This past week we received our first delivery of highly anticipated golden morels. They were beauties and for this cook, a sight for sore eyes. The winter of root vegetables had grown long and the arrival of morels instantaneous evoked a sigh of relief and a sense of excitement. This is what it’s all about. The Nebraska morel season is fickle, fast and mushroom hunting is famously one of the most mysterious, secretive and ancient activities.
How these treasures end up at our door is a bit of a mystery every year. Mushroom hunters emerge from arborists, farmers, professional foragers who live in the wilderness and move with the seasons, to recreational hunters, basically anyone who likes the thrill of a hunt. This year add medical student to the list and as odd as this combination sounds, this is typical in the foraging world. For those who understand the fragility of the fungi, know the forests and keep their mouths shut about their patches, it’s a lucrative opportunity. As Langdon Cook describes in his book, Mushroom Hunters, as “fungal gold,” this growing subculture of foragers is motivated by gold rush desires and could be the last gasp of frontier-style-capitalism. Some pay anywhere from $25-$60 a pound. Foraging is serious business.
By law, state inspection is required to sell wild edibles. Rules and regulations tend to be hard to interpret and vary from state to state. Nebraska didn’t have a State mushroom inspector so our medical students moonlighting as foragers took a class at Iowa State University and became Nebraska’s first certified state inspectors. It makes you shake your head at the randomness of it all, but it’s a reminder of nature’s remarkable ability to bring what would seem as random things together.
Morels are one of the easiest mushrooms to identify due to the shape of the cap and the almost crater like appearance. True morels have a hollow stem, false morels do not.
Morels love the rainy and damp weather followed by a sunny day and they can be found grown in the hills of shaded forests or the river beds of waterways. Hill mushrooms tend to be cleaner than the river mushrooms which are sandy and more often than not, have aphids. In Nebraska, morels emerge right after the asparagus season. If we are lucky, like we are this year, the two seasons are overlapping. Highlighting asparagus with morels is an example of why cooking seasonally is so rewarding for me. Nature is providing the pairing.
For me, cooking with morels is rooted in simplicity. In order to highlight the natural nutty and meatiness of the mushroom, we sear in foaming brown butter, salt and pickled garlic. The mushrooms have enough natural water content, that as they sear and purge their water, the mushroom seasoned liquid forms its own sauce. Best cooked within hours after foraged.
It doesn’t get any better, fresher, more local, seasonal or exciting than this. The morel is an invitation to experience spring in all its glory and by understanding the journey to the plate, you truly realize that you’ve struck gold.