Sunday, April 26, 2015

Wild Foods Waiting in the Woods

It’s morel time! Yes, the late April turkey season means it’s also time to heat up the cast iron skillet for these wild fungi my husband brings home from his turkey hunts.

 When my spouse first introduced me to these alien-looking treats, I wasn’t sure I should put something that ugly on the table. Of course, there was also the issue of worrying about poisonous mushrooms. He assured me he’d found and eaten morels since he was a little boy so I  needn’t  worry about dying an early death from consuming these. After I fried that first batch and helped devour them, I realized he knew good wild food when he saw it. These edibles capture the essence of spring—fresh, earthy, and rich.

Lovers of these seasonal treats get antsy when the temperatures rise and rain falls. Both are necessary for a decent harvest of an object that looks like a cup-shaped sponge on a stem. Recent dry years have frustrated even the best mushroom hunters.

My fungi finder has the greatest success when he returns to spots where he’s found treasure in the past. They are fungi so they reproduce from spores that spread when something, be it human, beast, or wind, moves the host. The act of picking them releases these reproductive parts so they do grow back in the same places under favorable conditions.

Finding these delectables is an iffy proposition that depends on perfect weather conditions as well as whether or not some other hunter—homo sapien or critter—gets to the patch first. To propagate spores for next year’s harvest, many ‘shroomers carry a net bag to store their finds so the microscopic organisms spread as the hunter carries the bag through the woods. This technique also prevents their finds from getting mushy.

Once those goodies are home, the cook needs to shake and brush off as much dirt and as many of the tiny insects that occupy those crevices as possible. No matter how small, each morel is its own universe and resulting home to a vast and varied population of tiny critters. Once they’re clean, it’s time to slice, halve, or dice. Avoid soaking or freezing morels. These actions may destroy every bug, but they leads to mushy mushroom syndrome.  Folks who harvest more than a mess, clean and dry them for later use.

Scores of morel recipes exist. For those who want to savor that taste of pure spring, go simple. Slice or halve them lengthwise, dip in an egg or milk wash, and roll them in either seasoned flour or cracker crumbs. Then fry them in sizzling oil until they’re crispy. Drain and serve the flavor of April and May on a pretty platter. We never have to worry about leftovers at our house when I serve them this way.

If you prefer more creative ways to serve these, I  have a friend who minces her morels, sautés them in real butter, and then encloses them in a cream cheese pastry that she pops in the oven until it’s golden. While I prefer fried, those woodsy popovers melt in my mouth.

Morels may be the ugliest food ever cooked, but they’re worth trying. Folks who invest the time to learn to identify edible mushrooms and the make the effort to find them hidden in wooded areas will harvest a tasty meal or two each spring. In addition, they’ll make good memories.


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