I’m not a hunter, but I most definitely have a tendency to gather. I find it strangely satisfying to search for things. I have no qualms about going to four different grocery stores to locate a specific ingredient for a recipe. I love to paw through displays at the flea market, because I might find that one thing I can’t live without for another day. I also enjoy looking for tupperware and ammunition cans in the woods, along with other cleverly camouflaged containers, just for the satisfaction of knowing I can find them. But there is only one time each year when I begin to get the itch to search for sustenance in the forest: morel mushroom season.
Morel season is short – it only last three weeks or so. The season also begins at different times depending on where you’re located; the further south you are, the earlier it begins. In Iowa, morels usually start to pop up in late April or early May. They are quite tasty, and as of yet, no one has been able to devise a method to cultivate them, so they are only found growing wild. This fact has driven the desirability of these mushrooms to new heights. Their short growing season coupled with the fact that they must be foraged has led to some high prices for both dried morels and those you find freshly picked at the farmers’ market. But I’m still a frugal girl, and I refuse to pay the high price for morels, when I know I can find them myself for free.
I have been out trekking through the woods quite a bit during the past few weeks, searching for this sometimes elusive mushroom. Unlike the past three seasons, this year I’ve been more than moderately successful at locating these strange looking fungi. And each time I find some it just makes me want to look for more. One night, after a particularly fruitful day of searching the woods, every time I closed my eyes, I saw morels. It reminded me of when I tried to sleep after I first played Tetris many years ago, except instead of seeing colorful Tetris blocks moving into different formations, I was seeing grey and yellow mushrooms appearing from the forest floor. All I could think about was where I would look for them the next day, and how many fantastic ways I would devise to cook them.
If you decide to forage for your own tasty bits out in the forest, make sure you take a field guide with you, preferably one that contains pictures of safe wild edibles. An even better alternative to a field guide would be taking someone with you that has experience identifying wild foods, but I realize that option is not viable for many people. I’ve also found most mushroom hunters to be excessively secretive; almost none are willing to give up information about a location they have found to be productive for fear of it being poached by others. It is almost necessary to resort to a little espionage to find a good location to look for mushrooms, but nothing drastic or illegal. Just pay attention and you’ll start to notice where others are searching on public lands: lakes and state parks are very popular, but I’ve seen people looking in city parks, as well.
There are a few sites here and there that share valuable information about hunting for wild mushrooms, including growing seasons in various areas and what conditions are most favorable for finding these little wonders. The most important thing to remember is to never ever eat anything you forage unless you are absolutely certain you know what it is. There are many plants, berries, and fungus that are poisonous to humans, and ingesting them may cause you to become quite ill. So ill you may wish someone would bash you in the head with a shovel just to distract you. A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend. Be smart. If you have any doubts about the identity of what you have found, throw it out.
Adapted from Food and Wine
Yields about 2 cups
1 lb. fresh morels
1 cup water
3 slices bacon
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 large leek, white and tender green parts only,
halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 scallions or green onions, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Cut off ends of the mushrooms stalks to remove any dirt or moss, then cut mushrooms in half lengthwise. Soak in water overnight or up to three days to remove dirt and insects. Drain mushrooms and rinse.
- In a medium saucepan, cook the bacon over moderate heat until crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels, then crumble and sest aside. Drain off all but 1 teaspoon of the bacon fat.
- Add 1 Tablespoon butter to the saucepan. Add the leek and cook over low heat, stirring often, until softened but not browned, around 8 minutes.
- Add the morels and garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add the cup of water, cover and simmer over low heat until the morels are tender, about 10 minutes
- In a small bowl, blend the flour with the remaining 1 Tablespoon of butter to make a paste. Uncover the saucepan and add the paste, stirring until blended.
- Simmer the ragout over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened, about 4 minutes.
- Stir in 2/3 of the chopped scallions. Season with salt and pepper. Remove pan from heat.
- Serve ragout over grilled steak, sprinkling with remaining scallions and crumbled bacon.