You know the legend of the leprechaun guarding his pot of gold? Supposedly, if you were lucky enough to capture one and could hold him until dawn, he would have to tell you where his pot of gold was hidden. (I’ve heard the answer “at the end of the rainbow,” but I don’t suggest typing that into your GPS.) The plot hole in this little fairy tale is that surely the rightful owner of the gold would get there long before his erstwhile captor and move it—rendering its location as useless as last week’s encryption code for Fort Knox.
However, imagine that you are a Roman soldier, enjoying the first warm days of spring since being posted to Ireland and wondering if your favorite woodsy delicacy grows around here. So you notice a local serf cradling a few cute mushrooms in his cap, and ask where he found them. Now since morels have never been successfully cultivated and take years before a tree is old or stressed enough for the fungus to “fruit,” this information would really be worth protecting. This treasure would reappear every year with a harvest of delicacies.
I never cared for mushrooms until I tasted my first morel. (Botanically, morels are closer to the super-expensive truffle than our grocery-store button mushrooms, which might tempt other mushroom avoiders to give them a chance.) I probably wouldn’t ever have put one in my mouth, but they have such an enthusiastic following around here that I became curious.
And you know what? This simple little fungus dipped in seasoned flour and fried in butter is about the best tidbit that’s ever tickled my tongue.
Classic Butter-fried Morels
Melt a half-stick of butter (4 Tbsp.) in a cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Dip cleaned morels in flour, salt, and pepper. Fry in butter until crispy and golden brown, about two minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.
I developed this gravy because I hated to waste the morel-flavored butter left in the saucepan after making a batch of classic fried morels. If you are impatient (or cheap) and fry one batch after another, the flour will burn and give the butter an off taste—which would be a shame. (If you’re tempted to cut corners, remind yourself that folks in LA pay $100 a pound for fresh morels, so the butter is a relatively trivial investment.) Fortunately, the gravy freezes well to save for a wintery breakfast—if you can wait that long!
1 cup morels
4 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 tart apple (Pepin or Granny Smith)
1/4 Vidalia onion, sliced thin
After you’ve finished frying 1/2 pound or so of morels, add another half stick of butter (4 Tbsp.) to the pan, along with chicken or vegetable broth, scraping the bottom with your spatula to deglaze. Take some of your less beautiful morels that might even be starting to crumble, divide them into 1-inch squares, and simmer in the butter.
Wash the apple, but do not peel. Quarter and core it, cutting each quarter into 1/8-inch slivers. Add to the pan along with the onion.
Keep stirring and scraping while the gravy cooks down. If it isn’t getting thick, put 1/2 cup of water and 1 Tbsp. of flour in a jar and shake until the lumps disappear. Pour into pan and keep stirring over medium heat.
This gravy is wonderful in crepes, over polenta, or with buttermilk biscuits. Reserve a few pretty morels to sauté and add as a garnish on top.
One weekday afternoon my friend Mimi hunted for morels in a favorite spot when nobody else would be out. She’d come at just the right time, collected a bread sack full of morels, and was jogging back along the railroad tracks the last half-mile to her car when she almost stepped on a snake. Seven feet long and as big around as her upper arm, he sprung up in the air and came down coiled and rattling and hissing like all get out. She didn’t dare even point her walking stick at him, but slowly edged around the rattlesnake, careful not to drop her sack of booty. She said the morels tasted even better that night after the adrenaline rush.
Timber Rattler Morels
Bread sack full of morels (1-1/2 lbs.)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup Ritz cracker crumbs, medium fine
Butter for frying
Salt to taste
Slice clean morels into halves or quarters. Place in pie tin. Heat the butter in a frying pan over medium heat (cast iron is best). Use one hand to dip the morels in the eggs and the other hand to roll them in the crumbs. When you have a full plate ready, add the morels to the frying pan and brown until crisp and golden on each side. Set on paper towels to drain and serve immediately.
LaDawn Edwards teaches writing at Kirkwood Community College and Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids. This is excerpted from her first book, Jackpot on a Hillside: Morel Recipes and Lore, due out this summer.