Category Archives: Morels

Southern Morels

se_morels9The Southeast has intrigued me for a long time for its diversity of plants and fungi, a diversity I’d mostly read about in books.

The last time I’d spent any significant amount of time in the region was twenty-five years ago, during a spring break from college that involved some sketchy camping and maybe a little foraging for beer. Earlier this month I had a chance to visit again and speak to mushroom clubs in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Though fungal diversity was nowhere near what it will be come summer, the spring wildflowers were out—and so were the morels.

Aside from the pesticide-laden morels that fruit in California’s olive orchards in late winter, Georgia represents the beginning of morel season for many a roving hunter in the U.S. It was April 1 when I set forth on my first hunt in the Goober State, and I didn’t come away with any fool’s gold—just this big fat yellow below, a Georgia peach of the fungal variety.

The habitat was so different from what I’m used to in the West. Along with members of the Mushroom Club of Georgia, we scouted river bottoms, looking for concentrations of green ash. One spot within the Atlanta Metro area, filled with dog-walkers and picnickers, delivered in spades. Meanwhile, I was trying to wrap my head around all these hardwood trees that were just beginning to leaf out. Oaks and hickories, buckeyes and magnolias—too many to count, much less identify.

And like the trees, the morels were different too. Depending on which taxonomy you’re following, they carry the scientific name Morchella americana or Morchella esculentoides. Most people call them yellows. I don’t see them very often in the Pacific Northwest, though they do fruit in a few cottonwood bottomlands in select locales.

Another difference with eastern morel hunting: the beasties. I became fanatical about checking myself for ticks. I have friends who have gotten Lyme’s disease and it’s no fun. One of the little buggers managed to get its teeth into me and now I’m keeping tabs on the wound, hoping it doesn’t grow into a bull’s-eye.

The other hazard is from the plant kingdom: poison ivy. The nasty stuff was all over the woods, and at one point while I was taking a breather in the woods, leaning casually against one of the many bewildering, unidentifiable hardwoods, my companion suggested I might want to remove my hand from the thick vine of poison ivy that was trellising up the trunk. Doh!

While in Atlanta, I also loaded up on some of the local cuisine. Georgia Organics hosted an amazing dinner that featured some of the city’s notable chefs. And if you’re a Sichuan geek like me, you’ll want to run—not walk—straight to Masterpiece restaurant in nearby Duluth. I can easily say it was the best Sichuan I’ve had since going to Sichuan Province back in the summer of 2011 (don’t miss the dry-fried eggplant or the chicken with a bazillion hot chilies).

In South Carolina, my next stop, I visited Mushroom Mountain, where cultivator Tradd Cotter is growing enough mushrooms, such as these elm oysters pictured at right, to interest Whole Foods. As for the wild ones, the yellows that I found were much smaller and grew mostly with tulip poplars. Locals call them tulip morels. Cryptic and incredibly hard to find (see below), they hid among the leaf litter, often barricaded by poison ivy. With help from the South Carolina Upstate Mycological Society, affectionately known as SCUMS to its members, we sleuthed them out, again in river bottom woods.

The Asheville Mushroom Club in North Carolina was my last stop, but we snuck over the border into Tennessee for morels, where we found the tulip variety as well as my first eastern black morels, pictured below, which proved tricky to spot given all the fallen leaves.

 

We hunted an area on the edge of Smoky Mountain National Park, where trillium, violets, trout lilies (pictured above) and other wildflowers were in full glorious bloom. The Smokies, I’m told, hold the highest plant biodiversity in North America. Whereas we have one species of trillium in the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast has forty!

Next time—and there will definitely be a next time—I’m returning with my backpack and tent so I can disappear into the Smokies or the Blue Ridge for a spell. Brook trout with wild mushroom stuffing, anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morel Tomfoolery

morel3A couple weekends ago I took my kids on our first morel hunt of the season. We rode bikes a ways up a trail before stashing our transportation and striking out on foot. At first it seemed like we might be too early—or worse, that another morel hunter had scooped us. There was some grumbling within the ranks.

And then we stepped over an old rotting log and there they were.

The first morels of the season are sun worshipers. They stray far from dark woods, popping up in warm, exposed spots where many morel hunters would never think to look.

But we were not alone. On our way back we spied a couple covering the same ground we had just been through. When they caught a glimpse of us in the distance, they scuttled into the woods. My kids found this behavior curious. It’s not like we didn’t know what they were up to—they had a huge woven basket for crying out loud.

Being the rascally imps they are, the kids decided they would try to flush out these furtive mushroom hunters. Pretending to be birdwatchers, they lingered at the spot on the trail where the couple had vanished into the woods. The mushrooms, after all, were on the edges—not in deep, dark thickets. These coy morel hunters would have to come out of hiding at some point if they wanted to find any.

“Look, a yellow warbler!”

We stood there for 15 minutes calling out birds. All the while we could see one of the couple crouched behind a tree. She hid there obstinately and wouldn’t move. I continued on the trail, but the kids weren’t done with their torments. As I walked off, I saw them skulking behind some bushes, laying in wait. A moment later they came running up excitedly with news that the couple had emerged as soon as I’d left.

Busted!

Another lesson learned on the mushroom trail…

Of Grays and Greenies

The first day I visited the burn, in early June, there wasn’t a car in sight. The fire had burned right down to the logging road and a trailhead was marked off with police tape. Signs warned of falling trees and other dangers. We could see the morels before getting out of the car.

Over the next week or two a few other pickers trickled in. To the south, a large, well-publicized burn was taking all the pressure—though I knew it couldn’t last. By the time this smaller patch was on the radar, I’d dried enough morels for several winters and many holiday gifts. After a few weeks of staying away, I went back the other day. Again, not a car in sight. The conica morels were long gone for the season.

But not the grays. While the morel season is winding down in Washington State (some years, with enough summer rain, you can pick burn morels well into fall in the Northwest), the last of the burn morels are fruiting in limited numbers at the higher elevations. Conditions might be different up in British Columbia.

Just the same, the last act is a good one. Finding clusters of big grays always makes my heart skip a beat. The gray morel (Morchella tomentosa) is the easiest of the many burn morels to identify. In its youth it has a distinctly gray cap that’s densely pitted, and unlike other species it also has a dark stem with a nearly rubbery texture. Under a microscope you can see lots of little hairs at the base of the stem, hence its other common name, fuzzy-foot. Grays can be quite large, and mature specimens seem to have two color phases, gray and light yellow, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Commercial pickers sometimes call the big yellow ones blonds, not to be confused with the mountain blond (Morchella frustrata).

The photo at top shows a pod of mature grays, each of them several inches tall. Notice how the stems appear white at this stage, in contrast to the dark stems of younger grays. As these morels age, the stems lose their gray exterior and the ridges on the cap become sharp and brittle. As little bits of the ridges crumble off, the cap takes on a speckled look. Now look at these younger, smaller specimens below.

The shape and coloration is variable. Of the nine in this picture, all but one still have dark outer stems that contrast noticeably with the inner white where they’ve been cut. The pits on the smallest are elongated and barely open. A few of these, particularly those three on the right, appear to be maturing into the blond form.

Grays often command a slightly higher price in the market place because of their beauty and meatiness, even if their flavor is mild compared to other species.

I also found a few greenies, or pickles, the other day. At first I wasn’t sure what species these were, but Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles confirmed them as greenies based on these photos.

Notice the multi-layered stem when cut (at right). Sometimes the stem is so thick it appears solid, as seen in the photo at lower left. To my eye, these morels look quite a bit different from the greenies I saw in the Yukon two years ago, which were considerably larger and darker, with noticeably dense pitting like gray morels. Faber suggested that the lack of moisture this season has prevented this variety from attaining its usual size and coloration. They were scattered in the burn mostly as singletons, with perhaps a dozen in all making it into my bucket.

Some mycologists dispute the existence of greenies, considering them just another form of typical burn morel known in the industry as conica, of which there are probably several hard-to-separate species that require microscopic study and DNA analysis for identification. Still, the greenie familiar to commercial pickers has its own distinct appearance and it’s always the last to show in the burn, if it shows at all. The species that it seems to come closest to in the recent taxonomic reclassification of morels is Morchella capitata, but I wonder whether it’s in fact a species that has yet to be described by science. No doubt the mystery surrounding greenies will be unraveled in coming years as morel classification continues to be a hot topic among mycologists.

So, what about the taste? Unfortunately there wasn’t a conica in sight the other day, and the non-burn morels have been done in my habitat since mid-June. That leaves grays and greenies to duke it out. Most western morel enthusiasts rank the non-burn “natural” black morel as the tastiest, with conica next. Mountain blonds, though beautiful, tend to lack strong flavor, and the early season logging morels are generally derided as unsightly. And those late-flushing burn morels?

I put two grays and two greenies head to head in a summer burn morel taste-off. They got simply sautéed side by side in butter, with a sprinkling of salt. The grays, it must be said, had tremendous texture: meaty, chewy, crisp on the outside. The greenies, however, get the nod for taste. I won’t bore you by waxing grandiloquent like a wine snob. The bottom line is that I was reminded yet again that morels don’t really taste all that much like mushrooms; they taste like something that hasn’t been named yet—a mixture of meat and fungus that pleases the palate with its burst of umami. And for this reason, they made an excellent accompaniment to my first beach-caught salmon of the season, in a summer risotto, along with chard and tomatoes from the garden.

Marvelous Morels

It’s been a good year for morels throughout much of the country, though your own mileage may vary. I picked my first “naturals” in the third week in April and the action in Washington State hasn’t slowed since.

Mushroom hunters across North America have had a chance to put new names to several familiar faces this spring. Last year, in the September-October issue of Mycologia, Michael Kuo et al proposed a revision to morel taxonomy that added a number of new species to the lineup. (An identification key can be found here.) For the first time, those of us in the West could reliably identify our beloved natural black morel as Morchella snyderi, with its habitat in unburned forest, lacunose stem, and black ridges on the cap. Another not-so-scientific identifying feature that I use, especially in areas where naturals and burn morels are in close proximity, is feel: naturals are noticeably cool to the touch.

We’ve also seen fair numbers of that confounding morel, the “mountain blond,” found in unburned western montane forests of mixed fir and pine (a commercial hunter I know insists that ponderosa must be present nearby to find this mushroom). Some years we get very few, for reasons that are not readily apparent, and their fruiting tends to be in scattered locales. Mountain blonds have the same coloration as yellow morels (i.e. Morchella esculentoides), but their morphology is more akin to black morels; turns out they’re part of the black morel group (or clade), a taxonomic revelation that didn’t surprise anyone who works with these mushrooms from year to year. While they’re one of our most beautiful morels, sadly, their flavor in the pan is less than striking. In the new classification, they carry the apt name Morchella frustrata.

In addition to the naturals, mushroom hunters in the Pacific Northwest have benefitted from the region’s fire ecology, with a number of last year’s burns producing decent—if not epic—morel picking across eastern Washington and Idaho. So far the biggest of them all, the 45,000-acre Table Mountain complex, has proved something of a bust. Never have so many footsteps yielded so few mushrooms. This burn is getting stomped by a stampede of both commercial and recreational pickers, and the lower elevation habitat never had a chance to take off with so much pressure. Hopefully the crowds will thin as more ground becomes available in Idaho and elsewhere and we’ll have a decent pick on top at higher elevation. Meanwhile, the mushroom hunter using strategery has done well in a host of smaller burns.

Anyone with experience picking burn morels knows there are lots of different looking species that emerge from the ash, especially in the greater Pacific Northwest. How many of these are different enough in their DNA to warrant species status remains to be seen. So far we have Morchella sextelata and M. septimelata, which are apparently impossible to separate without a microscope, plus M. capitata, told by its chambered stem, and the visibly distinctive “gray” or “fuzzyfoot” morel, M. tomentosa. The latter is perhaps the most coveted morel by chefs in the know; large and beefy, it’s one of the last of the burn morels to show and is just getting started where I’ve been hunting. There are others. A morel that looks just like the mountain blond, M. frustrata, appears sparingly in burns as well. And then there’s the banana…and the greenie…

Morels pair especially well with seafood. The dish pictured at top and bottom is pan-seared sea scallops with fingerling potatoes and sautéed morels in a green pea sauce. A simple and elegant way to enjoy one of the fleeting culinary treasures of spring.

Lamb Ragu with Morels & Fava Beans

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
butter
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.

Mountain Morels

Morel season is over, but at the Perennial Plate my new friends Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine have captured on video the thrill of the hunt and the lip-smacking toast of success that is a fruitful morel foray in a truly beautiful place. Check it out!

The Perennial Plate Episode 69: Mountain Morels from Daniel Klein on Vimeo.

The Gray Morel

I read somewhere recently that North America is the center of morel diversity on the planet. This news shouldn’t surprise hardcore morel hunters in the New World, who already know firsthand about morels yet to be described in the scientific literature, some of which have funny common names like “bananas” and “pickles.” The pickle, for instance, is a type of burn morel found late in the season with a dark, greenish hue and thick, three-walled flesh. Pickles (also called “greenies”) are so dense they resist drying efforts. Most recreational mushroom hunters have never seen a pickle but commercial harvesters in the Northwest are familiar with such oddities in the Morchella genus—as are a handful of chefs in the know.

Another morel that only received species status in 2008 is known to hunters in the Western U.S. and Canada as the gray morel, Morchella tomentosa (not to be confused with the Midwestern “gray” which is an immature yellow morel, Morchella esculenta). It’s also a late-fruiting species that inhabits burned conifer forests, usually coming on the heels of the conica flush (Morchella conica is the Latin name preferred by commercial pickers for the most common species of burn morel, though this Old World name could be subject to change with future DNA testing). Unlike many species of morels, grays can be readily identified on sight. They have two main color types: gray and blonde (though some refer to intermediate browns as well); their caps are densely pitted; and their stems are darker and thicker than most other species. Grays also have tell-tale hairs, especially near the base of the stem when young, that are easily seen with a hand lens; hence their other common name: fuzzy foot morel.

The photo above shows typical grays (background), blonde grays (right foreground), and conicas (left foreground), all in the same frame. Many restaurateurs prefer the thin-walled conicas because they’re lightweight and thus more morels can be plated per serving, at least visually. Besides, grays typically command a higher price in the marketplace. But chefs looking for the best quality morels are apt to swoon over the pricier yet meatier grays.

Last week I had the chance to introduce Daniel Klein of The Perennial Plate to his first gray morels. Daniel has hunted morels in his home state of Minnesota before, but he’d never seen anything like the lightning burn I took him to in the North Cascades. We backpacked in several miles and spent a late afternoon slogging up and down the steep, scorched sides of a remote drainage above 5,000 feet. Rocky taluses, logjams of downed timber, and ash-covered slopes conspired to trip us up in the bush, and the mosquitoes were hell.

Despite all this, Daniel was grinning. Now he understood what all the fuss was about with Western burn morels. “They’re everywhere!” he said, incredulous. To be honest, I was a little disappointed. We were a week late—or maybe a week early. The conicas were drying out fast and the grays had only just begun.

Still, we found enough of both species to enjoy a big camp meal of Fettuccine with Morels and Herbs beside an alpine lake and take home a load for the dehydrator. The scenery was spectacular and we had that good feeling in our bodies of muscle exertion that always accompanies a vigorous trek into the wilderness. The only thing missing was a hip flask of Beam to pass around as the stars began to wink on after dusk.

I saved my nicest grays in the fridge for a special meal a few days later, cooking up a favorite surf ‘n’ turf stir-fry for friends old and new, Sichuan Fish-Fragrant Geoduck with Morels. Normally this dish showcases the clam, but gray morels are so hearty and flavorful they managed to stand up to the main ingredient. It was a feast fit for the king of morels.

Earthly Combo: Stinging Nettles & Morels

This spring I’ve happened on a seasonal pairing that will be a regular part of the menu from now on: stinging nettles and morels. In particular, the combo involves Stinging Nettle Pesto with sauteed morels. You might wonder whether these two supremely earthy tastes would cancel each other out. To the contrary, they complement each other, one cool and woodsy with a sharp bite; the other rich and evocative of the ground beneath our feet.

We first tried the pairing as a crostini. Marty surprised me with it one evening while I was busy making a Pinot Noir reduction. She lightly toasted sliced baguette, spread on ricotta followed by the nettle pesto, and finished the crostini with sauteed morels. We knew she was onto something with the first bite. It sounds so simple, yes, and you can almost imagine the flavors if you’ve eaten these foods before. But the pairing is more than the sum of its parts.

The next try was a pizza with the pesto and morels, plus mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and a sprinkling of garden greens. While Marty is known for making some mean pizza, this was off the hook.

Most of you will have to wait until next year to give it a shot. Stinging nettles are flowering across much of their range and morels are dust nearly everywhere except the higher elevations of the Northwest. I’m hoping I might get one more chance when I venture into the mountains in late June.

Salmon with Pinot Noir Sauce & Morels

Columbia River spring chinook and many of the Alaskan salmon stocks happen to be running when the land fish—morels—are spawning…err…sporing. No surprise that a fatty, omega 3-laden fish happens to pair very nicely with an earthy mushroom that is equally fleeting in this life.

And that pairing would be fine if we stopped right there, but a red wine reduction—in particular, a Pinot Noir reduction—is just the thing to tie these two spring delicacies together in a dance of earth and water.

I used a Copper River sockeye for this purpose along with morels foraged in Washington’s central Cascades. The wine was nothing special, though one is always told to not cook with anything that you wouldn’t drink, and the rule holds here.

This recipe is adapted from my friend Becky Selengut’s new cookbook, Good Fish. Becky is always razzing me for using too much butter and cream (and she’s right!) but I notice that she’s rather liberal with the butter on this one. In fact, incredibly, I pared the butter back a skosh. The original recipe is for four servings; this is for two. You can get away with a half-stick of butter, though you may choose to add a bit more. Hey, it’s your arteries.


Sauce
2 tbsp shallot, minced
1/2 star anise
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
1 tsp honey
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups Pinot Noir
4 tbsp cold unsalted butter

1/2 lb wild salmon fillet
olive oil
salt & pepper
1/4 lb morels, halved
butter

1. To make sauce, combine sauce ingredients in large pan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 30 minutes. Strain through fine wire mesh and return to pan. Whisk in butter over medium heat until sauce is syrupy.

2. Meanwhile pre-heat oven on broil. Brush salmon fillets with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place salmon skin side down on aluminum foil on baking sheet, within 6 inches or so of heating element. The rule of thumb is 10 minutes of broiling per inch of thickness; I usually cook salmon less than the rule of thumb.

3. Saute morels separately in a small pan with butter.

4. Spoon sauce onto warm plate, place salmon over sauce, and shower with morels.