Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A (Shroomy) Walk in the Woods

I woke up this morning to find I was not the only one whose mind was on morels. Wednesdays are my favorite newspaper days. In fact, I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that most of the time, Wednesday is the only day I even bother to look past the front page photo of the New York Times. I'm sure other food enthusiasts experience the same excitement I do as I flip through the (real or virtual) pages to the food section and devour the new recipes (in my mind, at least). I'm always eager to see what's "in-style" in the food world, though I also have to admit that my eagerness stops there. I almost never actually make those New York Times recipes because while they are always fashionable and trendy, they are rarely sensible and good. The one general exception to this rule is Mark Bittman's simple recipes, which I have sometimes made to greater or lesser success. This morning, we were clearly on the same page, because there was his article on morels and asparagus, "The Flavor of Spring," and, while I haven't tried it yet, it seems like it would be tasty. It is even accompanied by a nice video and a recipe.

Another thing I maybe shouldn't tell you but am going to anyway is that my first mushroom hunting experience was thrilling. I know, I probably don't get out much, but finding secret mushrooms in the woods that are actually in plain sight sent little ripples through my body and made my brain buzz in a way that had me wondering if I had actually found some other kind of mushrooms and not the coveted morels. Seriously, if you've never been mushroom-hunting, I hope you will be lucky enough to find someone who is as gracious as my husband's family was in sharing one of their hunting places with us. If you would like a little teaser, Michael Pollan has a wonderful account of his own mushroom hunt in The Omnivore's Dilemma, and in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver talks about the mushrooms that grow in the patch of grass on her property where an old goat used to live.

After reading Bittman's article, I did a little online morel info hunting, and found this site to be the most informative. It includes a map of where morels have been sited in 2009 as well as a list of FAQs which I think would be worth reading for the new mushroom hunter and the merely curious alike.

A happy mushroom duo.

The Mushroom Hunters

Where did we find them? In the woods.

It was late morning when we went out, overcast and cool, and we headed north on a pre-cut trail. It had been a long time since I'd been in the woods, and for a little while I took it in subconsciously while I focused on following my mother-in-law, Margie. It was flat and grassy, and I kept my eyes along the edges of the trees the path cut through, though we weren't really hunting yet. Instead, we were trying to get to the hills a ways beyond where we hoped we'd find their dark shadows. We hurried along the path while Margie tried to remember which way to go, and eventually we crossed another path and went through a clearing, pausing periodically to make sure everyone was together and to determine in which direction the hills might lie. My husband's compass said we were still going north, and we walked on. I thought about what people had been saying--it wasn't time yet, it hadn't been warm enough, they wouldn't be out until next weekend or the one after. How long would we walk before turning around?

The scenery changed to bushes with thick thorns that snagged my jeans as I walked with my sister-in-law, Tasha, and my husband behind me and Margie's teal green shirt just a few steps ahead. The morels, I'd been told, can be found, but it's not easy. You need an experienced eye, you need to know the secret places. I followed Margie's shirt out of the corner of my eye, imagining all the old-time mushroom hunters out in the woods today, and the delicious fungi they would find. I kept my eyes on the ground, running them up and down the ground, zeroing in on the areas around tree trunks. Was it only in cutesy woods drawings that I'd seen the mushrooms grow around tree trunks? Was it something I'd made up? Suddenly I realized we were going up; Margie had led us to the hills and they were very steep. Out of breath, I paused by a tree and let the others catch up. We walked together for a ways, looking down to see how far we'd come. How long had we been out? I wondered. We kept walking. At one point Steve stopped and asked Tasha to take a picture of us, offering her our camera for the job. Declining, she used her own. Smile. Snap. And then, "I think I found one!"

Tasha's mushroom was poking up out of the leaves a good two feet from a tree, and not right around the trunk where I’d been looking. Located in a dip, exactly the area that Tasha had informed me at the start of our walk they like, the morel lived peacefully until we picked it. We scoured the area around it, and Tasha uncovered another one nearby in the moss, but us, nothing. After that, we grew quiet and spread out, ready to get down to business or give up. I could hear Margie on her cell phone somewhere behind me, and Stephen to my left. Absentmindedly I wandered sideways and up, looking at the places similar to where Tasha had found hers--the side of the hill we were on, a foot or two from a fairly large tree trunk. I began to imagine me happening upon a mushroom, calling out to the others that I’d found one. I held the bag containing Tasha’s two and walked on, silently telling the mushrooms to make themselves known to me, hoping I could will them to show their dark bodies to me, ghosts who only appear when you want them to.

At some point I became aware of Margie’s phone conversation—she was talking about mushrooms. Margie was saying how Tasha had found two and then remarking on times that the other person had found a whole bunch. “Two pounds!” I heard her say, "that’s a lot." Finally, she clicked off and it was silent again and in the silence I thought about how we should get out of these woods and go somewhere where we might find a whole grove of them. Two pounds. I pictured them in my mind, a whole mess of them, and then I turned and saw it—a beautiful morel sticking up out of the ground, its dark, mysterious body revealing itself to me. I looked, my head still fuzzy with thinking of the two pounds, and then I saw another, and another, and another. "Guys?" I called. "I think I found some." It took me a few moments to understand just what I was looking at. The group rushed over as I knelt, dizzy, suddenly conscious of the sweet, musty, oniony smell of wild leeks that was rising up out of the earth when I pressed my face close to the ground near the morels. The group picked as I watched, somewhat stunned, and then I photographed the morels in their natural habitat. If I had looked up to find the Dalai Lama instead, I don't think I would have felt more reverent, and the pungent earthy smell and image of the quiet, growing morels stayed with me for the rest of the day.

A wild leek, picked and lying on the woodsy ground.

Preparing the Morels for Heavenly Consumption

Mushrooms have been washed and are ready to cut.

These cooking directions come from my father-in-law, Michael, and I hope he won't mind my sharing them with you. The whole business of mushroom hunting is pretty secretive since you don't want to give away your magic spot, but seeing as how I'm new to this whole mushroom thing, I'm not quite sure if the same is true of cooking methods. After we brought our bounty home, Margie gave us careful instructions in cleaning the mushrooms, and then later Michael gave me careful instructions in cooking them.

Cleaning and Preparing
Rinse the morels under running water, or soak for a minute in a bowl of water (then drain and rinse) to remove the dirt. Cut the morels in half lengthwise, then soak in a bowl of salt water.

1. The morels are cut in half lengthwise before their saltwater bath (yum).

2. The morels soak in saltwater.

Heat some butter in a cast iron skillet (we used about a half stick of butter for about 15-18 mushrooms). Add the mushrooms and cook over low to medium heat, stirring occasionally. The mushrooms will produce a lot of liquid, but the liquid will cook off (see pictures below). Continue to cook until liquid has evaporated. Consume with attention.

1. The morels are cooking in butter and their natural juices. Liquid has not yet cooked off.

2. The butter and juices have mostly cooked off.

3. The morels in a serving dish waiting to be eaten.

1 comment:

Brewfus said...

What Danger Kitten neglected to share with her readership is that novice hunters rarely meet with much success; she, however, found 80% of the day's haul. I, on the other hand, probably step on more than I spot.