SUTTON, W.Va. -- Devoted morel mushrooms hunters begin their search just after the first warm spring rain. They slip off to secret spots where they've found the distinctive high-capped mushrooms with their honeycombed surface before. Morel, or "molly moocher" as they're also known, hunting ground is often a closely guarded family secret, passed on only to a trusted few.
The black morels appear first, generally after a good rain. This spring, an early dry spell thwarted local morel growth, leaving many of the usual spots barren. They probably popped up after this weekend's rains.
After the black morels peter out, the white ones appear. There are gray and yellow morels, as well.
West Virginians tend to batter molly moochers and cook them in a hot skillet with a dollop of melted lard or butter. Café Cimino executive chef Tim Urbanic likes the taste of morels cooked in lard, but uses olive oil to crisp the morels he serves at his Sutton inn and restaurant.
"Morels are one of the first great foods of spring, along with ramps. They have a delicate, rich, earthy flavor," he said. "They have hints of red bud, dogwood, violets and a sense of the pollen that's carrying those scents around."
Café Cimino's sous chef Lee Rush supplies Urbanic with morels. Rush hunts them on his farm in Calhoun County, following his extended family's tradition. Rush's parents moved to Parkersburg when he was a child, but each spring, his Calhoun cousins brought a supply of molly moochers to the city dwellers.
Urbanic highlights the morels in simple dishes, letting the seasonal treat take top billing.
Just before preparing fresh morels, he gives them a quick rinse and shake to get rid of any bugs that often hide in the hollow stems and honeycombed tops. Some people soak them in salt water to coax out more stubborn bugs.
For a traditional Appalachian dish, Urbanic slices the morels in half lengthwise and rolls them in flour. He places the floured mushrooms cut side down in a skillet of smoking hot olive oil.
"Don't crowd them in the skillet. Resist the urge to shake the skillet while they cook," he said. "You'll lose the crunch."
He sears the mushrooms for two to three minutes until they brown, then turns them and cooks another minute. He lightly salts the morels, and removes them from pan.
"You're going to undercook them, so they have a little softness, but still lots of texture," he said. "They'll be crispy on the outside."
A dish of morels prepared just so are a delicacy on their own, or as an accompaniment to other dishes. Urbanic likes to combine them with another springtime favorite -- ramps, or wild leeks as he calls them on the menu. After all, the delicately blanched ramps in his gnocchi in a creamy ramp sauce bear little resemblance to ramp festival fare. They also lack the lingering olfactory effects that sometimes plague consumers of large quantities of ramps.