Monday, April 26, 2010

Iowa mushroom hunting

Morels drive people a little nuts around here in Iowa toward the end of April, and well into May. Down in the Czech Village (what's left of it after the 2008 floods), "Houby Days" caps off the season right about Mother's Day. The white morels (Morschella esculenta) shown are about the only mushroom Iowans will trust themselves to recognize, even though we have a few more good kinds that pop up throughout the year.

Because the free advice you give to a beginner about a "few more kinds" can be lethal — who knows what a total n00b will decide matches your verbal description! — there's not the kind of hugely sophisticated mushroom culture here, even in Bohemian Iowa, like you'd find in Oregon, say, with all those coastal rainforest boletes. Just morels, which have the reputation for being too weird-looking to be hard.

In practice the best confirmation that what you have is the beginner's "easy" morel is to cut it two lengthwise — morels are hollow and cut in half, they make little stuffable shells. Oh, yeah... and gather young ones. Old morels tend to be a bit riddled with fungus gnat larvae, which you can get rid of by a short soak in salt water. (You'll need a loupe or hand lens to verify the presence of fungus gnats, unless your eyes are very sharp. They're teeny, tiny, and transparent, carving out weensie little tunnels. Hard to see, but unmistakeable. As Maharishi Mahesh Yogi once quipped, though, "I'm not responsible for bugs in my salad!")

My morel cuisine doesn't extend much beyond fried in butter with an egg, though. Never learned better. Here's a recipe from an Iowa City chef, Kurt Michael Friese at The Devotay, who calls morels the "truffels of the heartland."
Sautéed Morels with Lemon
20 fresh morels
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup flour, seasoned with salt & pepper
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 lemons
Salt & pepper to taste
24 baby lettuce leaves, for garnish

Split the mushrooms lengthwise and rinse them thoroughly. Look out for ants that sometimes live in the hollow insides of the fungus head. Pat the mushrooms dry with clean terrycloth. Toss in the seasoned flour until thoroughly coated, then set aside.

Split one lemon and juice it. Mix this juice with the wine. Cut the other lemon into 8 wedges. Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Test the oil with a drop of the egg. If it browns quickly (but not immediately—that’s too hot), it is ready. Dip the dusted morels into the egg, let the excess drip off, then place them carefully in the pan. Do not overfill the pan. Sauté a couple minutes on one side and then gently turn them to cook on the other side for 2 more minutes. Remove to a clean terrycloth, and proceed in the same manner with the remaining mushrooms. Be careful not to let the pan get to hot.

When all the mushrooms are finished, deglaze the pan with the wine-lemon mixture, then strain through a fine mesh sieve or through cheesecloth. On clean plates, using teaspoons or squirt bottles, drizzle some of the olive oil, and less of the balsamic vinegar. Place 5 mushroom halves on the plate in a star pattern. Garnish with a lemon wedge and the baby lettuce leaves, and drizzle with the lemon-wine mixture. Serve immediately.
I dunno. I just slice 'em lengthwise in quarters, fry 'em in butter and drop a couple of eggs on 'em. Salt, pepper, a pinch of oregano, green onions if I had any. Scramble the mess. Simple. The mushrooms have a curious sort of al dente texture, and a flavour like freshly polished boot leather. You expect mush in your mouth, like canned mushrooms, but there's a real heft in every bite, and that sort of breakfast is filling. Goes well with a black, robust tea like English Breakfast.

Thanks for the houbies, Susan!

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