Some say that winter is the onset of the flu and cold season, but for me it’s the onset of morel madness. I’m speaking, of course, of the tantalizing spring mushroom known as the morel, universally acclaimed by gourmets. The symptoms start back in November-December when the last of the chanterelles have been served or preserved. The manifestations persist and mature through the early months of the new year until they peak in early spring. Relief doesn’t arrive until April, May and June. For these are my morel months, months dedicated to sleuthing out these cone-shaped gifts of the forest and fields.
Sure, there’s a partial relief from the symptoms of morel madness when the earthy Verpa Bohemica start to fruit. These early false morels, as they are sometimes called, resemble the true morels and tend to grow in similar settings. However, the verpa has a wrinkled, or shallowly pitted, undulating head, and the flesh is typically thin and brittle. In contrast, my morel has a cap honeycombed with ridges and pits attached directly to the stalk, and the fruiting body is substantial. Despite the similarities of these fungi, I long ago gave up hunting the Verpa Bohemica. Although the excursions would give some momentary relief to the morel madness, the combination of newly born, green, wriggling snakes and bristly, stinging nettles that haunt the usual terrain of the verpa soon discouraged me.
Besides, I knew if I hung on long enough, just a few more weeks, the morels would fruit, here and there and seemingly everywhere they wanted to. Some could pop up in the newly-laid bark dust in my front yard. Others could follow on the heels of the verpa in the cottonwood stands. Still others could carpet the ravaged lands where there were forest fires last summer.
Sue Dawson photograph.
It is in the mountains that I have had my most memorable morel trips. Here the coniferous and hardwood forests and underlying vegetation combine with the majesty of the rugged terrain to offer solace and relief from the ordinary daily life. Here there is a silence from the disquiet of the suburban life. Here there is a natural perfume to contrast the smells of the city I’ve left below at sea level.
I come equipped with the tools of the hunt: a wicker basket rests on my arm, a compass and whistle hang around my neck, and my favorite guide book, The New Savory Wild Mushroom, is tucked into my fanny pack to help identify other fungi I might encounter. To you, the casual observer, I must appear to wander somewhat aimlessly, maneuvering back and forth, randomly searching for some sign of fungi. You may even notice that, as I inhale the quiet and the aromas of the earth, a smile creases my face and redefines my mood. Yet, my basket may hold a meager harvest. There is no need to fill my basket to overflowing as quickly as possible; moreling is not about quantity and greed. Greed is not the raison d’entre. Rather, discovery of morels is only part of the day’s pleasure. At day’s end, there will be a bounty of discovery: a new awareness of myself and shared moments with my companion. Perhaps there will also be a handful or two of morels to further quell the madness that’s been building since the chanterelles left last fall.
Picking. Select only morels in excellent condition. Leave the decaying and insect ridden ones to spread spores for future crops. Choose only perfect morels, free of decay. Cut stems and lay specimens in baskets or in paper bags (never in plastic!). Without good flow of air, the fungi will not stay in their best condition; they need to breathe. Keep cool and refrigerate as soon as possible.
In Curry County the sprouts and
berries of the Salmonberry were
gathered as food by local indians.
A sincere word of caution about gathering wild fungi. While a morel or any wild edible mushrooming trip can be an exhilarating experience, caution needs to be exercised. Be knowledgeable before embarking on
a foray. Some species can cause serious illness or death, and
inedible species may resemble edible mushrooms to the uneducated eye. Education and identification are just two of the services offered through mycological societies.
Preparation. The debate continues as to whether it’s best to brush or to wash mushrooms. I prefer to quickly wash the morels to remove any clinging debris, shaking them to dislodge both debris and water, and then drying them on paper towels before storing in paper bags in the refrigerator.
Remember, like all wild fungi, morels should be cooked thoroughly. Morels, in particular, must never be served raw. Raw morels contain toxins that will sicken almost everyone. Thorough cooking rids them of these toxins and makes them perfectly safe for almost everybody. Even then, be aware that some individuals seem to have a bad reaction to morels, although the reaction may be due to a combination of morels and alcoholic beverages. So, consume only small quantities and not over consecutive days until you are comfortable with the fungus.
Preservation. Drying is perhaps the easiest of techniques, but morels can also be successfully canned or frozen. Dry either in a dehydrator or simply strung on line. Imagine: festoons of drying morels decorating my kitchen! Seal the dried morels in a container marked with the date. Freeze for a week to ensure that any insects that escaped the cleaning and drying process have been killed. Then store the container in a cool, dry place for as long as you can resist the temptation to cook with them. Reconstitute by covering the dried morels with warm water and letting them sit about 20 minutes before using in a recipe.
I sometimes think that the true madness of moreling is that there are too few morels and too many exquisite morel recipes. Morels combine ever so nicely with cream in dishes such as this classic and pretty pasta preparation.
Morels in Cream with Pasta, Bresaola and Asparagus
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1-1/2 ounces bresaola, sliced into strips
1/2 ounce dried morels, reconstituted, sliced into thin strips, reconstituting liquid reserved for future use
3 ounces asparagus heads
1/2 cup heavy cream
8 ounces farfalle (bow tie) pasta
parmigiano reggiano cheese, freshly grated
- Melt 1 tablespoon butter in saucepan. Add bresaola and stir gently until hot, about 1 minute. Add morels and cook 1 more minute. Add remaining butter, asparagus and cream. Simmer 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cook pasta. Drain.
- Gently fold sauce into pasta. Top with the freshly grated cheese and serve to 2 diners along with salads of wild greens.
Another sure-fire antidote for morel madness is forest ranger and mycologist Terry Sroufe’s delectable preparation:
Chicken Stuffed Morels
4 chicken thighs, skin intact
gelatin from cooked chicken
1 cup chopped small morels
2 shallots, chopped
1/3 cup chopped celery
1 cup bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 leaf fresh sage, chopped
10 green peppercorns, smashed
1 cup chicken broth, or as needed to make stuffing right consistency
Enough large morels to fill a cast iron skillet or “LeCreuset” pan
1/2 cup butter, as needed
- Arrange thighs, skin side up, on a rack in a roasting pan. Bake uncovered in a 400 degree oven for 45 minutes, or until meat near thigh bone is no longer pink when cut. Place pan in refrigerator until fat has solidified. Remove fat from gelatin and discard. Save gelatin. Remove skin from thighs. Debone meat and chop into small chunks, about 1/4 inch.
- Combine chopped morels, shallots, celery, eggs, bread cubes, parsley, sage, green peppercorns, chicken broth and reserved gelatin. Add chopped chicken and mix to stuffing consistency.
- Stuff large morels with this mixture, cutting cap lengthwise as necessary to insert stuffing. Hold together with toothpicks.
- Melt butter in cast iron pan. Add morels and bake in 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. Turn morels over and cook an additional 15 minutes, or until nicely browned, adding more butter if necessary. Serves 4.
The San Francisco Mycological Society offers this tried and true morel recipe which they claim will serve 10 as an appetizer. Evidently, they don’t know how deep the madness runs!
Morels and Buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard
pinch ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 cup flour
20-25 large morels, halved lengthwise
1/2 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
Combine the salt, pepper, paprika, sugar, mustard, turmeric, garlic powder, and onion powder with flour.
Dip the morels in the buttermilk and roll in the flour mixture.
- Melt the butter with the oil in a sauté pan or skillet and sauté the morels until crisp and brown on all sides.
Blond morel, courtesy of Sue Dawson.
Oh, by the way, I’m happy to share these ruminations on and recipes for morels, but, please don’t even consider asking me where I gather them, although I will say that it wasn't here in Curry County.
Frankly, you should know that the ultimate madness is to reveal the location of one's morel patches.