In Virginia and other parts of the U.S., morel hunting is a spring tradition. Here are a few tips on finding and preparing the morel mushroom.
LEFT: A representative example of a morel mushroom. RIGHT: A successful morel hunting haul.
PHOTO: DINNY SLAUGHTER
Because the morel mushroom isn't very attractive to the eye, many wild food enthusiasts are hesitant to try what is actually one of nature's most delectable morsels. Here in the Virginia mountains, though, folks have been morel hunting (the mushroom is a member of the Morchella genus) for generations.
In fact, from about the second week in April until mid-May, Old Dominion foragers eagerly wait for a good soaking rain that's followed by a few warm, sunny days: the sequence of climatic events that forces the tasty fungi to the earth's surface in old orchards, oak forests, and pine woods . . . along stream banks . . . and—occasionally—around old rock piles and in burned-out woods and fields. (My best morel harvests have occurred under very large tulip poplars on a north-facing ridge, when—as the old-timers say—the oak leaves are the size of a mouse's ear.)
There are seven different true morels, and all of them are deliciously edible. You can spot 'em easily, as well . . . because they're the only early spring mushrooms with pitted and ridged caps. Generally, the delectable fungi grow about two to four inches high ... are completely hollow through the caps ... and resemble a sponge shaped like a tree (hence their common name, "sponge mushrooms").
Once you've seen your first specimen peeking through the leafy litter, you'll never forget what they look like. And once you've tasted morels, you'll search them out each year . . . just as I do.
Like most mushrooms, morels seem to appear overnight ... and are short-lived wonders that last only a few days. But one important fact—which can save the experienced hunter a lot of time—is that the one-legged edibles are almost always found in the same areas year after year.
After you arrive back home with your woodland delicacies, you'll have a wide choice of ways to prepare them. Around here, country people sauté their finds in butter, and serve them over toast or with steak and eggs . . . but I prefer to eat the gourmet's delights broiled or grilled with bacon.
To broil morels, you'll first want to cut them in half. (You may sometimes find small beetles in the stems, but the bugs are harmless—if unappetizing—and can be easily washed out.) Next, dip the fungus sections in melted butter, then in flour . . . broil them about two minutes on each side . . . and serve 'em as an hors d'oeuvre or garnish.
To grill them, fry some bacon (about eight slices) until it's transparent, and set it aside to cool. Meanwhile, clean the morels and remove the stems, leaving the caps whole. Then combine two beaten eggs with a pinch of allspice and a dash of salt ... dip the caps in the mix ... and coat 'em liberally with bread crumbs. Finally, alternate the bacon and morels on skewers and grill them over hot coals—turning the "shish kebab" occasionally —until the bacon is browned.
If you should be lucky enough to forage up a real passel of morels, you'll be glad to know the succulent fungi can also be frozen (or dried) for future use. A popular preservation method is simply to slice the morels in half, rinse 'em lightly, drain on a paper towel, then spread the halves on a lightly greased cookie sheet and put the tray in your freezer. After the tiny fellows are frozen solid, shake them into a plastic bag and seal it tightly. Later, when your recipes (or taste buds) call for mushrooms, just take out as many as needed and reseal the. bag. (There's no need to defrost them before preparation, but frozen morels must be used in cooked dishes, as freezing causes the cell structure to collapse so that the moisture is drawn out as they thaw.)
Just remember that these wild mushrooms will make any meal look and taste better. They can add a delightful flavor and texture to your repast, whether served raw or cooked with your favorite meat and vegetables. Morels can also be added to soups or stews with great success, and—since the number of calories contained in the woodland edibles is negligible—you can eat all you want without feeling guilty about your diet.
Perhaps the fungi's most important benefit, however, is that you can't beat morel hunting for a delightful, adventuresome family outing. In the early spring, insects are few . . . the forest floor is uncluttered ... and a couple of hours of foraging in the awakening woods and fields will give youngsters and oldsters alike a greater appreciation of Mother Nature's beauty and bounty.
EDITOR'S NOTE; Although morels are distinctive inappearance, we don't recommend that folks gather any wild foods they're not absolutely familiar with . . . unless the edible is cross-checked in a good field guide or verified by a forager experienced with the species.
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