BEYOND MORELS

By on July 19, 2017

Food to harvest and honor in a mountainous milieu.

(Photo: Melissa Thomasma)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – During the month of June, it’s impossible to scroll through social media without severe exposure to morel porn. Artistic shots of lovely mushrooms shrouded in sprigs of bright green grass, and gratuitous heaps of delectable fungi on kitchen tables are impossible to avoid. Morels are easily the most celebrated locally-foraged food in Jackson Hole.

But despite what Facebook feeds would have you believe, there are more locally-sourced wild foods than morels and elk meat. And there are some very creative locals who are putting other foraged foods to use in the kitchen: berries, other mushrooms, trout, and more.

Utilizing chokecherries and huckleberries is by no means an innovation. Native Americans across the Rocky Mountains relied on both for a variety of uses, but their largest culinary role was in pemmican. A cree paste of dried and pounded meat, melted fat and edible seeds, the berries brought a sweetness to the ancient superfood that fueled the first inhabitants of the region.

Jackson locals, however, have found some fresh uses for both chokecherries and huckleberries.

Chokecherries are rather deceiving; they hang in tempting bunches from tall bushes, ruby clusters so voluptuous that they weigh down branches. They look delicious. But eaten raw, they’re so sour, so astringent, they’ll make your mouth go dry. Though some locals will chuckle and swear that chokecherries are “for the birds,” there are plenty of ways to put the tart little fruits to use.

Independent Chef Artist Heidi Christine’s favorite route? Adult beverage. “Chokecherry wine has a really nice bitter sweet balance. It’s tart and bright like a nice Sauvignon blanc and the thing that mimics minerality is actually the tart nature of the chokecherry itself. Despite its brightness, it’s also really pretty, akin to a dry Rosé with the body and tart fruit of a Pinot Noir,” she said.

The terroir of the berries lends the drink some flavor of earth and forest, and assuming you don’t sweeten it too much it will stay decidedly sour, Christine added.

“It’s really an excellent use for chokecherries because they are quite tart and not many people enjoy them without a ton of sugar,” she said.
Christine noted that while most people will opt to preserve or can and jar things like chokecherries, and that is an excellent preparation, fermentation helps to break down the fruit, so that it’s more edible in the culinary sense and more nutritious, while preserving a unique flavor.

Other longtime valley residents prefer to take the jelly route. “When I was growing up, my mom always made chokecherry jelly. It was definitely a summer thing for our family,” Teresa DeGroh said. “It was the only jelly I would eat as a kid.” DeGroh still makes batches of the beautifully pink jelly every year, but it doesn’t languish in her pantry for long. She says its flavor is a balance of sweet and tangy—reminiscent of a dried cherry. The best way to enjoy it? “It’s great on toast, or with peanut butter, of course,” she said.

Jam and jelly are common local uses of huckleberries, too. The blueberry relative lends itself easily to baking, pancakes, ice cream toppings and even cocktail blends. Christine, however, found herself yearning to showcase the purple berries in a more complex and sophisticated savory way. “I can only make and enjoy so many batches of jam before I start to want to pour jam in the street and light it on fire just to see it burn,” she said. “Sugar does not always make things taste better.”

(Photo: Heidi Christine)

So she created huckleberry chutney. She starts with oil in the pan, sweating some onions with garlic, ginger and other spices and peppers. “Instead, keep reducing the onions in that sauce, adding small amounts at time, to a hot pan until the bits of goodness from the garlic and onion are totally assimilated into a flavorful mash in the pan.” From there, Christine adds a mélange of other vegetables or fruits.

“Chutneys can be sweet or savory but their typically spicy, so you should think too, ‘Where do you want your heat to come from?’ For huckleberries I’m usually a fan of jalepenos or thai chilis.”

Christine serves the chutney with grilled or smoked fish and meat, or atop a cracker with cheese or salami. She loves finding different ways to elevate and honor the ingredients people in the valley have consumed for hundreds of years.

Unlike these berries, lake trout were not on the menu for the tribes who traversed the Jackson Hole area. Originating in the Great Lakes, the species of char was introduced into lakes in Yellowstone in the 1890s. The concept was to generate a food source for the park’s lodges and restaurants. However, the species proved to be something of a wrecking ball to the lakes’ ecosystems; native cutthroat populations have been severely damaged, and fishery managers are working to remove the lake trout, or at least mitigate their impact.

In other words, harvesting lake trout is beneficial to the local lakes in addition to making a delicious dinner. The light, flaky meat is versatile: stuff it with lemons and herbs and toss it on the grill, or, in the old-school camping style, sprinkle fillets with some corn meal and pan-fry in some butter. Bonus points if it’s in a cast iron pan or over a campfire.

Dan Thomasma (who happens to be this author’s father), a 45-year resident, has an even more creative preparation for these fish, which he frequently harvests through the ice during winter months. “I brine them for at least 12 hours,” he said. “And then put them in the smoker. It typically takes six to eight hours for a larger trout to get smoked all the way through, but it is absolutely worth the wait.” While he keeps the exact recipe for his brine seasoning a secret, its blend of salty and sweet lends a sophisticated flavor to the trout meat.

“It’s best if you eat it with a little cream cheese on a cracker,” he said. Although the smoked fish can last for months if properly sealed and frozen, it’s typically gobbled up quickly. “People really seem to like it. There are never leftovers.”

Other wild foods await discovery, too. Wild rosehips beckon to be made into tea, as does wild mint. Young nettles invite you to—carefully—collect and sauté them with garlic. Apricot-toned chanterelle mushrooms sit on the quiet forest floor.

Not sure what to do with your harvest? Ask a longtime local; they’re bound to have a few suggestions.

“It’s so amazing that we get to go out in our proverbial back yard and access, much to our hearts content, the bounties of berries, and mushrooms and even animals that we do,” Christine said.

Her parting words: “Harvest and then honor: this beautiful relationship we get to have with wild native foods should be held in the highest regard.” PJH

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