A Good Year For Morels
It’s been a good year for morels… they are even reported to be growing in people’s front yard or back yard or back door. Not mine though. Keith has to go hunt them in the woods. It’s such a good year in fact that our world famous restaurant The Inn at Little Washington is selling them at the Inn Shops. It is said that many morel hunters will show up at the Inn’s back door to sell their catch… it must be very many with lots of bags then…
But after a dry winter, we’ve had rain, lots of rain (some with flooding), extremely mild spring temperatures – we’ve only hit 85F (yesterday) and it’s cooling off again. Some years we have high temperatures much earlier in April. I think morels like a mild spring with some cool nights (but not frosty). In other words… they like my kind of spring weather.
It’s actually funny seeing all the pictures of triumphant morel hunters or morel dinners posted on Facebook or in the local paper by individuals and restaurants alike (me included!). Morel hunting is arguably a lot more accessible than turkey or deer hunting. No gore. No gun. No investment… just time and a good set of walking legs. And sometimes not even the latter two, just dumb luck… especially in a year like this. And since it’s really hard to confuse a morel with a poisonous mushroom, there is none of the anxiety so often associated with picking up wild mushrooms (at least anxiety for the beginner). Even the closest look alikes – the so-called False Morels- don’t really look like morels. Gyromitra esculenta looks like a brain, all ridges and sinews, no honeycomb-like cap. Verpa bohemica – a fairly closed cousin of morels – is distinguished by how its cap attaches to the stem (the foot runs all the way to the very summit of the cap) and – unlike the true morel – it is not hollow!
So there is a collective sight of gastric plenitude hanging in many Rappahannock County dining rooms this month – lots of happy taste buds and a slight smugness. Because morels are seriously good.
I am partial to the white (yellow) morels (picture below), which I find “meatier” with a firmer texture than the black morel (top picture). The longneck morel, as its name indicate, is all neck (foot) and not much cap. You’d be a fool not to collect it of course. Actually you’d be a fool not to collect ANY morel you see. We learned that several years ago, not picking up a lonely morel in early April on one of our hikes (the first morel we ever saw in the wild), thinking we would collect it on the way back. It wasn’t there anymore. At least, we could not see it. Keith tells me you do have to get your mushroom eyes when you go look for them. It’s true. You could just stare at a spot and all you see is dead leaves. And suddenly there are morels. Your vision has to shift before you can see them. Or maybe your attitude has to shift.
For some it’s the first time ever they have found a morel this year, others routinely walk home with… gulp … several gallons collected from their “secret” spots. Keith is not bringing home as many as that, but we have had several copious meals.
Even in years like this, one hears of trespassers intent of collecting the little treasures in someone’s orchard, woods or clearing. And “treasure” might be the right term indeed since prime specimens can fetch $30 or more a pound.
I like my morels cooked simply and served – or cooked – with other simple foods: eggs, asparagus, fresh salad greens, fresh cream, herbs (well… one herb, chives or parsley for example).
Generally I just brush them clean with a pastry brush. However, if they are very dirty (as happens if they are growing on a bare patch of earth and it’s been raining hard) I will reluctantly dunk them in a big bowl of water, a handful at a time, and switch them rapidly around to loosen the grit. Then I’ll gently dry them on a cotton cloth. Washing morels is far from ideal but it beats gritty mushrooms on the plate or in your teeth.
Unless they are very small and very clean, I halve them so that I can check that no creature is hiding inside the morel. No hitchhiker protein for me, please.
I heat up a cast-iron skillet until very hot – no other pan will do, they just don’t heat up enough. I then add a generous amount of olive oil and a big dollop of unsalted butter. When the butter foams I add the mushrooms, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. I don’t want to crowd them, or they will stew in their own juice. I sauté them until they start to change color, slightly crisping, after releasing their liquid and shrinking, occasionally stirring. I remove them to a bowl, and fry the next batch.
When all the mushroom are cooked, I add them all back to the pan (with more butter if needed) on a more gentle heat and add my seasoning: salt, pepper, whatever herb I am using – parsley or parcel or chives. Sometime I serve them this way, sometimes I add some heavy cream and stew them gently for a few minutes before adding the herbs.
I love creamy morels over rice, the glutinous grains absorbing the sauce just so. A good baguette will do too…but rice is better.
Really, who needs escargots when one can have morels?