushrooms, meaning that it's impossible to mistake because of its brilliant coloring.
I asked J. to cut off the outer, tender sections, since in closer to the trunk of the rotten stump it has a woody texture. By only harvesting the tips we could come back to harvest more later. He pointed out the slugs that had climbed the stump to feast on the bright orange fungus, and then searched for tips that hadn't been nibbled on.
Despite Chicken of the Woods being considered edible, some people can have a bad reaction to it. My mom became very sick after eating some that had been sauteed in butter, a treat we grew up on every fall. [One Internet resource notes: "If you are unlucky, or sensitive to whatever unidentified toxin is in these, you may experience vomiting, chills, and perhaps mild hallucinations....Yet there are many (probably over 90% of you) who eat these species with impunity, it's hard to know what to advise, except caution."]
So when J. immediately took a piece he'd cut and popped it into his mouth before I could stop him, I couldn't help flinching. I asked him to not eat anymore and waited anxiously to see how it affected him. For one thing, it's best to eat it fully cooked to avoid stomach issues.
"It tastes like mushrooms," J. said in surprise. He'd been expecting chicken. Fortunately, he proved immune to whatever made some people sick, despite eating it raw.
Next on our shopping list was beach asparagus. We headed out of the woods and onto the gravel beach alongside the stream that we'd dammed up in the woods to get our drinking water from. On the other side of the overflow-stream from the dam was an ancient, wrecked ship's deck that J. felt compelled to explore. He did that while I searched for the best asparagus I could find.
I wanted to harvest the asparagus where it was washed regularly by freshwater since we'd been having red tide issues. (Also known as an "algae bloom." It's a discoloration of seawater caused by a bloom of toxic red dinoflagellates.) There's a health advisory up because of the year-long bloom, apparently caused by higher than usual ocean temperatures, warning locals not to eat any shellfish in the area. When I got home I'd also rinse them in a water and vinegar solution just to be safe.
The beach asparagus was starting to bloom and I had to hunt to find ones that weren't reddish at the tip--they'd be woody and sour tasting. (For more on a description of beach asparagus, complete with recipe ideas, check out the wonderful SE Alaskan blog: www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com in the "Food and Medicine from Nature" category. Also, I found that when you Google "beach asparagus," her thorough entry on the subject is the first to pop up.)
When we got back home I thoroughly cleaned and de-stemmed the berries, asparagus, and "chicken." I added a fresh boiler onion and diced what could be diced in preparation for an Alaskan sweet n sour dinner. Sitting off to one side was the chopped meat (venison, or any game meat is best, but pork, chicken, or any other store bought meat will work) marinating in the brine from "Bubbies" bread and butter pickles.
I sauteed the freshly harvested ingredients (plus the onion) in olive oil and then removed them from the pan and set them aside in order to cook the meat in the skillet in fresh "Bubbies" brine, with an added pinch of red pepper flakes, bringing the liquid to a boil and then simmering the meat until it was cooked and tender.
While the rice was steaming, I made the sweet n sour sauce:
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
As I went to combine the ingredients, I realized I was out of soy sauce. Since the beach asparagus was naturally salty, I thought that might actually be for the best. But the soy sauce provided the dark coloring for the sauce. To make it a little darker I used brown sugar instead of white.
I added the thoroughly mixed sauce to the simmering meat and cooked until the sauce thickened, and then added the sauteed fruit and veggies. By then the rice was done and minutes later I had a delicious, if slightly dangerous, and colorful Southeast Alaskan sweet n sour supper.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)