Monday, April 20, 2009

Whoop-Whoop and Woohoo!

Sue provided the title for this post—it’s how she characterizes my Aunt Carole’s exclamations upon finding morel mushrooms. And yes, Sue got to use her Whoop-Whoop hoot yesterday afternoon when she picked me up after my hike at Gans Creek Wild Area. (Why am I telling you where I found these? I must be nuts. Well, it’s a big area, and I just won’t be more specific than that.)

I will write soon about the journey—the hike, the rain, the mud, the flowers, the copperhead, and all the other fun stuff I stumbled upon—but let’s just say I found a nice patch of yellow morels, filled my little bag, and had plenty for our dinner. My total “haul” was 41 mushrooms—all yellow, except for one black or gray one. All the yellow ones from a single, glorious patch. I could have looked for more, but really . . . one nice dinner at a time is enough to suit me. Maybe I’ll find more in the next week or so. Or maybe not.

But tonight I just want to share with you some cooking tips for morels. First, of course, make sure you have actual morels. Once you know what they look like, you won’t mistake them for anything else. To harvest them, use a pocket knife to cut them right at the base of the little trunk.

Step 1 is to trim and debug them. Cut away any bad bits, cut them in half lengthwise (which assists in making sure you’ve properly identified them), rinse and inspect, and put them into a big bowl or bucket of salted water. The saltwater encourages any remaining bugs ’n’ slugs to exit the many nooks and hollows. Rinse with fresh water, drain, and they’re ready to cook.

Idea #1 is the time-honored Missouri way: Fried. Dip them in egg and then in corn meal, and deep-fry them. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and serve immediately. You can’t go wrong with this method; this is the way most people cook them. An alternative would be to use cracker crumbs. My only objection to fried morels is that the breading and frying can obscure the flavor of the mushrooms themselves. But you can’t argue with tradition.

Idea #2 builds on an ancient, awesome equation invented by the earliest human civilizations: Mushrooms + garlic + butter = delicioso magnifico. I cut chicken breasts into bite-sized chunks and sauté in butter supplemented with olive oil until they’re starting to get done. Add minced or crushed garlic and the mushrooms and continue to sauté. (If you want even more of the morel flavor to come through, consider using shallots instead of garlic.) As they cook, the morels will give off a lot of moisture, and you might want to supplement with a bit of white wine; let that cook down and reduce.

The chicken, morels, and their juice go well with roasted potatoes. Also, may I recommend a side of fresh steamed asparagus with, say, a light lemon sauce? It goes well with this meal, being so seasonal, as does a green salad decorated with redbud blossoms and violets from the backyard.

Mmmm. . . . Getting hungry yet? Here’s another one.

Idea #3 is an appetizer. It’s good if you only managed to find a few morels, and you want to do something special to celebrate them. After you’ve halved and cleaned them, carefully steam them until they’re cooked. Then, stuff them with one of the following: A small clove of roasted garlic; a small piece of bacon; a little wad of prosciutto . . . Hmmm. All kinds of lovely things would fit in that little cavity. Greek olives, capers, feta, goat cheese . . . My. Then, reunite the halves and secure with a chive leaf tied in a little knot, or sushi-style with a little ribbon of nori.

Serve drizzled with more melted butter, or concoct a mayonnaise-based dip, or make up a cream sauce of some kind. Oh, joy! In the big city, a small platter of these fresh little babies, properly garnished, would put you back thirty dollars, I’ll bet.

Happy hunting, morel lovers.

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