|The Magical Morel Mushroom|
|Wednesday, 21 May 2008 02:28|
I am on the hunt.
I carefully guide myself through the woods beyond my backyard on this rainy May morning, stepping over the underbrush and dead tree trunks searching for springtime's woodland gem: the morel mushroom.
I poke and search under the twiggy bramble alongside a newly fallen elm, and voilà: three little beauties that have popped up after last night's rain. It's quite a surprise given that I have only been looking for 12 minutes, especially after coming home empty-handed several days earlier.
These morels are approximately four inches tall, with pale stalks topped with caps that have blond inverted ridges with darker, yellowish-brown pits. It's amazing that nature's rubble cultivates such a magnificent culinary treat.
Morels aren't the most attractive variety of produce compared to their cousins, the white-button mushroom that consumers are most used to buying. The morel has a longer and wider stalk with a cone-like cap that looks like a cross between a piece of brain coral and a natural sponge.
Despite their somewhat oceanic appearance, morels are coveted by mushroom hunters and epicureans alike due to their rarity and their complex earthy flavors. Morels are known for their meatier texture and their rich, buttery taste that's accompanied by a smoky, woody essence not found in any other mushroom. These flavors hold up well when paired with poultry or red meat, or prepared as the main component of an entrée.
Our Midwestern location and ample wooded areas make the Quad Cities an ideal place to search for morels. Sunset Park, located at 31st Avenue on the Mississippi River in Rock Island, and Mel McKay Park, located at 92nd Avenue and Upper Ridgewood Road in southwest Rock Island, are both good places for hunting on the Illinois side of the river. In Iowa, Credit Island and Sunderbrunch Park, located at 4500 Telegraph Road in Davenport, both have wooded areas conducive to morels.
Vicki Mall, lead horticulture technician for the Vander Veer Botanical Park Conservatory and an avid mushroom hunter, said that this morel-hunting season will probably end later than in previous years. "The season ends when it gets hot," she said. "As long as the lilacs are still blooming and holding out, they [morels] should still be out there."
Mushrooms, especially morels, need moisture and moderate temperatures to grow. They thrive when temperatures average in the 60s during the day and no cooler than the 40s at night. This year's spring had a slow start, allowing morel-hunting season to go well into May and possibly June. The best time to search for morels is right after it rains, preferably in the morning.
"I know a lot of people who've found them," Malls aid. "I've known people that have come in with a five-gallon bucket full. This is prime time for looking."
When asked for the best places to search for morels, Mall said woods are the best place to begin. "They [yellow morels] prefer elm or apple trees, but I've also found them clear out in the open and in ditches," she said. "They're easiest to find where there's no vegetation, so you can see them."
Milan Pelouch's How to Find Morels - a comprehensive, easy-to-follow guidebook - categorizes the morels found in this region into five main species: blacks (Morchella angusticeps and Morchella conica), which appear more dark brown in color; half-free (Morchella semilibera), also appearing as a dark brown; gray (Morchella deliciosa); and yellow (Morchella esculenta).
Black morels thrive on maple and beech trees. Gray and yellow morels form symbiotic relationships with live ash trees and dying elm trees, and are sometimes near apple trees. So searching for the tree first is one way to find the prize.
But morels don't always follow these rules and can pop up wherever. "I knew someone who found one that popped up through the pavement in a parking lot," Mall said.
It's important to research any mushroom before hunting, especially because there are several varieties of poisonous "false morels." According to (http://www.mushroomexpert.com), true morels are hollow, and their caps do not extend over the stem - with the exception of black morels, which may have a small rim, and half-free morels, which have an overall shorter cap and a larger rim. All morels have coral-like ridges.
"I would recommend to people that they have a book to make sure what they have," Mall said. "Watching out for poison ivy and ticks is important, too."
Morels should be cut from their base with a knife; mushrooms are fungi, and tearing the mycelium "root system" out of the ground can prevent future growth. Carrying harvested morels in a mesh bag also helps spread spores when walking around the forest, again assuring future morels.
Be sure to hunt on public land, or ask permission from a neighbor or a friend who has a wooded area. Offering to share the spoils of the mushroom hunt will encourage owners to allow people on their land.
Chicken with Sautéed Morels in Cream Sauce
(Submitted by Janelle Greenwood.)
Makes 4 Servings
4 chicken breasts
2 tablespoons olive oil
15 to 20 medium fresh morels or 10 to 15 large fresh morels
3 tablespoons butter
1 large garlic clove minced
1 large shallot minced
1 cup chicken broth
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Clean morels with water, pat them dry with paper towels, and slice them in half lengthwise. Melt butter in heated skillet on medium heat. Add garlic, shallots, thyme, and morels to skillet and sauté until the mushrooms are tender (about 5 minutes). Stir in chicken broth and cook for 3 minutes. Add heavy cream and cook on low heat until slightly reduced and thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste and set on low heat.
Slice chicken into 4 or 5 strips
per breast piece. Place olive oil in another skillet and bring temperature
to a medium-high heat. Add chicken pieces to skillet and sauté until
pink is gone and the pieces are a light golden brown.
Plate sliced chicken breasts
and pour the cream sauce over it, thoroughly covering the chicken. This
dish also works well over fettuccini. Vegetarians can replace chicken
broth in the sauce with vegetable broth and use the sauce over fettuccini.
(Submitted by Diane Greenwood.)
Makes 5 Servings
10 medium to large morels
3 tablespoons butter
¾ cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
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