North Spore co-founder and wild foods enthusiast, Matt McInnis, had a chance to chat with Hank Shaw, the James Beard Award winning cookbook author, podcaster, and founder of the food website Hunt Gather Cook, about writing cookbooks and working with wild mushrooms. Hank’s recipes on cooking mushrooms are some of the best there are. Spend time on Hunt Gather Cook and you’ll encounter a masterclass in cooking fungi and other wild foods. His recipes are tried and true approaches that are often adaptable to multiple species, including many that you can cultivate using North Spore spawn or growing kits.
This interview is the kick off for a series of articles with Hank Shaw where we’ll be highlighting and talking about his favorite ways to cook mushrooms.
Matt: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me! For our readers who are deep into wild foods cookery, foraging, hunting or fishing, you need no introduction, but for those who might be new to foraging for mushrooms or haven't encountered your website, Hunter Gather Cook, or any of your award winning cookbooks, who are you and what do you do?
Hank: Ha! No, I don't ever expect anyone to know me. I am no Ron Burgundy... Sure, I am a chef and cookbook author who focuses a lot on wild foods: fish, game, edible wild plants and mushrooms, of course. I started the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (now called Hunt Gather Cook) back in 2007, so I am an OG food blogger. I was lucky enough to be nominated for a James Beard Award in 2009 and 2010, and won the award in 2013. Those first two nominations helped me land a book deal, and my first book, Hunt Gather Cook, came out in 2011.
Since then I have written four more books, and am at work on another. I also write a Substack site called To the Bone, where I write more long form: Essays and travelogues about where I am both physically and mentally. It's been a great outlet for my inner writer, while Hunt Gather Cook scratches my cooking itch.
I live in St Paul, Minnesota, now, having moved from northern California earlier this year.
Matt: I bet the foraging landscape is pretty different in Minnesota from what you had available in California. I'm curious to learn a bit about your history and background with mushrooms. I'm curious to hear what your foraging origin story is. Where did foraging for mushrooms fit with your other wild food collecting (fishing, hunting, berry picking etc.) When did you first start to forage for mushrooms? Did you have any mentors or are you self taught?
Hank: I started with wild mushrooms as a teenager in New Jersey, with chicken of the woods and oyster mushrooms, which are common there. Mushrooming was a sidelight for my other outdoor pursuits, fishing and gathering other wild edibles, until I moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in my late 20s. Then I started expanding my knowledge, little by little and year by year. That was a long time ago, and I've now gathered mushrooms in something like 30 states, as well as Canada and Mexico.
I am mostly self taught, but once you get into this world, you meet lots of people -- many of whom are more than willing to show you the ropes. Just this year, in fact, a woman named Olena here in Minnesota helped me out with yellow knights, Tricholoma equestre (or flavovirens), which I'd gathered in California but nowhere else.
Matt: I haven’t ever eaten yellow knights, but your social media posts about them definitely piqued my interest. I started foraging in my late teens while working in a restaurant in Downeast, Maine. I remember a prep chef sent a couple of us youngins to go out and find chanterelles with only a vague description of where and what we were looking for and, to our surprise, we successfully found some on our first outing! That sparked an obsession that continues to this day. Both of our trajectories illustrate how foraging for mushrooms is a lifelong journey. It’s knowledge that builds over a lifetime and can be gleaned from unexpected places. What brought you from foraging and fishing as a passtime to starting Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and writing your first cookbook? I’m curious if writing cookbooks has become easier for you over time?
Hank: I started Hunter Angler Gardener Cook in 2007 as an outlet. I was a full-time political reporter at the time, and politics had begun its slide into nastiness by then. So I started food writing, but I soon realized I had more ideas than I could ever sell to magazines. Food blogging had really just gotten big, so I jumped in. As for the cookbooks, the best advice I can give is to treat a book as a collection of pieces. If you try to sit down and write 300 pages, you will likely fail. Think instead about big ticket items, like book structure and tone, then chop the project into digestible bites. Work on those, string them together, and you have a manuscript in no time. Keep in mind I've been a professional writer for most of my adult life, however, so writer's block isn't something I get. My advice on that is to just write. Your real intro might show up eight paragraphs in. Toss the first seven later.
My process hasn't changed a lot. I need to know a subject as well or better than anyone else to be able to write a book about it. Fortunately, spending 18 years as a reporter honed my ability to ask questions, and my time in graduate school (I have a Master's in history), helped me learn how to do research. I put my mind in a place where I'm standing in a room and people pepper me with questions: If I can answer most of them, I'm good to go.
Matt: I think the mastery of your subject matter really shows in your work. Obviously, I’m not alone in that assessment as your writing landed you a pretty serious credential. Winning a James Beard award is a great honor for anybody involved in food and is a coveted prize that only a few ever achieve. Can you speak to the James Beard nomination and eventual win? How did it feel to win your James Beard award in 2013 for your food blog?
Hank: It was a great evening. I'd been nominated in 2009 and 2010, but to finally win was really gratifying. That said, I put the medal in a safe and went back to work the next day.
Matt: You still had the work of writing four more cookbooks in the decade ahead of you, so I understand that! One of the great underappreciated challenges of cooking is figuring out ways to prepare unfamiliar ingredients. I’m curious what some of the unique challenges of developing wild foods recipes are for you and if there are challenges specific to cooking new mushrooms?
Hank: The main challenge for all wild food recipes, mushroom or wild game, is that in some cases you can't repeat the recipe until that item returns. With rarer things, like, say, Amanita velosa in the West, you may get one meal from these mushrooms. So don't screw it up! I develop recipes for things like this by subbing in more common ingredients to work out the kinks in the recipe. I generally know the flavors and textures of the ingredients I am going to work with, so I can project how it might taste and interact with the rest of the dish. I know it sounds like voodoo, but develop recipes for several decades and you'll get this power. Hell, you're probably better than I am and will get it in far less time!
Matt: I wish I had that power. I’ll admit to screwing up more than a few wild food meals and will spare you the details of my first experience cooking wild waterfowl! If I have a new wild ingredient I’m cooking with, these days I’ll start by following a Hunt Gather Cook recipe to learn its nuances. I’m curious what some of your favorite mushrooms to forage and cook are and why? Which recipes stand out as some of your favorites?
Hank: I love the esoteric mushrooms, the ones that offer something special -- even one-trick ponies, like the helvellas, which I only use for hot and sour soup. As for gathering, I really like porcini hunting, and hunting for the "green" morels in the late stages of a Western burn. They are both so worth the effort, and can be tricky to find. The recipes that stand out for me are often existing recipes in other countries, like the stir-fried porcini from Yunnan Province in China, or the decadent mixture of mushrooms, cream and melty cheese from alpine France. In many cases, the most satisfying mushroom recipes are those where you can plug in whatever mushroom you have, and the dish will still be amazing.
Matt: I’d certainly put helvellas and yellow knights in the esoteric category. I love that you have a whole blog post dedicated to birch boletes. What's the next frontier for you in regards to wild foods? I guess what I’m trying to ask is what haven't you tried yet that you're hoping to get to eventually?
Hank: Well, I just moved to the Midwest, so learning the flora and the fungi of this region will be fascinating. I don't have huge experience with hen of the woods, which is a signature mushroom of this region, so I am excited to get into this one more. Same with the lesser known mushrooms, like the eastern Caesar's amanita, and the indigo milk cap. I am also interested in exploring the cousins of the western mushrooms I know and love, like those yellow knights. Matsutake exist here in Minnesota, too, but they seem to be slightly different from those I've gathered in the West. And you've told me that the burly, "green" morels exist in Maine! Cool stuff!
Matt: We have an abundance of hen of the woods here in Maine too, I love submerging them in olive oil and confiting them over several hours. That mushroom infused oil is gold and the crispy hen of the woods is great in a number of dishes. You've written a number of cookbooks that, when put together, cover a wide swath of the wild foods landscape, but are curiously missing a title specific to mushroom cookery. I have to ask, do you have any plans to write a mushroom cookbook in the future?
Hank: No. I'll be honest: The market is very very small for that sort of book, and there are lots of great mushroom books out there already, and I have a friend working on another. That said, I may write a book on Western foraging, and if I do, mushrooms will be a part of that book.
Matt: I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for that title, as I’m sure will many of the people in the North Spore community! Hank, thank you so much for the time talking with me. It's been a real privilege.
Make sure to check out Hunt Gather Cook for recipes and articles about wild food, listen to the Hunt Gather Talk podcast on most podcast streaming services or Spotify, and consider subscribing to Hank’s Substack To the Bone. Keep an eye here on our blog for future articles with Hank where we’ll dive into cooking wild mushrooms.