A Simple Springtime delight
Allow me to begin with an admission; I do love grand cuisine at fine restaurants as well as certain dishes that require long cooking times and tending. Dishes such as braised meats, stew, certain sauces, and stocks as well as Creole etouffees and yes, Texas Chili all comes to mind. Now having acknowledged that fact let me share one of the great joys we anticipate on our property every spring. In early April each year we begin to scout out the forest floor under a stand of Tulip Poplars for the elusive (and delicious) Morchella esculenta.
Commonly known as the Morel mushrooms, they are also known locally as “dry land fish” and can occur throughout North America. The old-timers were well aware of them and prepared them usually by rolling them in cornmeal and frying them in hot fat. The black morels, Morchella elata seem to be the most available, although we are blessed to be able to find the yellow or white morel, sometimes called the “Honeycomb Morel.” These little gems can grow to be much larger than black morels and are astoundingly succulent.
They can be cooked a la crème, in sauces, flans, ragouts, omelets and as garnishes in a good many European classics. Available dried or canned, it is in their freshest state, prepared simply that we enjoy them the most. We prize this springtime ritual so much, that although choice fresh morels can fetch around $25 a pound we would not even think of parting with them except to be shared with really special friends.
Some years produce a generous morel harvest while others do not- it all depends on the amount of rain, when it rains, early spring temperatures and probably other subtle conditions of which I’m not even aware. I can however, report on how much fun it is to hunt for them and how very delicious they can be. Last year’s harvest was a bit scarce but this year (’08) is a good season.
I have mentioned our “mushroom patch” to Doug Slocum, founder of Avanti Savoia and someone that qualifies for “really good friend” status. Doug has eaten black morels before and had not been all that impressed. So, I was excited to share some nice specimens with him when they first appeared this spring. I explained the cleaning process and suggested that he grill his mushrooms much like a piece of meat.
Doug appeared the next day smiling and excited. “The mushrooms were delicious and incredibly easy to prepare, they tasted like steak and were the best damn mushrooms that I’ve ever eaten,” he said. This is just what I had hoped to hear from someone with such a developed palate.
Now, we must insert a word of caution before we share a few easy recipes. I have been hunting selected wild mushrooms for over 35 years. I have received instruction from botany teachers from two different universities and field experience with a number of knowledgeable amateurs. I particularly remember the opening words from a retired University of Washington Professor. “Hunting wild mushrooms is a one hundred percent activity. You must be 100% sure of identification, a 99% guess can kill you,” he solemnly warned. Take this to heart! You must be very sure of your harvest! Do not attempt to identify wild mushrooms from a guide book. “Hands on” training is required. That having been said, here are some ideas for preparing fresh morels.
Cut off the “foot” of the mushroom just above the dirt line. Slice the mushroom lengthwise, lightly rinse and soak them in a solution of salt water for about 1 hour. This should remove any bits of sand or soil and dislodge any little critters. Make sure that after removing from the salt water that the morels are well dried before cooking.
This is as easy as it gets and fabulous with a nice steak. Again, carefully dry the split morels and brush with one of Avanti Savoia’s extra virgin olive oils that have been seasoned with a little minced garlic, salt and pepper. Of course you can jazz it up with herbs, lemon juice, etc., etc., but do not cover up the marvelous fresh mushroom flavor.
Place the seasoned morels over hot coals and cook until they are just lightly marked. Do not overcook these babies and eat ‘em while their hot!
Beer Batter Fried:
Here is a basic recipe for Misto Fritto, classic Italian mixed fried vegetables. It also works great with any kind of mushroom. Also, if you are lucky enough to have fresh squash or pumpkin blossoms from a summer garden, this is the way to cook them.
Ingredients for batter:
4 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup beer
2 cups all-purpose flour
About 3 cups oil* #19999 Avanti Savoia All-Purpose Cooking Oil for frying
Sel de Mer* #35021 (fine sea salt) to taste
1. In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and beer.
2. Place the flour in a large bowl right next to the eggs/beer.
3. Heat the oil in a large frying pan until very hot.
4. Flour the morel pieces, shake off any excess, and dip into the egg mixture.
5. Shake off excess egg and begin frying a few at a time turning as needed to lightly brown. Remove with a pair of tongs or a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all of the mushrooms are cooked. Sprinkle with the salt and enjoy.
Sautéed Morel Sandwiches:
Clean morels as for other recipes. Sauté in hot oil or butter, turning until tender. Place on a paper towel to drain and make a sandwich using toasted whole wheat bread, mustard flavored mayonnaise, fried bacon, and slices of fresh tomato. Think of it as a BTM- Bacon, Tomato and Morel sandwich. The old BLT will never be the same!
NOTE: We usually serve morels with beer or a dry Riesling and have never experience a problem. Some mushroom guides do however warn of upset stomachs when morels are served with alcohol.
Chef Joseph Lowery is the Chef Consultant at Avanti Savoia. He has worked as a chef, author, and cooking instructor since 1971.