The morel is a spring delight and one of the richest tasting mushrooms. Just a little will do you in a recipe for their flavor is intense. One year while pulling out of the driveway, I almost leapt from the car as I spied a big fat morel popping out of the neighbor’s new grass. Morels fruit in dirt and are saprophytic (meaning they eat dead plant material), so they can often be found growing out of soil that has been disturbed, such as a new lawn, new garden beds or forest burns. If you’re lucky, you may even find them growing around campfire pits.
If you’d like to try your luck at picking wild morels, ask an experienced mushroom-hunting friend to take you (be cautioned, they may want to blindfold you before the road trip to their secret picking spot!), or join your local mycological society for a spring field trip.
Or if that’s not your style, try a trip to your well-stocked produce department or farmers’ market. Be sure to look for fresh morels (not too wet) without any little friends hiding in the caverns of their brain-like caps, that are not wet and wiggly. The first morels to appear in the markets are Verpa bohemica, which are often referred to as early morels but are really not morels at all and are definitely in my opinion not as tasty. Look for true morels; their caps are attached all along the stem. Verpas are like a thimble sitting on a chopstick.
Always cook any fresh morels; raw morels sometimes cause an upset stomach.
EARLY SPRING – Morel Mushroom Madness overtakes local fungi enthusiasts and fungi hunters scope their secret spots, looking for the first signs of this delicacy. Morels fruit usually around the mid/end of April in the Northwest lowlands, depending on the weather, and peak the last two weeks of May on the east side of the Cascades. The season can shift depending upon weather.
LEARNING TO HUNT – Before I go any further, however, I must warn you that, if you are not an experienced picker, then you need to join a mushroom interest group or find an experienced picker to go with. I suggest you join one of the local mycological societies. Membership pluses are:
* Field trips to fruiting areas
* Members are very generous about teaching the habitat and getting people started; as you learn the habitat, then you can find your own secret spots.
* Members will also get you on the right track for the do’s and don’ts of mushrooming
Puget Sound Mycological Society: Telephone (206) 522-6031 www.psms.org
Their Web site also has links to mushroom interest groups on the Kitsap Peninsula, in Snohomish County, South Sound, Spokane and the Palouse, as well as in Oregon, British Columbia, and Idaho.
MOREL HABITAT- in the Northwest morels can be found anywhere. They grow near trees in conifer forests, open grasslands, bare dirt area and even out of needle duff. If it is a dry season, look in gullies and other areas of water runoff and under logs. But MOST of the dense fruiting morels I have ever seen are in large clear-cut areas or burn outs.
THE TWO MOST TYPICAL HABITATS ARE – Where they are naturalized — usually a grassy area where natural composting occurs or along a water run off or stream where leaves drop to give them food. Where they are naturalized, they fruit every year. Disturbed ground – such as logged or burned areas, here morels will come up only once because they have no continuous food source
PICKING PROTOCOL – Good mushrooming protocol is cutting your mushrooms with a knife at ground level rather than pulling them up. This way you are not disturbing the mushroom-producing organism, called the mycelium. (A mushroom is to the mycelium as an apple is to the tree.) By cutting your mushrooms you are also doing it the clean way–leaving the dirt and sandy bottoms in the ground. Also bear in mind that mushrooms need to release spores to keep the species alive, so leave a couple in the ground. Place your prizes reverently in a basket or bucket, never a plastic bag! They sweat and suffocate in plastic since they are 90-95% water.
DO NOT EAT MORELS RAW – It’s always best to cook morels (or any type of mushroom) thoroughly because:
*it enhances their flavor
*drives off some harmful substances (hydrazines) found in edible mushrooms
*destroys bacteria which may be present on raw mushrooms
However, cooking does NOT make POISONOUS mushrooms edible
TRAILHEAD SNACK – Take along a big ol’ cast iron skillet, wine, a baguette, a camp stove and a few sautéing goodies like a little olive oil or butter, some garlic, a few fresh herbs—such as chives, lemon thyme, and, yes, for this occasion—cream. (You will probably have already burned off the calories!). Morels marry with cream like no tomorrow. Sauté morels till tender and soft, then reduce with a little the cream till thick and luscious. Top thin, crusty slices of hearty bread and you’ll have the outdoor “snack” of your life.
COOKING MORELS AT HOME – Sautéed morels are great in herbed scrambled eggs. If you really hit the jackpot then save the big ones to stuff and bake — such as with seasoned crabmeat. Morels also make a divine sauce — sauté them with herbs and then reduce with cream – and spoon the sauce over grilled steak or halibut. Yum!
PASTA WITH FRESH MORELS, SPRING PEAS & MINT
This recipe calls for 1/4 cup thin sliced morels – but if you find more by all means use more! Also you can substitute pancetta for the bacon – if you like more delicious bacon flavor you can always double the amount.
Yields: 2 servings as an entree or 4 as an accompaniment
2 cups cooked orecchini (“little ears”) pasta (1/4 lb dry), or substitute bow-tie pasta
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1 thick slice bacon, diced 1/4 inch
1/2 small shallot, minced
1/3 – 1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh morel mushrooms, or substitute 1/4 oz wt. dried (about 6 medium mushrooms), covered with cool
water and soaked about 40 minutes or until soft and rehydrated; strain juice to use in soups or pasta dishes
10 snap peas, optional
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons white wine
1/4 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 cup fresh shelled peas, quickly blanched
2 tablespoons high quality, grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 – 2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint leaves
freshly ground black pepper to taste
*pea vines for garnish, optional
To cook pasta: Stir pasta into a large pot of rapidly boiling, lightly salted water. Cook as per package directions, or until al dente. Drain pasta well then toss in a bowl with 1/2 teaspoon olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap to keep warm and set aside. (Do not rinse pasta with water; the olive oil will keep it from sticking together.)
Over medium-high heat, sauté bacon until about half done [about 2 minutes] then add shallots, mushrooms and sugar snap peas. Sauté for 2 minutes or until mushrooms are just soft, then deglaze pan with lemon juice and wine. Add chicken broth and cream, then immediately fold in reserved pasta and peas. Season with salt. Reduce until the sauce is just becoming thickened and just coating the pasta — about 5 – 10 minutes. Fold in cheese and mint. Divide between warm bowls and garnish with pea vines. Pass extra Parmesan if desired.
Vegetarian: Substitute 2-3 teaspoons olive oil for the bacon and use vegetable or mushroom broth to replace chicken broth.
Note: *Pick tender young vines from your pea patch or look for them in Asian markets or well-stocked produce markets. [Do not use vines from ornamental sweet peas.]
Copyright © 2008 by Kathy Casey
Morels in Cream Sauce
This recipe is from my friend Patrice Benson, an avid mushroom hunter and great cook. She says “if you are new to morels, this is a good recipe to acquaint you with their true taste”. I also like to add a little snipped chives and/or a pinch of lemon thyme and sometimes a splash of dry sherry to her recipe.
2 tablespoons oil or butter
1/2 lb. fresh morels, cleaned and sliced
1 chopped shallot
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons butter (optional)
salt & pepper to taste
Heat skillet on medium-high to high, add oil, then mushrooms and shallot. Saute for 1 minute, then add the wine. Continue
cooking over high heat until the wine is reduced by half. Then add the cream and reduce by half. Reduce the heat to low, add the
butter, salt and pepper if desired.
Serve as an appetizer with fresh, crusty bread for dipping, or serve atop sautéed or grilled chicken breast or halibut.
Recipe by Patrice Benson.