Getting all hobbit-like: morel season in the midwest

April 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

So, I’ve lived in Ohio (off and on) for over fifteen years now – I’ve frolicked in the rolling green hills and the valleys, and even in the no-man’s land of old spoil-banks, left over from the travesty of strip mining – bathed in questionably algae-ridden ponds – galloped horses o’er the fields, into the sunset, etc etc etc – but oddly, until last year, I was unaware of the great excitement that commences – in a secretive, furtive sort of way – around mid-April, and lasts through mid-May. It was last spring when we stopped at the gas station for some Killians, and noticed that everyone looked unusually jolly, that we realized Something was Up. People were friendly. Women were laughing and flirting with red-faced beery men who taunted each other from the cabs of their pick-ups, holding up bags and buckets…I peered closer to see that they were filled with giant spongy conical alien-looking things: morels.

Now, no self-respecting gourmand would go about not knowing about morels. I’d bought them in stores, usually dried – for a pretty penny, of course. I’d created several recipes with them. I figured they were something exotic, French. I had no idea that when I moved back to Ohio I was in for such a treat. But it is so. Every spring, when the days warm to about sixty, and the night temperatures go above 40 – when the apple trees are in bloom – when the may-apples are abundant – right after a good, warm rain – the locals sneak out in their passionate, silent, quest for morels. If you’ve read the Lord of the Rings (and I hope you have) you will see immediately how this strange earthy-yet-unearthly delicacy, the morel, somehow manages to transform a depressed blue-collar community, a mine-ravaged welfare county, into a happy green country-side filled with hobbits, with their “passion for mushrooms.”

Don’t ask the hobbits where they find the mushrooms, though. If you’re lucky, they might offer to trade a bucket-full for one of your kids (this is true!).  If you’re not lucky, they might take to whacking you on your head for your insolence.

I was determined to join in the quest. I read recently that the type of person who likes mushrooming is one who is not only not averse to, but secretly delights in trespassing, and who is obsessed with the notion of getting “something for nothing.” That would be me. I used to hunt for button mushrooms in the pastures in October – strange how no one ever told me of the much more exciting hunt waiting for me in April!

I was hugely, uncomfortably pregnant at the time, though, and my pregnancy rendered me stupid: that, I believe, is why I found none last year, in spite of all my trespassing. This year I got smart. I researched the growing habits of the morel, looking at pictures where messes had been found. I started marking out likely locations in public areas, so I wouldn’t have to trespass (much as I do love sneaking in any place that says “do not enter” – I’m trying to be practical here!).

We had an insanely dry April, so my forays were fruitless for several weeks – until a few days ago, when I decided to take the kids out on a quick march through a fairly uninteresting state park. Dominic and I carry walking sticks – to help us cross creeks, and to whack at any giant pythons or bears that should happen to give us trouble. Avila rides in the Ergo on my back, and sings herself to sleep. We were munching on wild onions and striding along when suddenly I got a notion to leave the path…and look down….and there, right in front of me, I saw these:

Sorry I didn’t get a photo of them in the wild – they looked so cool! – but I was trying to travel light, sans camera. Anyway, check out how huge these are! I sauteed them with this asparagus, and my were they tasty.

And I was inspired. So today, we went out again, to a place I’d already scouted out a few times.  And there we found these:

They aren’t as huge as my first pair – but they were all clean, fresh, beautiful. Dominic had a great time finding them, too – every time we thought we’d found them all, one of us would spot another. It was like an Easter egg hunt.

I took a few of the biggest, cleanest, and most perfect, slit them down the middle, stuffed them with a slice of swiss cheese, and then rolled them in some olive oil and garlic – then put them on the grill (incidentally, if you like grilling, you MUST use hardwood charcoal, not the usual briquets. The difference in flavor is amazing!). So good, so very, very good. And easy, too.

I feel like this is going to become a sacred family tradition.

If you are now thinking: hmm, I live in the midwest, maybe I can find some of these decadent woodland delights? – well, here are a few pointers:

1) Watch and wait. When the mayapples are fully grown (google mayapple if you don’t know what they look like) but not yet in bloom – when the apple trees are flowering – when the night temperatures are in the forties – it’s time!

2) Look for places that are damp, low-lying, with a lot of cover, and a lot of rotten wood lying about.

3) Morels are typically found near dead or dying apple, elm, sycamore, or ash trees. But they are mysterious little things so might be found near none of these.

4) Areas that are mossy, or with ferns or mayapples, near water, are typically good places to look.

5) Wait until after a good rain. IN fact, go hunting in the rain: you’ll be less likely to run into hostile fellow-foragers.

6) Do not confuse the morel with the “false morel” – not that you would. Google “false morel” and you will see that only a real ninny would want to eat such a thing: looks nothing like the true morel.

7) Forage with a long stick, for poking clumps of leaves.

8) Carry a net or string bag: this makes a HUGE difference, because all the bits of dirt will fall out through the cracks, as you walk home – so you may not even need to wash your find (many cooks advise sternly against washing morels at all, but some are just…dirty). Also, the spores will drift out, so you may end up spreading the wealth.

9) Carry a knife so you can cut off the dirt-ball at the bottom, and any slimy bits, right there in the woods. That means the dirt won’t get all over the others in the bag – AND, of course, you’re spreading the wealth some more.

10) They should be kept very slightly moist and cool in the fridge, when you get home – but not wet. Wetness messes with the flavor. IF you absolutely must wash the, let them drip in a colander afterwards, and then let them air-dry on a towel.

11) There may be bugs. Big deal. Flick them off. If some morels are both dirty and buggy, you can put them in salt water for a few minutes: all the bugs will abandon ship in no time.  For something this good, it’s worth your while to brave a few representatives of the insect kingdom.

12) DON’T TELL ANYONE where you found them. Just post smug pictures on Facebook.

13) And then deep-fry them, grill them, sautee them, dry them, freeze them…enjoy!

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