It’s a tough year for morels—and morel hunters—in the Pacific Northwest. My guess is that there isn’t a person on the planet who knows why. We had good snowpack this winter, the wettest March on record, average moisture in April, and some nice warm days in May. Yet the morels remain coy. The ones that are up are very nice indeed: large, heavy-bodied naturals, most of them bug-free. But they’re few and far between. Mostly I’ve been finding singletons like the five-incher below: big, beautiful, white-stemmed, cold to the touch, wormless—and lacking friends. The other image below is the exception for the most part. From what I’ve been hearing, this is the case for both Oregon and Washington. Montana is starting to put out burn morels, a different story altogether.
The point is this: Morals are a mystery. We don’t fathom them. Neither morel hunters nor mycologists fully understand what makes them tick, and so guessing at why some years are more productive than others is just that: speculation. But hey, at least we have some new taxonomy to ponder as of this April. Morel geeks have been waiting for the DNA verdicts for a long time. It’s no surprise that the morels of Eurasia differ taxonomically from our North American morels, and now we have new names to learn. For instance, we have a name to go with the confusing morel that hunters call the western mountain blond: Morchella frustrata (and, perhaps more relevant, DNA sequencing tells us it’s in the black clade). Click here for the lowdown on new species designations across North America.
I had a pretty good outing this past week, all things considered. I got nearly a basket (just shy of 12 pounds) after putting some serious milage on my boots on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. I hit one good spot that produces every year; otherwise it was a matter of finding the right habitat at the right elevation with the right slope aspect, and then walking, walking, and more walking. I covered some ground, which is what you need to do on a year like this.
When I got my hard-earned treasure home, all the morels gathered on Wednesday went straight into the dehydrator because they’d spent too much time in a warm car. Thursday’s haul got high-graded (even a single wormhole meant shunting to the dryer), bagged up (in paper bags), and immediately refrigerated. Luckily the high-graded mushrooms still represented the lion’s share. Now, what to cook? Omelets, of course.
Next I bought some local lamb shoulder, a pound of lava beans, and picked a bunch of fresh herbs from the garden. Lamb, morels, favas, and herbs. Hello springtime!
1 lb orecchiette
3 tbsp olive oil
1 lb lamb shoulder, cubed
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 cups or more, chicken stock
fresh herbs, chopped (oregano, thyme, rosemary)
1 lb fresh morels, halved
1 lb fava beans, shelled
salt and pepper
parmesan cheese at table
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Brown lamb thoroughly. Remove lamb.
2. In the same pan, sweat onion, carrot, and celery for several minutes until soft. Add garlic and another tablespoon of olive oil if necessary. Cook together for a minute. De-glaze with white wine. Stir in tomato paste and fresh herbs.
3. Add 1 cup of chicken stock, return browned lamb to pan, and simmer. Add another cup of stock when the first cup has mostly reduced and continue to simmer. Allow to reduce again, at least by half. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Bring pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta.
5. Saute morels in butter for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add fava beans and cook together another few minutes, until favas are tender but not too soft. Season.
6. Spoon ragu over pasta and top with morels and lava beans. Serve with parmesan cheese.