IN SEASON: Morel mushrooms

When I came across the morel mushrooms at the Minneapolis Farmers Market last weekend, I was caught off-guard at a weak moment.  I had a wad of cash in my pocket to spend on my garden plants and here was this farm stand with loads and loads of morels, which I’d never purchased and cooked before. 

I’d seen them at stores and other farmers markets priced at $50-60 per pound, and this lady was selling them for $38/lb.  It seemed to me to be a bargain; never mind that I had no plan for how I’d use them.

I still cringed at handing over the money, thinking about how I would justify spending so much on mushrooms to my husband.  I mean, these morels were more expensive per pound than beef tenderloin.   What made these mushrooms magic?

***

Morels are a type of wild mushroom that appear briefly during springtime when the weather warms up, usually sometime between mid-April and late-May/early-June.  In Minnesota, they typically arrive around the first or second week of May. In fact, morels are Minnesota’s official state mushroom

Morels grow primarily in forested areas, often near streams, on fallen or dead trees or in forest-fire ravaged areas.  Sometimes they like to grow in fruit orchards.  These mysterious mushrooms are very good at blending into their surroundings and have to be hunted down. Foragers zealously guard their favorite gathering spots, keeping the details close to their vests like a cherished family recipe or the secret formula for Coca-Cola.

  

I’m not going to get into tips for finding them in the wild – if I mis-advised someone and they got horribly sick  as a result, I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.  I’m sure you understand.  You can check other sites like this or this for foraging tips if you want; but I’m just going to assume that you’ll pick some up at a farmers market or grocery store, and leave it at that.

Morel mushrooms taste earthy, meaty and nutty.  They’re best paired with other seasonal ingredients such as asparagus and ramps, and can be sauteed, roasted, fried, made into soups, served with eggs, pasta, bread, chicken or fish.

If you’re not going to use the morels immediately after purchasing them, they can be kept in a paper bag in the fridge for up to a week; the vendor I chatted with on Sunday suggested keeping them for 4-5 days at most.  It’s best to use a paper bag rather than plastic, as the plastic bags can hold in moisture and lead to rot.  

In my Internet forays, I’ve seen a couple of different suggested methods for cleaning morels:
1. Wipe them off with a damp cloth; don’t wash them in water or they’ll become soggy.
2. Rinse them briefly in water and pat dry.
3. Soak them in a bowl of salted water for a period from 20 minutes to a couple of hours prior to using.

Those instructions certainly run the gamut, don’t they.  The point is to clear out any forest debris or little critters that can still be hiding on the insides.  I came across several tiny ants in the morels I purchased.  Don’t freak, that’s par for the course.

***
But I knew very little of this when I brought the morels home from the farmers market on Sunday.  All I knew was that I had these special, extremely expensive mushrooms; I should try to eat them as soon as possible; and I didn’t have much time to seek out recipes and gather additional information.

So I got on Twitter to solicit advice.  I tweeted:

Got my hands on a pound of MN-grown morels, what to do with them?  They are so precious, I have to make them count.  Your thoughts?

Ideas included a simple saute in butter, fresh pasta with ramps and morels, and a morel and ramp souffle. I chose the easiest route – rinse the morels briefly, halve them and wipe out the insides with a damp cloth and saute them in butter, per Twitter advice I’d received from Colleen of Foodie Tots.

I sauteed the morel halves in a couple of tablespoons of butter on low to medium heat for several minutes until they turned soft.  Towards the end of cooking, I splashed a bit of rose wine into the pan, let that simmer away, and then added salt and pepper.  
It was simple perfection and the flavor was amazing.

***

The sauteed morels in butter approach was super easy and super tasty; but what to do with the remaining mushrooms?  I had about 10 ounces left, after using 6 ounces the previous night for the sauteed mushrooms side dish.

On Monday night, I decided to saute 5 ounces of mushrooms in butter again and use them to top some ramp-arugula pesto pasta with grilled chicken.  Weeknight cooking is much more hectic for me and I immediately over-fried the mushrooms.  So I had to prepare the remaining mushrooms and promptly overcooked them as well.

The final dish was just too much – the ramp-arugula pesto was so aggressively flavored that it overpowered the mushrooms and didn’t allow them to shine.  I was very disappointed. 

As the evening progressed, I became more and more morose about the morels.  Morose + melancholic + maudlin, in fact.  I could have kicked myself –   there goes $20 worth of food!

I felt like I had stumbled into a morel morass; because I hadn’t done my homework beforehand, I had squandered these treasures.  Then again, maybe those are the breaks – you win some, you lose some when you cook with unfamiliar ingredients.  
***

In retrospect, I wish that I’d had a better game plan prior to purchasing these mushrooms.  So that you’re better prepared than I was, here’s a list of potential recipes for your own morel meanderings:

Sauteed Morel Mushrooms (Midwest Living)
Ten Easy Morel Recipes – includes crispy mushroom fry, morel wine sauce, homemade cream of mushroom soup, morel pasta, chicken and morels and more (Mushroom-Appreciation.com)
Fresh Morel Pilaf, Pan-Grilled Trout and Sorrel Sauce (Cook ‘Em If You Got ‘Em)
Scrambled Eggs with Ramps, Morels and Asparagus (Bon Appetit)
Morel Mushroom Bisque (AllRecipes)
Morel and Asparagus Sandwiches with Poached Egg (Martha Stewart Living)
Morel Risotto (Cooking Light)
Hearty Chicken with Mushrooms (Midwest Living)
Asparagus and Morel Quiche (Sunset)
Wild Mushroom Pate
(Emeril Lagasse)
Plus Marx Foods has tons of links to other morel recipes

Have you foraged for or cooked with morel mushrooms?  How do you like to use them?

What’s in season during SPRING

We’ve made it to May, hurray!  It certainly doesn’t feel like May to us here in Minnesota right now, especially with those white specks still flying around in the air, but the tide has got to change at some point, right?

The main Minneapolis and St. Paul Farmers Markets opened this past weekend, and Mill City Farmers Market will open next weekend. While we wait for more local farmers markets to open and start picking up steam, why not start the mental wheels spinning of things you’d like to cook using spring’s seasonal produce?

Recently I was digging around in my archives to see what I had written in the spring, and holy moley! It was like I discovered I’d done my homework ahead of time. 

When I started this blog back in 2009, the main purpose was to help others work through their CSA share, as I was figuring out what to do with my own Harmony Valley Farm share.  I was a blogging maniac, ambitiously writing up notes on many seasonal ingredients as they became available.

I’d forgotten that I’d written so many IN SEASON posts.  I think I may have to read through these posts again myself, to reactivate my memory. (I’m getting old!)

These IN SEASON posts contain background information about the vegetable / fruit, suggested preparation methods and recipe links for you to reference as you shop at the farmer’s market or work your way through your CSA box.  You may wish to read through them ahead of your farmers market visits to start some ideas percolating based on what you might find.

***

The list below spans seasonal fruits and vegetables that you may find at your local farmers market or in your CSA share during the months of May and June.  Consider this your cheat sheet for the season.

Most are cultivated crops, but some vegetables are foraged and only available for a few brief weeks.  So if you see the foraged ones available, you may wish to snap them up as this could be your one chance to try them this year. 

Here’s the list, in the rough order they appeared at our local markets (except for artichokes, which are not commercially grown in Minnesota).  I also added this list to the upper right sidebar of my blog, for quick reference throughout the season.

IN SEASON:  Artichokes (non-local to MN but a seasonal vegetable in other parts of the country)
IN SEASON:  Ramps (foraged)
IN SEASON: Fiddlehead ferns (foraged)
IN SEASON:  Sunchokes / Jerusalem artichokes
IN SEASON:  Spinach
IN SEASON: Sorrel
IN SEASON: Chives
IN SEASON: Arugula
IN SEASON: Rhubarb
IN SEASON: Nettles
(foraged)
IN SEASON: Radishes
IN SEASON: Pea vines / pea shoots
IN SEASON: Hon tsai tai (a type of Asian green)
IN SEASON: Bok choy
IN SEASON: Baby white turnips (aka Harukai turnips)
IN SEASON: Sugar snap peas
IN SEASON: Red komatsuna (a type of Asian green)
IN SEASON: Kohlrabi

IN SEASON: Strawberries

Looks like I need to do an asparagus post, doesn’t it?  Will put that one on the list, along with some others; I think I was going after the less common vegetables at the time, you know, like chives.  Or something.

I’ll likely be referencing these posts throughout the season.  I hope to build on this list and continue to fill in the blanks as the season progresses.

My favorites of the season are ramps, sugar snap peas and strawberries. I’m going to be doing a cooking demonstration at the Minneapolis Farmers Market on June 18th so I sure hope that the sugar snap peas and strawberries are available.

Which local produce items are you most eagerly awaiting this spring?

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