Morelity: the art of foraging for morels
H. (my boss): You should ask your boss for the day off on Wednesday.
Me: O.k…. Can I have the day off on Wednesday?
Me: Um, why do I need the day off?
H: So we can go mushroom hunting.
Me: Oh. Yay!
Last week, my boss and her partner took me foraging for morels. Apparently, this is a serious pastime in the Midwest, so much so that people will take a day off from work to go, because the woods will be literally crawling with too many mushroom competitors on the weekends. Otherwise open, friendly people turn secretive when the topic of morels arises (as the successful forager knows, morel locations must be jealously guarded). When local people find out I was invited morel hunting, they impress upon me what an honor it is to share someone’s secret spot. Now that I have tasted a fresh morel, I couldn’t agree more.
H. threatened to put a bag over my head so I couldn’t reveal the secret location, but that proved unnecessary. After being snowed in for most of the winter, I still don’t know my way around Iowa very well, and the 40 minute drive outside of town failed to imprint on my brain’s navigational memory. For 6 hours, we fought our way through poison ivy choked undergrowth, dodging thorny gooseberry bushes and the intimidating spikes of locust trees, our eyes cast downward, searching for the distinctive, wrinkly shape of the elusive morel. (I had studied Google images the day before, so I would know what I was looking for.)
False morels. Photo credit: http://inkasnana.zoomshare.com/files/false-morel.jpg
My guides taught me to distinguish a real morel from the mildly poisonous “false morel.” Telling the two apart is actually quite easy, because the false morel has a longer stalk with a wrinkly cap, rather than being all one piece like a true morel.
Morels require a delicate balance of moisture and warmth early in spring in order to “pop,” and this year’s conditions must have been ideal, because we returned home with over 2 lbs of some of the largest morels my companions had ever found. We gathered them in nylon mesh bags, which supposedly allow the spores to blow free and propagate next year’s mushroom crop.
After the hunt, they showed me how to soak the morels in salted water, so the insects that have taken refuge in their wrinkly folds will float out. H. sliced the drained morels in half lengthwise, dredged them in flour, and fried them in a generous amount of butter until the coating was golden brown and crispy. The taste was sheer bliss. I feel sorry for everyone who has never eaten a fresh morel, and sorry for all the years I didn’t know what I was missing. Their flavor is unlike any other mushroom I’ve had — delicately sweet and rich, with just a hint of duskiness. More morels were sauteed with asparagus and scallions and served over angel hair pasta. We solved the happy problem of having too many morels to consume in a single day by threading the remaining mushrooms and hanging them on the porch to dry. They can be kept this way for close to a year, and reconstituted when needed, although their flavor and texture can’t match a fresh morel’s. I’m already looking forward to next year.