a test kitchen dossier
I confess, that nothing frightens me more than the appearance of mushrooms on the table, especially in a small provincial town.
– Alexandre Dumas, early 19th Century
Foodstuff: Morel mushrooms
Scientific Name: Morchella esculenta
Etymology: Uncertain, but possibly from the French morille, the Dutch morilje, or due to the latin Morus
for mulberry tree, given the mushroom’s appearance
Morels are quite a subject of frenzy for passionate foragers. Groups of gourmands are dedicated to the hunting and gathering of these delectable treats, available in various parts of the world following the temperate rainy seasons. The wrinkly texture and hollow centers of morels are a delight to the tongue, particularly when filled with cream sauces, and these little brainy-looking bundles of joy impart a nutty flavor when cooked, often reminiscent of hazelnuts. It is important to note that they are toxic when raw, so don’t sample before cooking!
Morels are found in various wooded places, mostly throughout North America and Europe, but as they are unpredictable and somewhat elusive (they must have chatted with the truffles), there is indeed a hunt involved in getting them to the table for feasting.
Dedicated mycophagists (people who eat mushrooms) head out in packs for spore sightings, and there is even a National Morel Mushroom Hunters Association in the U.S. to coordinate the effort. Though such hunters are always in search of the ultimate morel mother lode, if one is lucky enough to find a dozen, one has discovered a bounty. Such scarcity has led to a high price in the marketplace, but thankfully they are nowhere near the price of truffles.
Important note: There are “false morels” to be found in the woods, some of which are highly toxic, so we suggest that unless you plan to go with an experienced forager to hunt these, please purchase them from a reputable grocer. You can also buy them dried if they are out of season. Lest we have not yet included enough legal disclaimers, there will be at least one more in this dossier.
Our new friends at The Great Morel provided us with a host of links for exploration, which would be enough to cover pages and pages of information, so we invite you to explore for yourselves, and we’ll post the basic facts here for our own cooking purposes.
Types of Morels
Spring usually marks the debut of morels, and in North America, the black variety is typically found in coniferous woods during the months of April and May. The mushrooms also tend to grow in areas where woods have burned, and as some overzealous morel lovers began to take matters into their own hands, the burning of woods to prompt morel growth was banned as a practice.
Yellow morels come into season in North America from March to May (and sometimes as late as August) on the west coast, and late April to early June on the rest of the continent. They are sometimes referred to as Honeycomb, White or Thick-footed morels, and can grow up to 12 inches in height and 6 inches in diameter (now that’s a feast!).
Cooking with Morels
Again, as many varieties of wild mushrooms are toxic when eaten raw, please do not add a tossed morel salad to your dinner menu. Besides, when cooked in a bit of butter or other fat their flavor profile comes to life with a nutty, sublime flavor. If you purchase them dried, you’ll need to reconstitute them in warm water or broth to rehydrate them.
Here’s the kicker: You must soak fresh morels in water before cooking them (either for an hour or so on the countertop or overnight in the refrigerator), as there are sometimes “friends” that like to climb inside their hollow insides for a bit of rest. We would hate for you to add any unnecessary protein to your diet, so please be sure to take care before cooking and serving them. We realize the resulting mental imagery is not exactly appetizing, but such is the nature of things from the wild.
Butter and cream. End of story.
We love letting morels bask in their own natural (cooked!) glory, so we have paired them with cream sauces, stuffed them, and generally slathered them in whatever tasty, buttery sauce combinations we could think of.
Sautéed Duck Breast with Green Peppercorn and Morel Cream Sauce
Morilles à la Crème (Morels in Cream Sauce)
Roasted Prawns with Morels in Red Curry Butter
Farfalle with Spring Peas in a Morel and Pernod Cream Sauce