|ESTIMATED CALORIC INFO
||3oz steak, 1c pasta, 1/4c sauce
|Calories from Protein
|Calories from Fat
|Calories from Carbs
So I went on my first ever official mushroom foray last weekend. I have to admit I had a significant amount of trepidation about the whole thing, but it turned out completely awesome.
Pretty much everything about the idea of hunting for wild mushrooms appeals to me – you get a reason to wander around in the woods, you get to learn about your local flora, fauna, and fungi, and if you’re lucky you wind up with a serious haul of some very delicious food. I love the idea of wild food foraging because you really can’t get any more local and “un-processed” than going out there and harvesting it yourself from the wild. For all these reasons, I was seriously looking forward to the adventure.
Thanks to Slow Food DC and the Mycological Association of Washington, DC (MAW), a local foray had been planned for first timers. I’d never been given an opportunity to hunt mushrooms with people who I was confident wouldn’t get me killed, so I jumped at the chance. The Mrs. might not have exactly “jumped” at it, but she did graciously allow herself to get dragged along (and she might not admit it but I’m pretty sure she had a good time).
The trepidation mostly came from the fact that it had been predicted to thunderstorm all weekend long. A two hour jaunt in the woods on a breezy Spring day sounds like a beautiful way to waste some time, but add a thunderstorm into the mix and it’s likely you might have second thoughts. We did get a bit of a sprinkle here and there but for the most part the clouds held and we in fact wound up with a fairly pretty day in the park – if maybe it was a bit chilly.
We all gathered (there were about 30 of us) at 9:00am at an “undisclosed location” in Montgomery County, MD. There were 4 guides from MAW who spoke to us about mushroom hunting for about an hour and gave us the run down on what we should be looking for. There’s no way an hour long lecture could ever be enough knowledge for us to go out and hunt and start identifying the shrooms on our own with any kind of certainty, so I’m far from any kind of shroom hunter extraordinaire after this experience. What I do know, though, is what a morel looks like. And for me, that’s good enough for now.
Morels (pronounced “more-ELL” as opposed to “MORE-ul”) are like mushroom gold. These things fetch a pretty penny to buy them dried at the market, have bucked any attempt at cultivation, and they are Tasty with a capital “T”. They grow for a brief period of just a few weeks in late April – early May. They are practically camouflage in the environment they favor, but when you learn to train your eyes for the unique pattern of the caps you start to be able to spot them.
There are hints and tips to go on. Morels like to grow in tulip poplar groves, so you can identify a patch of ground that a morel might like to grow in by checking the leaf color from the previous year’s fallen leaves. They grow out of this semi-composted top layer on the forest floor, so a nice soft bed of old poplar leaves is best. Fortunately, poplar leaves turn a kind of light brown/white color as they decay so you can look for that as you hunt. Oak and other leaves will decay a darker brown. Morels also grow among ash trees, dying elms, and old apple orchards. Where we were hunting, there were really only tulip poplars to look for.
As the talk wrapped up and we got ready to head out into the woods, the MAW guide told us a story about his first time hunting mushrooms at a park in VA… and how he got bitten by a Copperhead snake while doing so. GREAT. Way to give us a boost of confidence! Of course, snakes are a concern that one should be aware of, but if you recall from my run the other day, Amanda has a huge, serious phobia. At this point – I’m ready and anxious to go get out into the woods and hunt some mushrooms, and she’s ready to get in the car and go home. Considering that this was all my idea in the first place, that she doesn’t even like mushrooms all that much, and that now she’d have to spend all her time in the woods obsessing over potential snake attacks, I have to give her high marks of matrimonial fortitude in trudging off into the woods with me regardless.
Our group of 30 split up with the 4 different guides and walked out into the woods. There were some paths, but we basically just went off over the terrain. Within literally 10 minutes, our group had stumbled onto a pretty large stand of morels. I honestly did not expect I’d find a thing from this hunt, but there they were right in front of us. When you find one morel, you’ve almost inevitably found many more in the surrounding area (unless another hunter has been through recently and just missed that last one). From then on, we had a taste for it, and it only got better.
After spending about 2 hours out in the woods, we had a grand total of 43 morel mushrooms – more than anyone else in all of the groups. That’s the kind of first-time experience that makes you a believer. My mushroom-hunt-friendly mesh bag (mesh is best because then you disperse the spores from what you’ve hunted as you continue to walk through the woods) was about 3/4 full when I’d have been happy to come home with just one specimen.
Of course, when I came home with such a bounty the first thing I did (after taking copious amounts of mostly bad photographs) was decide on how to cook some up for dinner. I had some good local steak in my freezer and decided to make a cream sauce with asparagus and the morels. I probably could have gone with just the morels, even as the base for the whole meal, but most of the ones I found were fairly small so I decided to embellish a bit with a few other ingredients.
Morels have a deep earthy/smoky flavor that is very complex. They are really delicious and I’ve never had mushrooms so good before. Plus, the added bonus of the fact that I hunted and picked them with my wife that very morning out in the woods, means that they are going to make for a most satisfying meal indeed.
People have a healthy fear of wild mushrooms – as they should – but I feel that a lot of this is borne out of our modern day disconnect to food. Who in their right mind would eat something they just found on the forest floor, after all? But armed with just a small amount of knowledge and experience we can once again start to re-awaken ourselves to the bounties of the natural world around us. It’s a great knowledge to possess.
On that note…
|ESTIMATED FOOD MILES
Grilled Steak with Morel-Asparagus Cream Sauce and Spinach Pasta
- steak (I used top sirloin in this instance)
- 2 cups fresh morels
- 1/2 bunch asparagus
- 1 large shallot bulb
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 cup heavy cream
Start by soaking the morels in water with about a teaspoon or two of salt for at least an hour.
This step is presuming you’ve gotten them fresh from the woods and haven’t yet washed them – the soaking process is to kill any insects that might be in there (morels are hollow) and wash off any excess dirt. If yours are already clean/washed, you can skip this step.
Cut the morels in half lengthwise. Try to preserve the shape of them as they are beautiful in a dish.
Heat up a skillet to medium heat and add half the butter. Dice shallot and add to skillet.
Add morels to skillet, try not to crowd them. Cook for 3-5 minutes on each side.
Morels are toxic eaten raw, so you never want to eat them without cooking them first. They won’t kill you, but you will regret it.
Wash and chop asparagus into pieces roughly 1 inch long. Add to skillet.
Cook for 3 minutes, then add the rest of the butter and the heavy cream.
Turn heat back to medium-low, and let simmer for 30 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, go grill your steak. Or cook it on your stove top. Or whatever it is you most like to do with steaks. Just don’t screw it up, okay? I’m trusting you with this one.
As the sauce and the steak cook, you can prepare your pasta. I used a spinach spaghetti for this one, but it’s really up to you.
Bring 2-3 cups of lightly salted water up to a boil in a stock pot. Add pasta. Turn heat down to medium-high, and cook for 7-10 minutes.
How to tell if your spaghetti is done cooking: take a piece out of the pot and throw it at the wall. If it sticks, it’s done. If not, it needs a few more minutes.
Yes, I’m serious. CIA probably has a different method though.
Once your steak is fully cooked, the pasta is done, and the sauce has been simmering for a half hour, you’re ready to plate it up.
This was totally yummy and one of the more satisfying meals I’ve had in awhile. Amanda loved it too, and despite her initial fears has come to accept that morel hunting is actually pretty awesome.
I took the other half of our haul and set about learning how to dry them for indefinite storage. There are many different methods out there on the internet, but since I didn’t have a dehydrator and it was expected to rain the next few days, I dried them in my oven.
I did this by running a thread through the base of the mushrooms and putting them all together like a necklace. I then removed all but one oven rack on the highest available slot and hung them from it. Leaving the oven on 175 degrees F, I kept the oven door cracked and had a fan blowing in that direction. This method took about 6 hours.
When it was finished, I put a mason jar and lid into the oven for about 5 minutes (to make sure there was absolutely no moisture in it), and then dropped the dried up mushrooms into it and sealed them up. Mushrooms will stay good like this for years.
To reconstitute them for cooking, simply soak them in water for about 30-45 minutes and you’re good to go.
I’m already trying to figure out when I can sneak out into the woods again before the season’s over…
Do you have any cool experiences with wild foods?