Friday, April 17, 2009

Morel Dilemma

It’s a little early to be writing about morels, but their anticipation is no small part of their pleasure. And, it’s perhaps disingenuous to imply there is any dilemma other than will I or won’t I pay the high price they command (and I already know that I will). I could of course, go out and hunt for them myself just like I could go to France to find truffles for free. Unlikely.

I discovered this delicacy when my family moved to central Indiana. Our neighbors invited us to go with them mushroom hunting. Obviously my parents at first reacted with horror, envisioning a slow and painful death for all us and questioned the sanity of our newly made friends. After much reassurance and some ridicule we were initiated into this annual ritual.

The popular way to prepare morels in Indiana like in much of the Midwest is dip them in an egg wash, roll them in crushed crackers and pan fry until golden brown. Prepared this way they are usually eaten as an appetizer or a main dish. For breakfast, light beaten eggs are sometime added, and scrambled with the mushrooms.

Morels are very popular in France and used both in their fresh and dried state. They classically appear in sauces and soups made with cream and egg dishes. The English prize all wild mushrooms and none more than the morel, the first mushroom of the season.

Springtime in Wisconsin and warm days in May send shroomers scurrying. Just as with deer hunting in the fall, the season for morel gathering is short but nonetheless anticipated by devotes. If you have ever foraged for them or savored their grandeur, then perhaps you will appreciate why they cost so much.

Morels and wild mushrooms in general are much more popular in Europe where they are collected, commercially sold and universally consumed. As we all know by now, eating just any old fungus that pops up out of the ground can be dangerous if not deadly. Hence, many people are afraid to consume any wild mushroom. The morel has a distinctive appearance that makes it easy to identify and tastes so good that many of us are willing to throw caution to the wind.

There are three American morel species: Morchella semilibera or the half-free morel, Morchella elata or the black morel and Morchella esculenta the yellow or white morel. The black and yellow morels are the most popular and their names are misleading since they can range in color from light gray to dark gray; from light tan to dark brown. The shape of the cap can also vary from tall and slender to short and squat but should always be honeycombed and pitted.

If want to try your hand at mushroom hunting and are a novice, go with an experienced hunter who can show you what a good morel looks like. Be forewarned: Shroomers like to keep their prime harvesting grounds closely guarded secrets. Morels can grow singularly or in patches. A particular spot can be bountiful for many years and then mysteriously grow fallow. Most mushroom hunters have theories about where you will and won’t find morels and are more than eager to share their S.W.A.T.S. (Scientific Wild Ass Theories).

In fact, morels are found in a variety of habitats in almost every state in the country. Most often, they grow in moist, sandy-soil especially around dying or dead elm trees and in old fruit orchards. They usually appear in May after the first spring flowers—the flowering of trillium is supposedly a harbinger of the morel. The total growing season lasts two to three weeks, though occasionally when weather conditions are perfect, morels reappear in the fall.

Whether you decide to forage for yourself or fork out big bucks, here are some suggestions to help you enjoy your stash. If you’ve never eaten morels or wild mushrooms before, eat a small amount and wait 24 hours before eating more. Some people are allergic to all mushrooms, even cultivated mushrooms. Never eat morels raw as they are hard to digest and don’t taste good. Store unwashed morels in a paper bag in the refrigerator. For longer keeping, mushroom can be frozen but need to be cooked first. They can also be dried—most successfully using an electric dehydrator. Dried morels need to be reconstituted in liquid for about 10 minutes, drained and pressed dry before using.

Obviously, morels needed to be cleaned before cooking but there are two schools of thoughts on the best way to do this. Begin my brushing off any loose surface dirt clinging to the stems. Slit the mushroom in half from top to bottom (it is hollow inside). For some, thoroughly rinsing under cold running water is sufficient. Others prefer to soak the mushrooms in a salt water bath—the salt kills any insects that might reside in the surface cavities. Don’t use too much salt since it will affect the delicate flavor of the mushrooms. Once they are washed, they need to be drained on paper toweling before cooking.
For me the coming of spring always meant asparagus, strawberries and morels. Thanks to modern horticulture and transportation asparagus and strawberries are now available year round. Attempts to commercially cultivate morels so far haven’t been very successful. That definitely makes them and spring a little more special.

Here are my Best of Madison where to find morels (S.W.A.T.S. not included).

Several restaurants regularly feature dishes with morel mushrooms and they include Harvest, L’Etoile and La Chardonay.

Fresh morels are available at the Dane County Farmers’ Market (which begins April 18) and many local farmers’ markets, as well as Whole Foods, Willy Street Co-op and Jenifer Street Market in season. Dried morels are sold at many larger groceries and specialty markets.

Muscoda holds its Annual Morel Festival this year on May 16 - 17.

The Meister Cheese Company in Muscoda makes Great Midwest Wild Morel & Leek Jack which is sold at several stores locally or may be ordered online from the factory.

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