Ahh!! Its that special time of year that makes mushroom hunters across America swoon – morel mushroom season! Morels have been spotted and foraged already right here in our lovely foothills, by me!
If you’d like to wander the woods and try foraging for these prized beauties, here are a few tips.
The morel is one of the easiest wild mushrooms to identify. Generally, if you find a sponge-like protuberance, 1 to 6 inches tall pushing skyward among fallen forest leaves and grasses on spring days, you're in luck. The stems and caps of morels are hollow, and the stem is attached at the base of the cap. It makes a great first mushroom to learn because its spongy shape is so distinctive and easy to identify. The pitted caps may be white (light tan) or black (very dark brown).
There are False Morels – the caps are more wavy than pitted, the stems are usually cottony inside, not hollow, and the cap is connected not to the bottom but up inside to the top of the cap, more like an umbrella. Some folks say these are pretty good too, although I’ve NOT found that to be true and do not recommend eating them.
When the temps get to between 60 and 80 degrees and trees are just beginning to bud, unfiltered sunlight warms the woodland earth directly. This triggers the appearance of a number of wildflowers: trillium, phlox, trout lily, Dutchman's breeches, violets, wild strawberries and many more. These flowers, along with temperature, are indicators of when to look for morels.
Like fishermen, every mushroom hunter has their secret spots for different types of mushrooms and no secret is held more closely than where they find morels! Black morels appear first on the scene. As you are walking in hardwood forests, if you find one... stand perfectly still (don’t scare off the others!) Look closely in each direction, black morels often follow a path, the wind direction of the carried spores.
A little later come the white morels. Usually bigger than black ones, white morels might be found anywhere; old orchards, most any old wood such as old railway ties or fences. In the woodlands they tend to congregate around certain bigger, older trees that are in some stage of dying. Look around ash, elm, oak & cottonwood. As the trees die, the root systems break down providing available food sources for morels. This availability of nutrients may allow the morels to be found in consecutive years in the same location.
You can spot a real mushroom hunter by the type of bag or basket they use. They’ll never use plastic or paper (unless they found some when they weren’t expecting to!) Mesh bags or open weave baskets allow the spores to be dropped and carried away to fuel future mushrooms.
You can also spot a mushroom hunter on the prowl by their Groucho-type “mushroom walk”, crouched over, walking slowly, eyes cast about 10-20 feet in front of them.
Some folks dry their excess mushrooms to eat later. I find this a bit tedious so what I do is sauté onions & garlic in butter in a cast iron frying pan. Add mushrooms (usually just sliced in half vertically unless they’re a bit big) and sweat them over medium high temperature. Just when the mushrooms give off their liquid, remove from heat. Let them cool then put in plastic, resealable bags and freeze. To re-use, put the frozen mixture into a hot frying pan and finish the sauté.
My Favorite Morel Recipe
half an onion, diced (Vidalia preferred)
4 Tbsp butter
1/3 cup diced red pepper
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb fresh Morels, sliced in half vertically
2 tbs flour
1 tsp raw honey
1 tbs Soy sauce
1/2 pound of fetticini or angel hair pasta.
Salt & pepper to taste
Prepare the pasta according to directions and drain.
While pasta is cooking, saute the pepper and onion in 2 tbs butter for about 2-3 minutes, add garlic, cook 1 minute more, set aside, off heat.
In a well seasoned cast iron skillet at medium heat, make a roux out of the reamining 2 tbs butter, flour, honey, soy sauce and S&P whisking constantly.
Turn heat to low - stir in morels and onion & pepper mixture.
Cover and cook 30 minutes.
Serve over the pasta - enjoy immediately!