Finding Zen in Hunting Wild Mushrooms
It was a damp, cold day to be tramping in the woods, its dreariness punctuated by water dripping from the rain-soaked newly leafing trees. Occasionally one of these frigid droplets would plummet directly down the back of my jacket collar, making me wish I had spent this particular April Sunday indoors. But then one of my companions shouted, "There's one!" and all foolish thoughts of creature comfort vanished: The morels were up, and we were on the hunt in earnest.
This was my first attempt at stalking the wild morel mushroom. Veteran 'shroom hunter Thomas Starrs had generously offered to take me to one of his favorite local hunting grounds to show me the ropes and, hopefully, the mushrooms. "This isn't one of my A-plus spots," he confided as we stepped into the woods near Loch Raven Reservoir. This particular patch of mature tulip poplars is on Starrs' B-list, but even so he confidently predicted we'd be walking back out again with a respectable haul of morels. It took him fewer than 10 minutes to spot his first, a duo of golden morels nestled in a drift of dead leaves.
The fawn-colored mushrooms were obvious enough when he pointed them out. But the next time Starrs spied a morel, he challenged me to find it for myself. Even with a specific area to look in I had a hard time, requiring ever more obvious hints until I literally stumbled across it. After a couple of hours following him through the woods, however, I began to get the right kind of eyes and eventually found a dozen or so morels--some golden, some gray, a couple of blacks, and one called, Starrs solemnly informed me, the peckerhead morel. (I had previously heard this one described as the dog pecker morel, but, hey, he's the expert.) Starrs' haul was probably four times larger than mine, including a few big, fat beauties he'd plucked after I walked right fricking past them.
Some people hunt morels simply because their distinctive appearance--hollow stems bearing contiguous conical heads with cerebellum-looking convoluted ridges--means it's hard to confuse them with anything poisonous. (The one potential faker, the false morel, is easily distinguished by its significantly larger size and its solid stem; anyway, it would only make you sick, not kill you, if you were to mistakenly eat it.) Most people hunt morels, though, simply because they are utterly and uniquely delicious. They have an intense yet delicate woodsy flavor with a musky undertone that is unlike any other food or fungus. Their flavor and relative rarity translates to a steep price tag--in mid-May I spotted some soft, moldy morels in Wegmans, long past their prime but nonetheless costing $50 per pound--and explains why morel hunters guard the location of their favorite gathering places with both suspicion and zeal.
Since they require so much time and effort to gather it is a good thing that morels are supremely easy to prepare. They contain small amounts of a naturally occurring toxin that is deactivated by thorough cooking, so they should not be eaten raw. I took a handful from my first harvest of 20 mushrooms (generously augmented with a couple dozen more from Starrs' haul) and cooked them at a slow simmer in an inordinate amount of butter. This simple but indescribably delicious approach remains my favorite way to cook morels, but I also made a savory morel and asparagus bread pudding that showcased their distinctive flavor against a velvety custard (see recipe below).
That initial early-April foray into the woods hooked me hard: Over the next month, during their oh-so-brief season, I went morel hunting whenever possible. I can think of few pastimes more enjoyable than wandering through a just-greening forest in the sort of drifting, Zen-like mind-set necessary to the successful morchella searcher. Open forest with lots of older tulip poplar trees appear to provide the most bountiful morel ground in these parts, though they can and do grow just about anywhere--Starrs mentioned that he once found a lush fairy ring of morels in a manicured apartment complex lawn. Morel hunters of my acquaintance, though, are especially fond of Patapsco Valley State Park, where it is legal to gather fungi if not other native plants--though morel-hunting etiquette dictates carrying your booty in a mesh bag, so that the spores can scatter as you walk through the forest, paying for your supper by planting next year's 'shrooms.
Sad to say, morel season appears done for this year. But next April I plan to stroll the banks of the Gunpowder, enjoying the cold, damp weather, and keeping my eyes peeled for the funny wrinkled snouts of morel mushrooms poking up through last year's dead leaves. It's already on my calendar.
Savory Bread Pudding With Morels and Asparagus
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Local Flavors cookbook by way of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.
3 cups milk
spring onions with green shoots
1 loaf stale or toasted multigrain bread broken into crouton-sized pieces
1 pound asparagus
2 tablespoons. butter
1 pound morels (can use dried)
1/3 cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons oregano
3 cups grated Swiss cheese
Add onions to milk in saucepan and bring to a boil, set aside to steep.
Pour milk over crumbs and allow bread to soak.
Chop asparagus into half-inch pieces and simmer three minutes in boiling water until bright green, then plunge into cold water.
Melt butter in skillet, cook mushrooms until tender; set aside.
Beat eggs until smooth.
Add herbs and plenty of salt and pepper.
Add breadcrumbs with remaining milk, asparagus and mushrooms with their juices, and two-thirds of the cheese.
Mix thoroughly and pour into a greased 8x12 pan.
Sprinkle remaining cheese on top and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes (until puffy and golden).
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