A couple of weeks ago we hosted dinner guests from Canada and other regions of the U.S. Figuring it was a great opportunity to showcase a “typical Minnesota” menu, we decided on spinach salad with bacon dressing (courtesy of our piggy), oven-fried walleye, wild rice stuffing with wild mushrooms and grilled root vegetables, and topped it off with Pete’s famous pie made from homegrown pumpkins.
We weren’t successful in locating Minnesota walleye for sale (it’s rare my husband will pay for it, preferring to catch his own) and had to settle for Canadian – a bit of irony, there, eh? But we were very excited to find freshly picked wild morel mushrooms for sale at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market – for less than $20 per pound. A pound of dried morels can go as high as $195 – click here if you don’t believe me (and yes, that’s an affiliate link, why not?).
As it turns out, with all the fun at dinner, we forgot to mention the morels in the stuffing! Doh! But, an additional prolific mushroom find a few days after the party was more astonishing than our first. More on that later.
Morels – finding them and eating them – are a springtime rite in the Midwestern United States. One of my earliest memories of a family outing is “‘shrooming” in the woods. My dad fried them up in the same seasoned cast iron pan he reserved for sunfish, bluegills and perch, coating them with breadcrumbs, then letting them bubble in brown butter, onion and a little garlic.
The Great Morel website tells us the conditions that create the perfect storm for mushroom finding can be affected by “… variables such as air temperature, ground temperature and rain levels impact the growing cycle and how bountiful the crop. There have been many studies as to how, where and why the morels make their grand appearance in certain conditions and not others. Most mushroom hunters will present all kinds of “SWATS” (Scientific Wild Ass Theories) on how, where, and when to find them. Almost every mushroom hunter will have a few “SWATS” of their own, some with merit, while others are just that….theories.”
Growing up, I was made well aware by admonition against the dangers of not knowing your mushrooms. The lore associated with picking and consuming the wrong kind of mushroom is right up there with the legendary allure the gastronome gives to Japanese fugu and other deadly delicacies. Interestingly, a different dimension on the deadly mushroom made an impression on me when I overheard a German hotel clerk attempting in vain to dissuade someone from hunting truffles in the Black Forest. “Chernobyl has made it not safe,” she said, throwing up her hands in exasperation.
A few days after our dinner party, Pete set off across the main street to our south into the wetlands and woodsy area to see if the neighborhood wild turkey hen had finished her nest. The grainy photo above is one I snapped looking out our home office window. She’s quite timid and punctuates her foraging from our bird feeder with nervous clucks, but when she takes off it’s like a 747 in flight out back. 🙂
Pete had followed her from our back yard a week or so prior and thought she might be ready to lay her eggs. “Much gobbling in the distance,” was his report after the initial foray.
This second time he never encountered the turkey, but he did strike the mother lode of all morels. Ever. Publicizing the find at this point is pretty safe, because now the undergrowth is getting heavier, making them more difficult to find. This spring has been optimum in many respects – early warmth seems to have everything out about a month ahead of time this year. These conditions also seem to have sparked a bumper crop of morels. We learned they cluster around dead or dying elms (prevalent in this natural area in the midst of our city because its inaccessibility makes diseased elm removal impossible, as opposed to more structured, residential habitat). They also like a sunny period after a somewhat extended period of rain or moisture.
Behold! I’d never seen such morels. Used to the 1, 2 and 3 inch specimens from childhood, I couldn’t believe the size of these monsters. Pete wasted no time in slicing one up, and frying it into a delicious midday snack. Yum!
The dinner menu that evening was a variation of this recipe from Epicurious – instead of prawns, filets mignon were complemented with mushroom-based gravy and sauteed ‘shrooms and onions. Fabulous. The morel butter Pete used as the gravy and pan-frying base is prepared as follows:
* 8 ounces fresh morel mushrooms or 2 ounces dried morel mushrooms
* 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
* 3/4 cup chopped shallots, divided
* 1 garlic clove, minced
* 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
*If using dried morels: Bring 3 cups water to boil in medium saucepan. Add dried morels. Remove from heat. Cover; let steep 1 hour. Using slotted spoon, transfer morels to bowl. Reserve soaking liquid. Finely chop enough fresh morels or reconstituted morels to measure 1/2 cup (packed); reserve remaining morels. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup shallots and garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add chopped morels and thyme; sauté 2 minutes. If using dried morels, add reserved soaking liquid to skillet, leaving any sediment behind. Increase heat; boil until almost all liquid evaporates, about 8 minutes. Transfer morel mixture to small bowl; cool. Mix remaining 7 tablespoons butter into morel mixture. Season lightly with salt and pepper. (Morel butter can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.)
Preheat oven to 500°F. Melt 2 tablespoons morel butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add remaining 1/2 cup shallots; sauté until golden, about 3 minutes. Add remaining whole fresh morels or reconstituted morels and sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Read More at Epicurious.com.
Mid-week, Pete’s friend Ron and he set out again with great success: both returned with a bag full of giant specimens. Buoyed by the knowledge of habitat shared at the office, Pete’s boss located a huge stash of ‘shrooms out back of his garage by a fallen elm a couple days ago. And just this morning, Pete made another quick trip across the street and came back with a couple big ones that he is drying in the dehydrator. We’re pretty excited about searching for them at the cabin over the Memorial Day weekend. According to this map, northern Minnesota is a few weeks behind us in the Twin Cities.