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Mad about morels? Head for the woods!

By Jeannie McDermottSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2002



ROELAND PARK, KAN.

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.

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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.

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.

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