Morels. To find, cook and eat this morsel will change your life forever.
Morel mushrooms are so delicious and prized that rumor has it some especially prolific spots have been handed down in wills. Hunting morels (it’s actually foraging, but these mushrooms can be so elusive that it’s regularly called hunting) can be intoxicating. Never mind the fact that you get to spend hours in the woods, it’s the process of actually seeing them that’s crazy making. It’s as if there’s a code to crack. Spotting one can feel a bit like recognizing the hidden image in one of those stereogram posters. Sometimes the only way to spot the hidden image—or the morel among the leaves—is to momentarily look away.
Whether they are black or blonde, morels seem to hide in plain sight. The mushroom’s pointed shape can make spotting it among pine needles a challenge. Many a forager has gone crashing after a morel only to discover he’s been staring down a pinecone. Likely, he stepped over a dozen or so mushrooms hiding in plain sight along the way.
The first flush of morels has begun appearing in the woods across Washington and on local plates, including at our downtown Seattle restaurant. Chef Varin Keokitvon has been hunting morels for a long time, although admittedly even he has found them elusive. Last year’s fires may make this his lucky year. Morels love to grow on burnt earth.
Chef Varin Keokitvon: “What I love about morels is that they have a very amazing texture. The flavor for me is very nutty, earthy, umami—and very unique.
“I also like that this is beginning of mushroom season, after the winter varieties phase out, you can always count on morels to return first. It’s a boon that they preserve—dried—extremely well and don’t lose flavor or texture.”
If you manage to haul in enough morels to store for the next season, the best way to preserve them is more natural. If you have a dehydrator that’s great, but it isn’t necessary. Morels can also be air- or oven-dried.
To begin you’ll want to clean your morels. Because these mushrooms have so many nooks and crannies (in which small ants have been known to hide) the best method is a quick soak in salted water, agitating the mushrooms gently. This will loosen up any grit. Whatever you do, don’t let your morels soak up too much water. They’re no good soggy.
If you’re air or oven-drying the mushrooms the trick is to cut the morel in half lengthwise, thread a needle with dental floss, then thread that floss through the mushroom stem. Hang the morels with the cone-tip facing down, in a warm, well-ventilated room. They can also dry in an oven set between 110 and 118 degrees, with the door kept slightly ajar. The goal is to dry the mushrooms, not cook them.
Of course, drying assumes your morels make it past the pot and pan. “I have been floating a few ideas for morels on Heartwood Provisions’ menu this year,” says Chef Varin. “There may be a morel custard, or something with asparagus. I may use them in pasta, or just sauté them in butter. Or, they may appear in a sauce with halibut and pickled fiddlehead ferns, which are also a locally-foraged treat.”
In the meantime, perhaps the best recipe is the most simple one: Clean your morels, leave the smallest whole and slice the big ones in half lengthwise, dredge them in salted flour, and then fry them in butter.