Morels, The Truffle of the Heartland

A walk in the woods in the Heartland’s early spring is intrinsically rewarding, but while you are enjoying those first few sunny days after a nourishing spring rain, why not look for things that can feed your belly as well as your soul? The woodlands of the upper Midwest are teeming with gourmet goodies in the spring, and this abundance is there for the taking,if you just know where to look. Tops on most hunter/gatherer lists this timeof year? Morels.

Gathering wild foods is probably the most sustainable and certainlythe most ancient way to provide delicious and nourishing food foryour family. It dates back to before the dawn of our species and continues to this day (how’s that for sustainable?). Archeologists have uncovered the remains of a 6,000-year-old man, and in the pouch found with him were several mushrooms. The arrow in his back may have indicated that he was foraging in someone else’s territory.Such severe penalties are less likely today, but it is still a good idea to make sure you have the landowner’s permission.

Although today our innate instinct to gather has been redirected towardgrocery stores and shopping malls, it is still there just as surelya s it was with the “Mushroom Man.” Sadly, the tools and tricks our ancestors used to find wild edibles have been replaced by knowing which coupons to clip and which grocery has the best deal on frozen pizza. It need not be so, and learning a little bit about howto find the elusive morel is a good place to start.

The Truffle of the Heartland, the King o’ the Midwest Woods,the mushroom that put the “fun” in “fungus” isthe wildly popular—and just as elusive—Morel (Morchellaesculenta). Of course, it should always be emphasized that you shouldhave some expertise when hunting mushrooms, because if you’renot dead certain, you might be just plain dead, so consult expertssuch as those at the Prairie State Mushroom Club (www.geocities. com/iowafungi)before you taste anything.

The Bohemians in the Czech Village section of Cedar Rapids still callmorels by their old-country name, “houby,” (pronounced “hoby”),and have a festival in their honor every year in the middle of May.At that latitude, the houbys are usually sprouting by Mother’sDay, so the Czech and Slovak Museum there sponsors the festival theweekend after. Another good way to know if the morels are up is tolook in the woods for the May apples, or what my daughter calls “umbrellaplants.” When these five-point-leaf plants are about knee-high,it’s morel season in your neck of the woods. Look for them nearrecently dead elm or other hardwood trees.

Theresa Marrone starts looking when the lilacs are in bloom. In her book, Abundantly Wild: Collecting and Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest, Marrone reveals all the secrets to finding all these and 70 other wild edibles of the region, complete with recipes like fiddlehead pie, asparagus with garlic grits, and morel pizza.

So now that the days are a little longer and a little warmer, whynot plan a trek through the woods? You’ll get some great exercise,and you can find some wholesome goodness along the way.

Sautéed Morels with Lemon
20 fresh morels
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup flour, seasoned with salt & pepper
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 lemons
Salt & pepper to taste
24 baby lettuce leaves, for garnish

Split the mushrooms lengthwise and rinse them thoroughly. Look out for ants that sometimes live in the hollow insides of the fungus head. Pat the mushrooms drywith clean terrycloth. Toss in the seasoned flour until thoroughly coated, thenset aside.

Split one lemon and juice it. Mix this juice with the wine. Cut theother lemon into 8 wedges. Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Test the oil with a drop ofthe egg. If it browns quickly (but not immediately—that’s too hot), it is ready. Dip the dusted morels into the egg, let the excess drip off, then place them carefully in the pan. Do not overfill the pan. Sauté a couple minutes on one side and then gentlyturn them to cook on the other side for 2 more minutes. Remove to aclean terrycloth, and proceed in the same manner with the remainingmushrooms. Be careful not to let the pan get to hot.

When all the mushrooms are finished, deglaze the pan with the wine-lemonmixture, then strain through a fine mesh sieve or through cheesecloth.
On clean plates, using teaspoons or squirt bottles, drizzle some ofthe olive oil, and less of the balsamic vinegar. Place 5 mushroom halveson the plate in a star pattern. Garnish with a lemon wedge and thebaby lettuce leaves, and drizzle with the lemon-wine mixture. Serveimmediately.