The Morel season is coming to a close in British Columbia and foragers will have to wait another year to harvest the wild mushrooms.
Morel mushrooms vary in size but are recognizable by their sponge-like caps which fit over their stalk like a thimble over a thumb. There are two types of true morels; yellow and black, both of the Morchella genus and not to be confused with the poisonous and almost identical impostor, the ‘Wrinkled-cap’ or ‘half-free morel’.
Morels are some of the most sought after wild mushrooms in the world. Finding them, however, can be unpredictable. Luckily for me, I managed to forage for them at the South China Trading Seas Company at Granville Island.
In the wild, morels can be found in mixed hardwood forests near aspen trees, white cedars or white pines in areas recovering from fires.
Other areas favoured by the morel include old apple, peach or pear orchards and dead or dying elm trees. There are rare occasions when the morel has popped up in unexpected places including old camp fire pits, basements, old bomb craters or unused mining sites.
So what is it about these little mushrooms that sends people so crazy each year?
Morels have a rather earthy and subtle nutty taste. They are best cooked simply and that is exactly what I did.
I sautéed them with some crimini mushrooms in garlic, olive oil, a couple of dollops of butter, some organic beef stock and chives, and then served them with fresh fettucine. The porous caps quickly absorbed the flavours, yet retained their slightly crunchy texture. Delicious.
Some tips on buying morels: they should have firm, spongy caps and be moist but not soggy. Try to use them as soon as possible as the fresher, the better. Unlike some mushrooms, it is ok to wash morels. In fact, it is very important to clean them thoroughly but gently to rid them of grit and naturally forming toxins.
I soaked them in cold water and then gently washed and strained them. Don Dickson, owner of South China Seas Trading Company, recommends par boiling them in lightly salted water for about a minute and then sautéing them. He does this just as an extra precaution to rid them of any nasties.
So I haven't answered my own question. What is it that drives people to spend endless hours traipsing through dense or sometimes burnt out forest just to pick a handful of these little fungi?
Part of the answer might lie in the experience - this is vegetarian hunting at its best. And the fact that morels soak up so much flavour and yet hold their own flavour and structure makes them unique. Worth a walk in the woods, or in my case, a walk down to the Granville Island markets.
Morel Mushroom Pasta Recipe
2 cups of morel mushrooms, halved
1 1/2 cups of sliced crimini mushrooms
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
4 tbs of butter
1 tbs of olive oil
1 tbs of chopped chives
1/2 cup of organic beef stock
1/2 tsp of sea salt
A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Fresh fettucine noodles for two (or however many your serving)
Fresh Parmigino Reggiano for serving
- Cut the morels in half and then submerge in cold water to clean them. Strain them and then gently wash again under cold water. Gently shake morels free of excess water and set aside.
- Boil enough water to cook the noodles. Cover while preparing the mushrooms.
- Heat 2 tbs of butter and the olive oil in a large, heavy-based fry pan. Once the pan is hot, add the crushed garlic and fry for about 30 seconds. Add the sliced crimini mushrooms and sauté for 2 minutes. Next add the morels and fry for about 1 minute. Add 2 tbs of butter and stir gently with a wooden spoon for 30 seconds. Next add the beef stock and chopped chives, stir again and then turn down the heat to low.
- Meanwhile, boil the fresh noodles and then drain but reserve about 1/4 cup of the water. (Cooking time for fresh noodles for 2 to 4 servings is about 3 minutes).
- Add the mushrooms to the noodles and stir well to coat the noodles in the sauce. Add some of the reserved water if you need a little more liquid. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle on some more chopped chives.
- Serve pasta with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano.