By Alexander McNaughton, as told to Crys Stewart

Based in Ucluelet, B.C., on the west coast of Vancouver Island, 27-year-old Alexander McNaughton is a professional forager. The not-so-pretty mushrooms he can’t sell to his discerning pro chefs go into his own enviable meals, such as the flavourful Wild Onion and Wild Mushroom Tart he prepared with Lynn Crawford at his home. That’s just one of the benefits of having a job that pays in so many surprising ways.

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I started foraging as a kid and tapped into that primal, deep human experience of eating wild berries—it’s in our DNA, how to forage. We’re hunter-gatherers. I learned foraging skills from my grandparents’ generation, old ladies picking mushrooms who taught me a lot of things.

These days, breweries and distilleries want spruce tips. Local restaurants want seaweed and wild edible greens. People are looking for sea lettuces, giant kelp to make chips out of, wild arugula off the beaches and the first edible flowers of the season. To find all this, there’s a lot of walking involved, a lot of exploring and discovering for, say, a good seaweed-picking spot. Even though it’s a beautiful wild environment here, it’s still rugged and you can’t assume you’re going to harvest things everywhere.

You know how leeks are buried on a farm? It’s called “hilling up,” and it causes the onion to produce more white from the bulb. Well, the same thing happens to wild onions; they get covered in sand and seaweed from each incoming tide, so they get this long white bulb that’s really quite pretty. They’re also called nodding onions as the flowers bend downward, nodding in the breeze.

The forests here are full of mushrooms. It’s a big part of the culture here on the west coast. It captivates people. They call mushroom foraging “getting the gold” because at the end of the day, your hands will be painted the orange-gold colour of the chanterelle. Wild mushrooms are such a treat that you want to share them with people. That’s part of the fun of my job. I bring something out of the deepest forest and get to share it with people who are a part of my life.

The Wild Onion and Wild Mushroom Tart recipe is a dish we make when the foraging season is cranking and there are a lot of leftover mushrooms. If you can’t get wild mushrooms, you can use any kind of mushroom, but wild mushrooms have that depth of flavour that a cultivated mushroom doesn’t come close to.

Foraging will always be something I do. I love getting out in the wilderness. I’m cash poor, but I’m rich in a lot of other ways—I get to eat gorgeous chanterelles and spend time in beautiful wild outdoor places.

Wild Onion and Wild Mushroom Tart, courtesy of Alexander McNaughton

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Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 1 ½ hours
Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients
Premade pastry
Good-sized handful of wild onions or 2 to 3 large leeks, finely sliced
2 to 3 large shallots, minced
Butter for sautéing
Salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup fresh thyme, destemmed
1 cup (approx) white or red wine, sherry or stock
2 to 3 lb (900 g to 1.35 kg) wild mushrooms, such as chanterelles, morels, hedgehogs or angel wings, cleaned and shredded finely by hand. Can substitute store-bought mushrooms. (Tip: Use a damp paper towel to gently clean your mushrooms if they’re a bit dirty; ideally, your product should be clean if you or the harvester picked it properly.)
3 to 5 egg yolks, depending on tart size
1½ cups (approx) cheese, such as a Parmesan, manchego or Asiago

Directions
1. Roll out pastry and chill in tart pan in fridge for up to 30 minutes. (One of my tricks is to make the pastry bigger than I need and fold the crust tightly into a roll, creating a flaky layered crust that’s sure to impress.) Roll out dough approximately 2 inches (5 cm) bigger than your pie shell (this will allow for a nice crust).
2. While pastry chills, thinly slice onions and shallots; caramelize with butter in a pan. Add salt, pepper and thyme. Add about a cup of wine, just as the onions/leeks release their sugar and begin to stick for rich, sweet flavour. Once liquid has evaporated, remove onions and shallots; set aside.
3. Increase heat to high and add small amount of oil and butter; sauté mushrooms until they release liquid and edges are crispy. Mushrooms should be seared hot so they caramelize nicely; remove from heat before they go watery or limp. Once filling components have cooled, combine with 3 to 5 egg yolks (depending on tart size) and generous amount of cheese (about 1 cup) to bind tart. Top with about ½ cup cheese.
4. Bake in 400°F (200°C) oven for up to 40 minutes. (Make sure oven is preheated to ensure a crispy bottom.) Cheese should bubble and crisp up before removing from oven.

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To see more details from Lynn’s day with Alex, see the photo gallery here.

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