Morels provide good reason to take a walk.
For many Canadians, finding the first morels each spring is cause for celebration. The emergence of these honeycomb-textured mushrooms from the cold ground heralds the return of not only lengthening days and warmer weather but of gardening season and promise of backyard produce.
Morel lovers often enjoy the search as much as the taste of these fungi since morels can pop up where you least expect to find them. Morels fruit most abundantly on ground that has been recently cleared or burned – construction sites can be good places to find them – and in elm and fruit orchards. Unlike other species of mushrooms, morels cannot be domesticated. A plentiful crop one year does not mean that they can be found in the same area in subsequent years. In fact, that they are so elusive gives morels some of their cachet among gourmets and causes the price to fluctuate wildly each year depending on the luck foragers have in finding a ready supply.
Sometimes called sponge mushrooms, morels are a conical shaped fungus with deep, wavy ridges that traverse their length. The stem ends can be quite tough and each mushroom has a cavity that can trap hot sauces so be careful when you take a bite of a morel since a shockingly hot surprise might be inside. Like truffles, morels belong to the category of fungus called the ascmycetes. Unlike other mushrooms, fungi in this category do not have gills or pores.
Whether picking or buying, avoid morels whose caps are soft or mushy, or mushrooms that become granular when rubbed since these are signs of being old and potentially wormy. Because of the irregular shape of the surface of morels, they cannot be cleaned easily even when rubbed or brushed. Likewise, avoid using water to wash morels since, like raspberries, even brief soaking removes their flavor and damages their texture. If the morels you pick seem gritty or dirty, cut them in half lengthwise and run them quickly under cold water. Blot on paper towel and cook immediately.
Although button mushrooms can be sliced and added raw to salads, morels should always be eaten cooked. They contain a chemical called monomethylhydrazine (MMH), which can cause acute illness, especially if the raw morels are ingested with a glass of wine or other alcohol. Another provisio is to pick only mushrooms that you are sure are morels. False morels are a very similar looking mushroom that is toxic. Generally, false morels look just like edible morels except that instead of the cap being symmetrical it is contorted or misshapen. You can verify the authenticity of morels by foraging with an experienced mushroom hunter and by consulting books such as the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (Knopf, 1981).
As a chef, my favourite thing about morels is their wonderfully deep, woodsy flavour. As a gardener and hiker, one of my favorite things about morels is that their appearance entices many foragers back out into the fresh air where they can renew their excitement about the coming gardening and backyard entertaining season.
Dana’s Morel and Leek Tart
1 tbsp (15 mL) cornstarch
1 tsp (5 mL) granulated sugar
2/3 cup (150 mL) milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup (125 mL) shredded Gruyere cheese
¼ tsp (1 mL) freshly ground nutmeg
3 tbsp (45 mL) butter
½ cup (125 ml) thinly sliced ramps or young leeks,
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups (500 mL) stemmed, small, fresh morels,
¼ tsp (2 mL) each salt and pepper
1/2 pkg. (375 g) thawed, frozen puff pastry
Combine cornstarch and sugar in a 2 cup (500 mL) glass measure. Gradually whisk in milk until smooth. Microwave on high for 1-1/2 to 2 minutes, or until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Stir at least once during cooking. Stir some of hot milk mixture into beaten egg then whisk warmed egg into sauce. Microwave on medium for 20 to 40 seconds or until thickened. Whisk until smooth. Stir in gruyere and nutmeg.
Melt half butter in a skillet set over medium heat. Add the ramps and sauté for 3 minutes or until softened. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the remaining butter, mushrooms, salt and pepper. Increase heat to medium-high and sauté for 2 minutes or until leeks are lightly browned. Preheat oven to 400F (200C).
Roll pastry out into a large rectangle and fit into a 4 X 13 inch tart pan. Trim any pastry that overhangs the edge.Spread custard evenly over the pastry. Spoon mushroom mixture over custard evenly. Bake in the lower third of the oven for 25 minutes or until pastry is puffed and golden. Cool for 15 minutes before slicing and serving. Makes 4 servings.