Cooking with Morel Mushrooms

SENT May 1, 2013

Dear Friends,

I long for morel mushrooms the way I longed for a mohair sweater when I was 15, the way I longed to see Paris at age 30, the way I longed to dump my ex-husband nine years ago…. Well, maybe not as badly as that last example, but I really want some morel mushrooms.

My desire was fueled by a weekend at the Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine, Ky., (www.mountainmushroomfestival.org/) where there were plenty of morels to see but none to eat. That’s right: Coolers full of morels, shopping bags full of morels, but not one lousy morel on a toast point with melted butter and a glass of oaky Chardonnay.

“It’s just too prohibitive cost-wise,” explained Sue Hawkins, coordinator of the festival’s morel cooking contest. The mushrooms were going for $50 a pound at the market tent, where dozens of local amateur hunters sold their harvests. At that price, not even the handful of modest local restaurants could afford to put the mushrooms on their menus. In Estell County,  Sue said, morel-lovers either hunt their own or buy a few at the market and cook ‘em themselves.

A lack of mushroom munchies doesn’t cramp the festival, held annually the village of 2,700. The place went morel crazy last weekend with morel contests, morel cooking demonstrations, a morel cook-off and old-timers dispensing morel-hunting advice. Festival vendors sold morel t-shirts, morel key chains and two-foot morel mushrooms carved from wood. Shop windows were decorated with morel paintings and displays, and someone had carved a giant 10-foot-tall morel from a tree trunk in a downtown yard.

Although the earthy gourmet mushrooms grow in many locations, including Ohio, the  Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky are especially  suited to their propagation, said avid  hunter and festival committee member Jerald Stacy. “They like the mountains and rocks and wood,” he noted.

He must be right, because folks found a lot of mushrooms last weekend. By noon the first day of the festival, 110 pounds of morels had been sold.

Hunting morels is such a popular rite of spring that locals even have their own name for the mushrooms: “Dry Land Fish.” The common method of cooking the mushrooms probably is responsible for the name, Susan opined.  Most people bread them in corn meal and fry them like fish.

Geez. How do they even taste the mushroom after all that?

The friendly Irvine folks may not know how to cook morels properly (according to me), but they know everything else about the mushrooms. Proof was tubs and tubs of mushrooms for sale at the festival.  The  most gathered by one person was 63/4 lbs., and the blue ribbon for the largest mushroom went to a specimen measuring 75/8 inches tall and 51/2 inches wide.

Because of the late spring, morels are just now appearing in Northeast Ohio woods. The best time to hunt, according to Irvine experts, is during a sunny, warm spell after a rain. During the season, morels appear first on ridge tops, then on the sides of hills, then in the bottom land near streams. They come in several shades: Dark brown, gray and blond. The mushrooms should not be pulled, but rather cut at ground level with a sharp knife. That way, they are likely to propagate again.

Tony and I returned from the festival Sunday and went hunting Monday at what the Irvine locals call  our “honey hole.” As we pulled in, we saw a furtive guy scurrying out of the woods with a sack in one hand and a giant morel in the other. Drat. We found just one morel. Tony is back out hunting today on a friend’s secluded property, where he should have first shot at the mushrooms. If he brings home a bunch, I’ll make a creamy risotto infused with mushroom flavor. Portobello mushrooms may be substituted for the morels if you must, although the risotto won’t taste nearly as good.

MOREL MUSHROOM RISOTTO

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  • 8 oz. fresh morel mushrooms
  • 5 tbsp. butter
  • 2 Tbsp. minced sweet onion such as Vidalia
  • Salt
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup fresh-grated Parmesan cheese

Cut the mushrooms in half lengthwise and briefly rinse under cold water to remove any dirt, slugs or debris. Chop the mushrooms, reserving 8 cap halves.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium-low heat and slowly  cook the 8 halves on both sides until the edges begin to turn brown and just start to crisp. Remove mushrooms from pan and set aside. With a rubber spatula scrape all butter remaining in the skillet into a heavy, 4-quart saucepan (the butter is loaded with mushroom flavor). Add remaining 3 tablespoons butter to saucepan and melt over medium heat.

Sauté chopped mushrooms and onion in melted butter until onions are soft and translucent. Season with salt. Add rice and cook and stir for about 2 minutes, until rice becomes translucent. Pour in wine, increase heat and simmer until wine is reduced by half.

Meanwhile, heat chicken broth in a saucepan and keep just under a simmer over very low heat, with a ladle at the ready. When rice is translucent, ladle in about a half cup of the broth. Stir with a wooden spoon over medium heat until the broth has been absorbed. The mixture should bubble lazily. Continue adding hot broth and stirring until absorbed, adjusting the heat under the rice up or down to prevent it from cooking too slowly or too quickly. The process should take about 30 minutes. The rice should be al dente – cooked but not mushy – when the last of the broth has been absorbed. The risotto should creamy and slightly soupy or not, depending on preference.

Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan cheese. Taste, and add more salt if needed. Spoon into four shallow bowls and top with reserved mushroom caps. Makes 4 servings.

FREE CUPCAKES!!

Yes, free. And you can eat all you want at the first-ever Cupcake Camp Akron from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Queen of Heaven Parish Life Center, 1800 Steese Rd. in Uniontown.

Here’s how it works: Bakeries, chefs and generous home cooks supply all kinds of cupcakes, which are judged and prizes awarded. Then those in attendance get to eat the cupcakes. There’s no charge for admission or for the cupcakes, although donations will be accepted. Most of the funds raised from the event, though, comes from sponsors, including Lexus of Akron-Canton, The Lippman School, Dress Up Designs and Reiter Dairy. The money goes to the organizers, Boy Scout Troop 334.

Cupcake Camps have been held all over the country, although this is the first in the Akron area. Come on down and eat yourself sick. Bring some cupcakes or just an appetite. Tony and I will be judging along with caterer extraordinaire Susan Schwab and Beacon Journal Food Editor Lisa Abraham. Complete details can be found at www.cupcakecampakron.com.

THE MAILBAG

From Tom Noe:
Next time you and Tony make a trip up to Park To Shop (I am completely in love with that place, too!) and feel like an excellent Szechuan experience, might I recommend Szechuan Gourmet  located in the back of the building on the corner of Payne and East 36th, The large building sits on the corner and houses several businesses, of which the entrance to Szechuan Gourmet is in the back (actually off of East 36th).

The ma po tofu is splendid and fiery (they have one with the pork and one without) and without a doubt one of my favorite and most surprising dishes there is the spicy garlic eggplant. Even the eggplant haters among our foodie group actually liked it.

And once you finish your meal, I’d suggest going up one more block on Payne to East 37th Street and look for Koko Bakery. They do all sorts of baked items, sweet and savory as well as the Bubble Tea. I usually grab several packages of the frozen buns and bring them home to eat as snacks. The ingredients listed are refreshingly simple and straightforward; no preservatives or additives.

Dear Tom: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve been looking for a good Szechuan. (Tom’s local restaurant blog is at www.exploringfoodmyway.blogspot.com)

From Karron Brown:
Thought I would comment on pie crust. If you can remember, we once did a photo shoot of bakery items of Jim Dodge’s when he was teaching at Zona Spray Cooking School in Hudson and I made his cranberry tart using his recipe for dough.  Like many recipes it called for fat, i.e., butter.  But unlike many recipes he called for cream instead of water as the liquid. Once mixed, you can roll it out without letting it rest first.  I have used his recipe ever since and have had no complaints whatsoever.


JIM DODGE’S PIE DOUGH

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 stick cold sweet butter, cut into bits
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup cream (or more as needed)

Combine flour, butter, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until bits are the size of small peas or large grains of cornmeal. With motor running, drizzle cream through the feed tube until dough begins to clump together. Remove from processor and shape into a disk. Roll into circles and fit into pie or tart pan. Makes enough for a 2-crust pie.

If I am going to use it immediately, I let it rest in the fridge or freezer for at least 15 minutes while I am making the filling. Then fill the shell and bake.  If the recipe requires a pre-baked shell I still let it rest for that 15 minutes.

I love this recipe as I can prepare several shells and have them ready to go, and the resting period does not affect my production because it is after the preparation.

Dear Karron: I do remember that photo shoot, but had forgotten the dough recipe. Thanks for the reminder. The cranberry tart recipe was so popular when I ran it in the newspaper that it has become a standard on many local tables at Thanksgiving.

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