The Morel of the Story

Morel mushrooms

Photo courtesy of The Great

The Morel of the Story
| published June 29, 2014 |

By Michael Sigler
Thursday Review contributor

While many of us enjoy the seemingly endless variety of mushrooms, many more of us know little or nothing about what they are, or how they are grown.

The mushroom is a type of fungus, a plant with neither chlorophyll nor flowers, generally found growing in cool damp places in woodland and meadows where the soil is rich in humus. A mushroom usually consists of a stalk and an umbrella-shaped cap. Sometimes the whole mushroom may be eaten, in other cases just the cap.

As well as wild fungi, there is also a variety of cultivated mushrooms. In order to collect mushrooms, it is essential to be able to identify them properly. While some species are prized as food, many are very poisonous, to the extent that eating them may even be fatal in some cases. There is no empirical means of distinguishing poisonous species from edible ones. Please don’t go out into the field armed with your copy of “Mushroom Gathering for Idiots” as you may be in for a rude awakening.

Therefore, it is wise only to use cultivated mushrooms and purchase wild mushrooms from reliable sources. Some experts provide fungi identification services and/or arrange forays. Although this may present a rather frightening picture in a work dedicated to gastronomy, fatal accidents occur every year from eating poisonous mushrooms.

One mushroom gaining popularity in the states is the Morel—French translation: morilles, sometimes called spring mushrooms because they appear in May, and because they are considered a rare delicacy. One region well-known for the Morel is Alsace, on the French side of the Rhine River and the border with Germany, and where the rare mushroom grows in great numbers. The best farmers, youngsters, and farm hands are all out during the short season, poking among the leaves and brambles under hedgerows to uncover the precious wild fungus. Each day baskets are sent off by train to Paris to eager chefs of the great restaurants. A good chef buys only as many as he can immediately use. Stale morels are worse than none at all.

Morels have a cone-shaped cap covered with tiny pockets, like a honeycomb. There are two kinds, the dark brown ones, which have a fuller flavor, and the light tan. The tiny pockets collect sand as the morels push up through the soil. To flush it out requires more than ordinary washing. The bulbous stem is cut off and discarded primarily because the sand lodging there can seldom be removed. Shake out as much water as possible and dry morels on towels. They are moist anyway and added moisture is a nuisance.

To dry morels, discard the bulbous stems. Do not wash the morels, but with a large kitchen needle thread them on a soft white string. Hang them in the sun for several days and finish drying them indoors in a warm place or in a very slow oven.

To use dried morels, soak them in lukewarm water for a few hours, wash them, and use as you would fresh ones. Both fresh and dried morels may be cooked in all the ways you would cook ordinary mushrooms.

Now if that seems like a lot of work to you, take it from Chef Michael, these tasty morsels will be more than worth the effort.

If you would like a recipe for morels—and there are plenty of great recipes—just contact me through Thursday Review.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Joy of Truffles; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; December 16, 2013.

The Brussels Sprouts Controversy; Michael Sigler; Thursday Review; June 14, 2013.