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Foraging for the Elusive Morel – Uncovering the Mysteries of Leaf Litter

Jordan Wright
May 2010

A cache of the elusive morel - photo by Jordan Wright

A cache of the elusive morel - photo by Jordan Wright

The season for morels is upon us, and the only way in God’s creation I was going to collect and eat a wild mushroom was to go into the woods accompanied by an expert mycologist. Anything else was a deal-breaker. I put the thought of the odd copperhead out of mind and prepared for my orientation with the President of the Mycological Society of Washington (MAWDC), Ray LaSala; Forays Chair, Mitch Fournet; and a couple of the club’s “shroom” experts. It was no small feat to tamp down my excitement at the possibility of discovering morels less than thirty miles from my front door, but there is nothing like mystery and adventure to fire up the spirit, and morels have a certain earthy allure to a chef.

With samples of chanterelles and morels spread out on a picnic table for viewing and instructions on how to cut the mushroom…pick first then cut off at the base…we signed waivers releasing MAWDC from our possible imminent demise due to picking and eating dangerous fungi.

A soft rain was beginning to fall when our group of fifteen neophytes tromped off with our group leaders. We had come armed with field compasses, net bags or woven reed baskets, magnifying loupes, and pocketknives for collecting the precious specimens. I chose Culinary Chair, John Harper, hoping to gain some insight as to how to prepare my much-anticipated cache.

There are certain distinctive characteristics regarding terrain, weather conditions and flora, that entice the spores of the morel to spring up out of the leaf litter, fully formed and reveal themselves to the novice forager.

The most auspicious time of year for collecting morels is when local cherry trees drop their blossoms, the black locust is flowering, and the purple pink flowers of the Eastern redbud dot the landscape. One should look for tulip poplars and the soft carpet of leaf litter beneath the trees. Old apple orchards in flower, and decaying elms, both Slippery and American, especially when the tree is rotting out, can provide an excellent habitat for morels.

Orientation by MAWDC President Ray LaSala - photo by Jordan Wright

Orientation by MAWDC President Ray LaSala - photo by Jordan Wright

Another clue can be the ash tree (fraxinus species) with its white-splotched diagonal bark carved with deep furrows. When identifying the ash, Dr. David L. Roberts of the Michigan State University Extension writes, “Very few trees in our landscapes and forests have opposite branching. The predominant types are maple, ash, dogwood and horsechestnut. A simple phrase to remember when identifying trees with opposite branching is to use the acronym ‘MAD Horse’ which represents Maple, Ash, Dogwood & Horsechestnut.” That sounds like a helpful tip to me.

As for optimum climactic conditions, temperatures should be in the high 50’s and there should be rain or overnight dew. Precisely the conditions we had last week.

The elusive morel - photo by Jordan Wright

The elusive morel - photo by Jordan Wright

LaSala told us, “Morels grow in a sight line like telephone wires.” So if you spy one, chances are you can find more in a row stretching out on either side. He describes its appearance as “a hollow swayed stem, “felty” in feel and with no overhang.” He warned us that it is poisonous if eaten raw. Dried they can last for years (LaSala has a stash of morels he regularly taps into) and they are easily rehydrated.

Within minutes of our setting off, cries of, “I found one!” and “Is this a morel?” echoed throughout the woods and groups converged to investigate the sight line for more treasures nearby. LaSala said that before picking, “Australian Aborigines do a tap-tap-tap with their feet to spread the spores for future hunters.” And he advised, “Not to spread the leaves or rake as it disturbs the natural environment.”

As we foraged through likely habitats, heads bent and eyes trained laser-like to the ground, it became abundantly clear that there were some novices in the group that were far better at spotting morels than others. And after two hours of searching and finding only one tiny morel, I must confess I resorted to botanizing.

Edible greenbrier vine tendrils - photo by Jordan Wright

Edible greenbrier vine tendrils - photo by Jordan Wright

Pleasantly distracted by spring ephemerals, I spied delicate Virginia claytonia, mayapples, numerous fern species, Solomon’s seal, and Jack-in-the-Pulpits peppering our path. Along with chomping on the early garlic mustard leaves, we cut off the tender shoots, leaves and tendrils of the greenbrier vine for salads. They taste like asparagus, only better, if you can imagine that!

In the end I decided that my astigmatism didn’t allow for more precise deciphering of the beiges and tans of the leaf litter and consoled myself with the successes of my fellow foragers who were over the moon dreaming of their trophies in their dinner plans.

MAWDC Culinary Chair, John Harper instructs the novice foragers - photo by Jordan Wright

MAWDC Culinary Chair, John Harper instructs the novice foragers - photo by Jordan Wright

If you decide to purchase morels you can get them dehydrated – one ounce for $16.99 at Balducci’s and at Whole Foods for $19.99. If you’re luckier than I was, ½ pound of fresh morels is approximately the equivalent of one ounce.

Here is a delicious recipe to try that uses one ounce of dried morels. It’s from Sous Chef Matt Finarelli of Open Kitchen in Falls Church.

Red Wine Morel Cream Sauce

Yield: 1½ cups
• 1 oz dried morels
• 1½ cups heavy cream
• 1 ea shallot – small dice
• 2 cloves garlic – minced
• ¾ cup red wine – Zinfandel or Syrah work nicely
• 1 Tbsp Cognac
– If you have fresh morels, dry them in a paper bag on your counter top for a few days. It’s important to start with dried morels so they can absorb the cream.
– Rehydrate the dried morels in the cream for about 2-4 hours
– In a saucepan over medium heat, sweat shallots in a small amount of oil until translucent, then add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
– Add the red wine, and reduce gently until it has almost all evaporated.
– Add the morels and the cream they soaked in and gently reduce the mixture to about 1 cup in total volume.
– Remove some morels from the sauce to save for garnish if desired, puree rest of sauce to a smooth consistency in a blender or with an immersion blender.
– Return sauce to pan, place back on heat, add the Cognac and reduce slightly.

Serve this sauce with game bird (like pheasant, guinea fowl, quail or partridge) or on top of rabbit. Also, be sure to add any accumulated roasting juices (fat removed) from the meat to the sauce – it only helps the final flavor that much more!

This article in no way suggests or promotes consuming wild mushrooms of any kind without an expert guide. Contact the Mycological Society of Washington for guided forays, pot luck mushroom dinners and membership information.

For questions or comments on this article contact [email protected].

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