CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- True confession time.
When I first proposed a column on morels, I'd never eaten one, and I'd certainly never searched for them. I wasn't even sure how to pronounce them, stumbling between "muh-REL" and the "MOR al." The first pronunciation is correct, according to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary.
I think folks who call them "molly moochers" probably have the right idea.
Tim Urbanic opened the kitchen of the gracious Cafe Cimino Country Inn run by him and his wife, Melody, in Sutton, and skillfully demonstrated how to prepare morels to their best advantage. And yes, I did get to sample, devour actually, the fruits of his labors.
I see what the fuss is about. The earthy, dark taste of morels bears little resemblance to white button, or even brown crimini or shiitake mushrooms available in grocery stores. You really can taste the flavors of the forest in them.
Not that you necessarily find them in the forest. They're likely to be under a tree, just not in the deep woods. They pop up under the cover of brown leaves and fallen branches and logs, making them difficult to spot.
My kind-hearted friend Marilyn Conley, an experienced morel hunter, offered to take me molly mooching on her family's land in Roane County. We arrived on a breathtakingly beautiful spring evening. After greeting relatives and neighbors at every turn, she parked at a nephew's house. They conferred about recent morel sightings, but he said there hadn't been many to harvest because of the dry weather.
Undeterred, we hopped on an ATV and rode through pastureland up a rolling hill to the edge of a wooded knoll. We hopped off in search of molly moochers.
We slowly wandered along a dirt road, nudging leaves with our feet and scrutinizing dark recesses where they might be hiding. All my promising leads turned out to be nut hulls. We didn't cover much territory as we slowly perused the dry ground, but we had a nice visit.