Thursday, April 5, 2018 12:01 am
Around mid-April, after the roaring March winds have yielded to the mild rains of spring, seemingly normal people begin to disappear into the woods. Young and old, they steal away to secret patches of farmland and secluded hillsides to scour the terrain, armed with baskets and driven by a desire that began burning weeks ago in the cold midwinter darkness.
They are hunting for mushrooms.
“Every year, around January, I start having these vivid ‘morel dreams’ where I’m constantly looking for something. By the time April rolls around, I’m just itching to get out to my hunting holes,” mused Marc Reeves, executive chef for at the Inn at 835 and avid mushroom hunter. “It’s like a grown-up Easter egg hunt. Once you get the taste and feel of finding them, it’s really addictive.”
Morel mushrooms are native throughout the Midwest, and begin to emerge when daytime temperatures hover around 60 degrees then dip back down into the 40s at night. Of the five species of morels found in Illinois, the black and yellow varieties are the most commonly sought after by foragers. Black morels emerge first, usually at the same time as woodland violets and spring beauty wildflowers. The larger, yellow morels appear a little later, about the time when the oak leaves unfurl and apple trees begin to blossom. Morels are often found under older elm, cottonwood, ash, tulip, apple, poplar and oak trees. The season lasts about four to six weeks.
I asked Michael Higgins, chef and owner of Maldaner’s Restaurant in Springfield, if he ever grows tired of morels by the end of the season.
“God, no!” he exclaimed, “They drive business!”
Higgins began serving a morel pie at his downtown restaurant years ago, and the dish has since attained an almost cult-like following. Morels begin to appear on Maldaner’s menu around the middle of April, and the famous morel pie is featured just until Mother’s Day. The pie is a rich concoction of morels sautéed gently with onions in butter, swathed in cream and sherry and Parmesan, with just enough eggs in the mix to hold it together. The trick, Higgins told me, is to not skimp on the mushrooms and to have a mixture of large and small mushroom pieces suspended throughout the luxurious custard.
Throughout their short season, morels appear in various preparations on Maldaner’s menu: robed in demi glace on top of a burger, tossed in pasta with asparagus or crowning a steak nestled alongside pea purée.
Higgins told me, “What people need to understand about cooking with a product like this is that nature grows things that taste good together. Vegetables that grow at the same time in spring taste good, so morels work with vegetables like asparagus and peas.”
Because of the many nooks and crannies that are characteristic of morel mushroom caps, be sure to clean your mushrooms well. Rinse them well under cool water and scrub them gently with a soft brush, then blot dry with a paper towel. Check for any stowaway bugs.
Although the season is short, the savvy cook can enjoy morels for months to come by freezing them. One method is to sauté them in butter and freeze them in half cup portions, ready to add to an omelet or pasta. Morels suspended in compound butter will keep in the freezer almost indefinitely, and are a sinfully easy way to elevate a baked potato or adorn a seared steak. Spring peas tossed with morel butter could not be simpler or more delicious. Chef Reeves likes to dredge the morels he’s found in egg and breadcrumbs, then freeze them individually before packaging them up in zip-top bags, ready to be fried up whenever the urge strikes.
Slow Food Springfield will host its annual Morel Mushroom Dinner and Silent Auction at Maldaner’s Restaurant on April 28, May 4 and May 5. Reservations are required. Information and tickets are available at slowfoodspringfield.org.
This is a great way to maximize flavor of morels, and is a good option if you don’t have a huge quantity of mushrooms to work with. This recipe can also be made with a mixture of domestic and wild mushrooms or with dried mushrooms that have been soaked in hot water.
• 1 pound unsalted butter, softened
• 1 cup cleaned and sliced morel mushrooms
• 1 shallot, minced
• 1/3 cup dry sherry or white wine
• 1 tablespoon minced chives
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Melt about 3 tablespoons of the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and shallots and sauté until just softened and fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Add the sherry or wine and cook until liquid is almost evaporated and slightly syrupy. Transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board and let them cool before roughly chopping them, then add them to a bowl with the remaining butter and chives. Mix well, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place the finished butter in the center of a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper and fold one end over the butter, as if rolling a tube. Use your hands to compress the butter into a long cylindrical shape, then twist up the ends like a Tootsie Roll. Freeze until firm. To use, remove the frozen log from the paper and slice off disks as needed. Toss the morel butter with pasta, use it to top a steak or smear on warm crusty bread.
Contact Ashley Meyer at Ashley@realcuisine.net.