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Thursday, May 12, 2011 11:10 am

The sponges of spring


“Hey, sleepyhead, wake up.” I turned my head away and opened one eye just enough to see the lightening grey sky giving way to dawn then shut it again. Even as a six-year-old I didn’t like getting up early. “Wake up.” It was my mom, gently shaking my shoulder. “We’re going to Aunt Bessie and Uncle Bill’s to hunt for sponge mushrooms.” My eyes popped completely open, all protests forgotten, and I began getting dressed. I may not have liked getting up early, but there was no way I’d miss one of the iconic events of spring in my family.

Three hours later, sitting at my school desk, my mind was only partially on the lesson. Most was reliving the magic of that misty morning, tramping through the woods, eyes riveted to the ground, straining to see the spongy conical shapes so easily camouflaged by the decaying leaves surrounding them.
Not long after, Aunt Bessie and Uncle Bill’s farm was gone, morphed into a subdivision. But our annual spring sponge mushroom hunts went on. Sometimes they were on a beautiful 15-acre piece of property my grandparents owned on the banks of the Sangamon River. My grandfather had bought the land as a favor to a real estate client in desperate financial straits. It didn’t have road access; we reached it by walking through neighboring farmers’ fields, clambering over fences. But that made it seem all the more special – our own secret hideaway. Sometimes we’d bring fixings for a wiener roast. We’d gather fallen branches for a bonfire, then hunt for mushrooms. Afterwards, my grandfather helped me gather huge bunches of wildflowers that inevitably wilted before we got home. For years I fantasized about building a house on that land. I’d build a log cabin – rustic, but with modern conveniences. When I met my husband, Peter, it became a shared dream: as university students, we collected brochures from log cabin companies. Unfortunately, we never shared our dream with my grandfather, who sold the land to one of those neighboring farmers.

Sometimes our quest for sponge mushrooms took us to the Illinois River Valley. My grandparents had friends in Kampsville, where we’d take the ferry across the river; and in Chandlerville, where we searched the hills behind a farmhouse so old that it seemed part of the woods surrounding it.

It was years later, when I started seriously delving into food and cooking, that I learned the real name for “sponge mushrooms” was morels. And I was surprised to find that most folks around here ate them breaded (often with cracker crumbs) and fried. At home we always sautéed them in butter. That’s still my preference, and not just because it’s my tradition: morels’ delicate flavor can get lost when fried, especially because their spongy surface packs in the breading. “Ever’body likes morels, but I’ve found som’tin even better,” one old-timer told me. “Squash blossoms. Batter ’em and fry them up, and they taste even better.” Sure, all fried foods taste good – but if you can’t tell the difference between one and another, what’s the point?

I’d always thought morels were delicious, but for me the appeal has always been as much about the ritual of finding them. I’m not alone in that. Today there are numerous websites devoted to finding and celebrating morels. They offer folklore, personal tales, recipes, sightings (First Morel of the 2011 Season Found Near Knoxville, Tennessee!!) and morel festival locations. None of the “sightings” is specific, because morel enthusiasts tend to be secretive about their hunting grounds. Some sites also proffer – mostly for amusement – SWATs: “Scientific Wild-Assed Theories” about finding morels.

There are many SWATS, says Jim Veselenak. Veselenak is a UIS professor emeritus of clinical laboratory sciences – a.k.a. medical microbiology. But he’s perhaps even better known locally for his hobby: mycology, the study of mushrooms/fungi.

“There’s lots of folklore about when to hunt morels,” he chuckles. “Some say it’s when the oak tree leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears. Or when May apples appear.” My own family’s indicator was that apple trees had bloomed.

The real scientific indicator, though, according to Veselenak, is when the ground temperature at four inches below the surface reaches 50 F. (That temperature is published daily in the State Journal-Register.) Morels are found throughout North America; their season begins down south and extends northwards through the summer. The other major factor, Veselenak says, is plentiful spring rains. As to where to find morels, they typically appear under elms, older apple trees, or in grasses bordering woodland. But that’s not to say that they’re not found elsewhere. It’s unusual to find them around maple trees, probably the reason that they’ve always been scarce in the woods across our road. But the year my youngest daughter’s nursery school class came for a woodland excursion, no sooner had I finished saying that morels didn’t grow there, than a kid uprooted a huge one: “Is this what you’re talking about, Mrs. Glatz?”

Morels are even more rarely found underneath conifers. But last week I found a generous half-pound next to our stand of huge white pines.

By all accounts, 2011 has been a bumper season for morels, both here and elsewhere. Cool temperatures have extended the season far longer than usual. So take a look around. Go for a walk in the woods. They still may be out there, just waiting for you.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Note: Morels’ distinctive sponginess have no real dangerous look-alikes in the Midwest, according to Veselenak. There are some false morels, whose heads are more brain-like than spongy; their stems aren’t hollow. About 10 percent of the population gets an upset stomach after eating them. There are multiple pictures on the Web that can help distinguish between the two. 

Morels with cream

Morels are so special that I prepare them as simply as did my folks. It’s only in rare years when I’m lucky enough to have a quantity that I get a bit more elaborate. Even so, I keep things simple, letting the delicate taste of the mushrooms shine. Here’s a preparation that’s rich, but still fulfills that requirement. Creamed morels is an old-fashioned recipe, traditionally served on toast, but also good over steaks or sautéed chicken breasts. 

  • Approximately lb. fresh or reconstituted dried morels
  • 1/4 c. (4 T.) unsalted butter, divided
  • 1/4 c. minced shallot, preferred, or onion
  • 1/2 tsp. minced garlic, or more or less to taste
  • 1 c. homemade or low-sodium chicken stock
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Minced fresh parsley, preferably flat-leaf, for garnish, optional
Make sure that the morels are clean and free of grit and other foreign matter. If necessary, cut them in half and wash under running water, then drain them, cut side up, on paper towels or a lint-free towel until they are dried, but still moist.

 In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the minced shallot and garlic and sauté until they are softened but not browned. Strain the shallot/garlic mixture through a slotted spoon and set aside. Raise the heat to medium high, add the morels and sauté them until they are cooked through and beginning to brown slightly. Remove them from the pan and add to the shallot /garlic mixture.

Put the stock and cream into the skillet and raise the heat to high. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture has reduced by at least half, and has thickened to heavily coat a spoon. Return the shallot/garlic/morel mixture to the pan and heat through. Season to taste with the salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve over toast, steaks, or chicken breasts, garnished with parsley if you desire. The number of servings varies according to your morel lust.

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