Last week, I spotted my first morel of the season. Here it is, a moderately sized, half-attached morel. I snapped a quick picture, and that was the last one I thought to take because when I start finding morels, the last thing on my mind is the camera. I revert to the childish delight of a four-year-old on an Easter Egg hunt. I found much prettier ones — impressive clusters and stately lone sponge-headed grays bursting through the leaf litter. But did I think to take a picture? Heck no! I did give a little whoop or two and do a careful dance of delight though — watching where my feet landed just in case that morel had a friend nearby.
I grew up in Mississippi River country. We hunted morels in the foothills, along streams and bluffs, and the best morel hunters found huge bags and buckets of them. You could get general advice about finding them, but the old folks who taught me about finding morels are the type who guard their secrets carefully. They’ll tell you to look when the mayapples are blooming, on warm spring days after a rain, around old elm trees, etc. They’ll give you tips and maybe lead you to an example of the right type of habitat, but they won’t take you along to their favorite spots. Don’t even ask.
The half-attached morels are edible, but I don’t like them as well as regular morels. They’re more watery and fragile, and the taste is different. I fried up a few with the others, and they’re good that way. Most, however, I dried in the dehydrator for use in soups and sauces later. The fragrance from that type reminds me more of the stronger, woody scent of a shitake. They dry up to almost nothing — convenient for storage purposes, but a little disheartening when you consider time and effort spent foraging and cleaning them.
Fortunately, we found lots of the gray and yellow morels, too. This is what was left in the bowl after I battered and fried four skilletfuls for my daughter and I to munch on. I’d have cooked more, but the experts recommend that you don’t eat too many at once. The recommended limit I’ve most often seen is a pint per person per day, measured fresh. I’ve never had any digestive upset from morels, but they’re a seasonal food, and I think it’s good advice to use moderation with any food that’s not a regular part of your diet.
Most of the yellows were just a couple inches tall and were scattered here and there along streams. Two days ago I found a seven-inch gray in our woods. It was a late straggler in a patch that’s produce well over the last week. I dried the remaining grays and yellows and stored them separately from the half-attached types because I’ll probably use them differently.
Here’s how a mess of morels look fresh from the skillet. I soaked the mushrooms for a couple of hours in cold saltwater. Some sources say soak a half hour. Some say overnight, 24 hours, and there are recommendations for time spans everywhere in between. A couple of old-timers write that it’s best to take extra care in the field so it’s not necessary to wash them. They believe that washing removes some of the subtle flavors. Well pardon me, but I’ve seen what crawls out of those sponge-like mushroom heads when they’re soaking in saltwater, and I’d rather skip the subtle flavors of the bugs and slugs.
After soaking, I rinse gently, cut off of any bad spots, slice them open, and drain. I dipped the mushroom halfs in a mixture of beaten duck eggs and milk, then dusted them with flour seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, and garlic. I fry them until golden brown in vegetable oil, then drain on a cake rack. You can use paper towels to soak up the excess grease. They’re also good fried in butter without the egg batter breading.
My morel total for the season thus far is just under 15 pounds. That sounds like a lot when you consider that they’re selling in Midwestern cities for $30 to $50 a pound fresh-picked. When I look at the little bags of dried morels in my kitchen, I think I need to find a lot more.