Yes, it is officially SPRING! I hunted down near Winona this past weekend (my guide first blindfolded me and made me swear not to release details of the location, ending his instructions with “I will kill you and I know where your children are.”) If you don’t have a guide, you can find morels at the farmers' markets and food co-ops around town. But if feel like braving it on your own and are headed to the woods, here are a few tips on how and where to find them . . .
Look for morels when the lilacs are the size of a mouse’s ear, when the dandelions are in full yellow bloom, when cottonwood trees begin to green, when apple trees blossom, when snakes come out of hibernation, when turtles cross the road.
Look near dead elms in the deep woods or by ash trees and old apple trees in abandoned orchards. They poke up through dead leaves on damp mornings. They are light and cone-shaped and honeycombed.
Morels are the result of “symbiotic disruption.” A suffering or dying tree stimulates the morel fungus inside the root system, causing it to withdraw. The hardened nodules, “sierotia” form below the ground and with enough water and light in the spring, they swell to form morels.
When you discover morels in the woods, here’s what you do:
- Cut the morels off at ground level. This protects the mycelium allowing more morels to grow.
- Put them in a clean container but DO NOT use plastic bags as these trap moisture and heat that encourage decomposition. Use paper sacks or baskets.
- Once home, store the mushrooms in a paper bag in the refrigerator and DO NOT wash until ready to use.
- Cook morels COMPLETELY! They are the very best when simply sauteed in butter or oil. DON’T EAT THEM RAW. An active enzyme in morels can cause stomach pain but is made harmless when they are cooked.
- BEWARE of false morels, they’re nasty and dangerous fungi and resemble the real thing, but their heads are misshapen, their stems are NOT hollow, they’re solid or fibrous. False morels range in color from brown to deep rust. When in doubt, throw them out!
Here’s what to do if you are victorious . . .
1) To prepare the mushrooms, cut in half and then soak in salted water for about 20 minutes to clean and remove any insects that may hide within. By hand, remove the morels and drain on dishtowels for at least 20 minutes.2) Slice and sautee in butter or olive oil over medium heat until very soft, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring while sprinkling with salt and pepper to taste.3) Serve on toasted baguette OR with scrambled eggs.