Mad about morels? Head for the woods!

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Nothing makes anyone more tight-lipped than knowing a good spot for morel hunting. Ask friends where they found their morels, and you're sure to get an evasive answer.

Morels are a spongy mushroom shaped a bit like a pine cone. Found in the spring through early summer over much of the United States, they are considered a delicacy and are sought after by down-home country cooks and prized by top chefs.

My introduction to the morel came when I was a young child growing up on a farm in Illinois. My family was never highly successful at finding the elusive mushrooms. We usually managed to find a small mess (as the locals say), but our harvest never compared with the full gunnysacks that neighbors would gather.

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The only time we had our fill of morels was the spring after we had three dead elm trees cut down. We were in mushroom heaven – our front yard was filled with morels that popped up around the fallen trees.

My enthusiasm for morels has never waned. I usually live near woods. One year while in graduate school, I had a particularly bountiful harvest. My roommate suggested I barter with a top New York restaurant for plane fare to the city to sell them. Unfortunately, the French chefs I spoke to couldn't be convinced that morels grow in the US.

When I married, my husband became enamored of morel hunting as well. He quickly learned the location of public lands where the morel might flourish. When the time is right, we head out with my morel key ring, a life-size replica, which also serves to refresh the image for novices, and bags tucked in our pockets.

Since the beginning of the morel season can vary as much as three weeks, I look for markers in nature to determine exactly when to go. When our dogwood tree begins to come into bloom, we head 50 miles south to a wildlife area and state park where we have had successful harvests. When the dogwood is in full bloom, we hunt for morels nearby. When the blossoms start to turn brown, we travel 80 miles north.

Weather also matters. Experts agree that a good rain shower followed by temperatures in the 70s are needed to make morels pop out of the ground.

The size of morels can vary tremendously. Newly emerged morels will be an inch or so tall. With wet, warm conditions they can grow to eight inches tall, and reliable sources say they've seen them shoot up to 12 inches.

There are many theories about where to find morels. Moist woodlands (particularly south-facing slopes) and river bottoms are the most promising locations. But we have found them in tall grassy areas, so I don't stick to any rules too rigidly. My brother-in-law once found a slew of morels growing halfway submerged in water on the flood plain of the Illinois River.

It's crucial to sharpen your eyes to nature's detail, since the morel has perfected the art of camouflage. One can stare right at a morel and not see it. Fortunately, where there's one, you'll often find more.

While I have never come near finding a gunnysack of morels, my husband and I often find what can be termed as a good-size mess. However, if the hunt produces only two morels, we still celebrate the occasion.

First, we soak the morels for 15 minutes in salted cold water. Usually a large spider and a number of little insects will parade out. If, after this soaking, there are still a few bugs adhering to the morels, we rinse them again.

To intensify the morel's flavor, I follow Margaret Leibenstein's advice. (She is the author of "The Edible Mushroom.") Place morels, cut in half or in quarters, in a heavy saucepan and sprinkle with a little water. Cover the pan tightly and sweat morels over moderate heat for approximately 10 minutes. Drain mushroom liquid and save for adding to sauce. Butter or olive oil can then be added to morels for sautéing.

If our harvest is tiny, we carefully sauté the morels in olive oil and serve them on thin slices of toasted baguette. For larger harvests, we make a sauce for pasta or chicken. I prefer simple preparations with only a hint of herbs (or none at all), so the morel's earthy flavor is not drowned out.

Their nutty, seductive flavor makes them an excellent addition to a special sauce. Fried in an egg batter to crusty perfection – as country cooks do – they are the most tasty morsels one can bite into.

After a day in the woods and an evening of hearty eating and mushroom talk, we go to bed with visions of morels.

Fettuccine With Morel Mushrooms and Sage Cream

At about $20 to $25 per pound, wild morels are quite pricey. To keep costs down, you might wish to use a combination of morels and white-button mushrooms in this sauce.

In a pinch, dried morels could be substituted, but their flavor is much less intense, so most morel enthusiasts don't recommend them.

4 cups water

1/2 pound fresh morel mushrooms

1 pound fettuccine

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup shallots, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 cup whipping cream

4 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fresh Parmesan cheese, grated (optional)

Bring water to boil in small heavy saucepan; add mushrooms. Remove pan from heat. Let stand until mushrooms soften, about 15 minutes. Drain mushrooms, reserving soaking liquid.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm. Drain pasta.

Heat oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and sauté for about 5 minutes. Pour in mushroom liquid, leaving any sediment behind. Add mushrooms, cream, and sage. Simmer until sauce thickens slightly, about 7 minutes. Add pasta and toss to coat with sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to plates, sprinkle with fresh Parmesan, if you wish, and serve.

Serves 4.

Hints for the hunt

Morels are distinctive, but an inexperienced hunter could be confused by the false morel that is sometimes poisonous. A true morel is hollow, with pits and ridges. False morels have a spiraling texture of lobes, flaps, or wrinkles. The bottom edge of the false morel's cap extends free around the stem like a skirt. On the true morel, the bottom edge is attached to the stem. Morels must be cooked before eating. Raw morels can be toxic.

For your first "moreling" adventure, hunt with an experienced person. Sometimes trips are offered by local park districts, universities, or state conservation departments. To find mushroom enthusiasts in your area, check out club listings on the North American Mycological Association website (www. namyco.org). For further information on morels in your locality, contact your state conservation department.

Check with state or federal authorities before heading out to public land. Some parks and wildlife areas restrict collecting.

Wear long pants, long sleeves, and a hat to protect against ticks and brambles. Sturdy walking shoes are also necessary.

When picking a morel, pinch it off at the base of the stem. Do not pull it out of the ground; you could disturb the mycelium that guarantees growth of morels in subsequent years.

Collect morels in a mesh bag, so spores can drop out as you walk. Speculation is that the morel may be declining because use of paper or plastic bags has not allowed this "reseeding."

Don't put any fungus you are uncertain of in your bag with other morels. If you want to have an unknown mushroom identified by an authority, pick it with a paper towel and keep it separate from morels.

Morels deteriorate rapidly if not stored in a cool, dry place after being picked. Do not put them in your car trunk. Carry a small cooler with ice if you are going to leave your harvested morels in the car.

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