CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week Gazette photographer Kenny Kemp mentioned that he'd spotted some morel mushrooms on the grounds of his Mink Shoals home. His timely comment came as I was facing my weekly dilemma of what to feature in the next food column.
How many did he see? Enough to use in an entrée? He agreed to harvest what he could and returned with a brown paper bag of about a dozen.
Whatever you call the conical mushrooms with the honeycombed caps, their emergence heralds the arrival of spring. Chefs and cooks prize them for their delicate earthy flavor.
They prize them enough to pay between $20 and $40 a pound for them, according to Purple Onion owner Allan Hathaway, so they're worth a search in the woods.
The distinctive fungus often eludes and frustrates morel hunters, many of who return to the spots in which they've found morels in the past. Typically, they first appear as the ground begins to warm on sunny slopes and open areas.
They flourish in areas around dead and dying trees, especially elms. Old apple orchards are said to provide ideal growing conditions, a theory supported by the morels Kemp found under three old apple trees.
Several morel websites provided suggestions on how to clean and store morels. The deeply pitted caps and hollow stems harbor difficult-to-remove particles and even the occasional bug. One source advised simply brushing them off, and another suggested submerging them in salted water for 15 minutes. The brush-off isn't terribly effective and the submersion can result in soggy morels.
A quick rinse and a pat dry proved just right. Most recipes suggest cutting the morels in half before cooking. This serves the dual purpose of even cooking and a glimpse inside the hollow stems to be sure they're free of debris.
Fresh morels may be stored for up to three days covered with a damp paper towel in a container that allows cool air to circulate around them. Our morels didn't require storage. They were prepared for two dishes within hours of their harvest.
Asparagus and morels, two of the spring season's anticipated treats, made wonderful partners in Morel and Asparagus Toss. The bright grassy asparagus and woodsy morels made a delicious and attractive pair that really showcased the springtime flavors.
Morel Mushrooms, Shrimp and Pasta in Creamy Sauce didn't look as pretty, but, boy, was it good. The butter and cream sauce slightly subdued the morels' musky flavor, but didn't cover it completely.
The recipe was adapted from one in Bon Appetit that called for dried morels, which are a good alternative when fresh morels aren't available. Brown crimini mushrooms are also a reasonable substitute.
To really showcase their flavor, simply toss prepared morels with a bit of flour and sauté in butter. For a fancier dish, serve Morel and Red Wine Sauce with grilled meats.
We're nearing the end of morel season, depending on where you're searching. Conditions vary wildly and morel-growing habits are erratic. If you do happen across morels, be sure to cook them before indulging. Raw morels are hard on the digestive system, I'm told.
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.
Morel and Asparagus Toss
2 slices applewood-smoked bacon
1 tablespoon butter
6 ounces fresh morel mushrooms, halved or quartered
1 pound asparagus stalks, woody stems removed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped scallions, white and lightest green parts
COOK bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon from pan; crumble. Add 1 tablespoon butter to drippings in pan; swirl to coat. Add 6 ounces quartered fresh morel mushrooms; sauté 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
STEAM asparagus spears for 3 minutes, or until crisp tender. Add asparagus, salt and pepper to skillet and toss mixture.
REMOVE from heat; sprinkle with bacon and chopped scallions.
Creamy Morel Mushrooms, Shrimp and Pasta in Creamy Sauce
2 cups cleaned morel mushrooms, halved