Weird but wonderful, the morel mushroom makes its appearance for a very short season each year in mid-Spring. This incredibly tasty member of the mushroom family is all but impossible to propagate, so in order to get a basket full you either have to know how to forage for them yourself or know someone who does.
The first route is a bit difficult, as the first rule of morel foraging is that you don’t talk about morel foraging. Or, at least, you don’t talk about where to look.
I learned this the hard way one day last spring, when I saw Nice Neighbor hauling in a big load of morels and innocently asked him, “So, where’s a good place to go look for those around here, anyway?” He looked at me like I’d asked for the password to his bank account, laughed a little, and said, “Yeah right, like I’d tell you that!”
Nice Co-Worker, a second-generation morel forager, was only slightly more forthcoming.
“Oh sure,” he smiled, “I’ll tell you where to look.”
“Really?” I asked excitedly.
“Yeah, I find mine in this county and in the two neighboring counties.”
Sensing that he was toying with me, I replied, “Care to be more specific?”
He deadpanned, “I’ve already said too much. If I tell you more, I’ll have to kill you.”
Despite their reticence to disclose their personal morel foraging spots, both guys were more than happy to share tips for finding morel foraging spots of your own.
First, the weather is important. Nice Neighbor said he doesn’t even begin to look until the first day he notices that dandelions are going to seed. After that, the best foraging will be had when there’s been a good rain followed by a day or two of warm sunshine.
Look in wooded areas, particularly near a river or stream bank, underneath dead or dying trees such as elm, maple, and sycamore. Also, be sure to use a knife to cut off the morels above ground at the stem--yanking them up can harm the underground mycelium, and damage your mushroom spot for the future.
Hunting morels will probably require a trek through thick woods, so make sure you have your bug spray, are dressed in long sleeves and pants, and check for ticks well when you’re done. Also, as always with mushrooms, make sure to have someone who knows about mushroom identification check over your haul before you eat them. Morels are fairly distinctive, but still…better to be safe than poisoned!
If scrambling through the underbrush with snakes and ticks doesn’t sound appealing to you, do as I’ve done and ask around at your local farmers’ market or organic-type grocery store. Many times people who do forage for morels will sell them to these larger places. They’re a little more expensive when you have to buy through a middle-man—here in Kansas, they’re about $25 a pound—but as a once a year treat, they’re so worth it.
Once you find morels, what do you do with them? As far as I can tell, the most traditional method of cooking morels is to bread and fry them. While the material used for breading varies from seasoned flour to crushed Ritz crackers to bread crumbs, Nice Co-Worker emphasized the key is to fry them in butter and don’t skimp!
The recipe I used this year was largely based on what I had in the house on the day I got the word that my local source had morels. But it was darned good, so here it is!
Breaded Morel Mushrooms with Sage, Thyme, and Butter
1/2 pound of morel mushrooms 3 eggs About 2 cups panko bread crumbs 2 teaspoons salt (plus more for soaking the morels) 2 teaspoons pepper Several sprigs of fresh thyme, de-stemmed 1 tablespoon dried sage 1 stick of butter 2 tablespoons of olive oil
Begin by soaking your morels for a few hours in cold, salty water. This will kill any critters that might be living in the hollows of the mushrooms. Rinse them well, and cut them in half lengthwise (if you have really big mushrooms, cut them into quarters).
Put your breadcrumbs in a shallow dish, and combine with salt, pepper, sage, and thyme. Crack the eggs into a bowl, and lightly beat them.
Next, add the butter and olive oil to a large skillet, and set over medium to medium-high heat. Once the butter is melted and hot, begin dipping the mushrooms—first in egg, then in the breadcrumbs. Fry the mushrooms in the butter until they’re nice and golden, being careful to do them in batches and not crowd the pan. Eat them while they’re hot (several of mine didn’t even make it to the table!), and, if you like, dip them in some warm, garlicky tomato sauce.