Rookie mistakes lead to excellent outcomes…sometimes. On Sunday evening I stood at the gate counter for American Airlines, cursing the split second decision I had made a few moments before to throw my car keys into my checked bags. As the thunder pounded and the rain fell at DFW, the arrival and departure boards began to show a very disturbing pattern, “CANCELLED.” My husband had set in motion a 36 hour adventure for me. Fly to St Louis. Go to Fulton, MO, and spend one day there hunting for the seasonal morel mushroom in the wild with my dear friend, Courtney Mertens. The next flight I was confirmed for was not until some eight hours later and I had just sent the keys to the escape pod into the bowels of Hell. Had my keys been in my purse, I probably would have just gone home instead of facing a day of angry and irritable people at the airport. That would have been a big mistake.
I resolved then and there to not be an ass, to not look this gift horse in the mouth, and to sit in a quiet corner and read a book in peace. After all, when your husband offers to do full kid duty for you to go anywhere, you are a moron if you don’t readjust your outlook and enjoy every bloody second of it. I raced for the next standby flight, crossed my fingers that my name would be called as one of the lucky standby passengers, and put on a happy face. As a result of an unexpected seat upgrade, a part of my husband’s gift, my name went to spot number one on the standby list (out of 80) and I was on a plane two hours later.
Courtney retrieved me from the airport in St. Louis and whisked me back to their home where I was greeted by her husband, Doug, who was busy battering and frying fresh morel mushrooms and catfish for my welcome dinner. I had never eaten a fresh picked morel before and I can testify that the trip was worth it for that one meal alone. Morels often end up on some very dignified dishes, plated by chefs who orchestrate this unique flavor into a symphony of fine ingredients. But, for the locals who celebrate this seasonal gift yearly by collecting bags and bags of the lovely fungi, platters of fried morels are common…and wonderful.
Morels, also called Morchella, are edible mushrooms that grow in the wild, but they are very different from your average button mushroom. These little stalks are hollow…think calamari rings. The bud on the top is also hollow, but with a sort of honeycomb pattern and a dense foam texture. Our friends hunt them yearly on their property outside of Fulton, and truly gorge on them for the two to three weeks when they are growing. It is a seasonal treat. The hunt consists of family outings into the woods, walking in the sunshine, scrabbling through the brush, searching all around for the well camouflaged edibles hiding amongst the damp soil and underbrush. The Mertens involve their kids in the outings and they spend hours hiking and talking and simply being out in the beauty of it all. The appearance of the morels corresponds with the coming of Spring, and they are some of the loveliest days of the year in Missouri. It is a break from the cold winter and a harbinger of warmer days ahead.
On Monday, I awoke to morel omelettes. What a way to start a day. Courtney dropped off her two kiddos at school and we set out for the woods. We walked down an abandoned railroad track, catching up and talking about our prey. The woods opened up and ahead of us was an enormous railroad bridge crossing the river. This is the sort of bridge only crossed on foot in the folly of youth, and we were content to veer off the track and down into the woods. Immediately the ground felt wet underfoot and the shade of trees created a canopy world of flowers and spiderwebs and the brown remnants of fall leaves. While we walked for miles and miles, we were immediately on the lookout. The morels grow just about anywhere. They have found them popped up out of hard packed roads, near the creeks, away from the water, up the hills, down the hills, under trees, away from trees…just about anywhere. The beauty of the walk was tranquilizing. Off the track, I left the world behind and just absorbed everything around me. At this point I only knew what I was looking for from photographs. But eventually we came across our first morel and I was hooked on the venture.
They popped up here and there. There was no rhyme or reason that I found other than that there was just no telling where the next one might be. Between morels, I snapped photos of other mushrooms and beautiful tree fungi, turtles, flowers and butterflies. Spring was showing off.
We went to three or four different locations and collected two large bags full of morels. The Mertens suspect that we were at the tail end of the season. I thought we had found a bounty of mushrooms. They advised me that until I walk up to a patch of morels spreading as far as the eye could see, that I didn’t know bounty. I can scarcely imagine that, but I can assure you that I will be hinting for invitations yearly until I receive that particular education.
What do morels taste like? I cannot describe it to you. There is no “it tastes kind of like…” comparison to make. It is a flavor that seems multi-sensory. I think of the woefully overused and hard to pin down term “umami.” It is not just a flavor. It is bigger than that. It takes more than mere taste buds to feel it. It is certainly more than just a mushroom. It doesn’t overpower a dish by any means, but it is assertive and dominant. You wouldn’t want to hide it. To be able to use them in the silly proportions that I have in the last few days is truly an embarrassment of riches. Courtney and I threw eight ounces into a crostini appetizer and then turned around and casually threw another eight ounces into a creamy pasta dish. The night before, we must have eaten 30 of them fried and another eight ounces of them in the omelettes. Then I returned to Texas with a cardboard box filled with another two pounds or so, which I immediately threw into a butter filled skillet to re-create the crostini and pasta dishes again for my family. I still have but a few left and I am thrilled with the notion of “wasting” the whole lot of them in another inspired recipe.
But that is the funny thing about these mushrooms. I don’t want to save them. I don’t want to dry them or freeze them or hold onto them or use them judiciously. I want to gorge on them and eat them until my senses are overwhelmed. And then I want to be out of them completely for a year, and beg another invitation from of my friends to experience it again. Morels are an event, not merely an ingredient.
Over the years, I have found that Missouri is an incredible state. The walks I took on Monday rivaled the beauty of any forest I’ve ever enjoyed. Like Texas, Missouri has moments of grandeur that are lost on folks that want instant glaring beauty. Missouri is subtle, but lush and grand to me. I hope to always have excuses to go back. It might not occur to you to drop everything and hop on a plane for Fulton, Missouri for one day. But, I hope it does. And I hope that someday you do just that. And I hope that you are there in the Spring when everything comes together and these little creamy wonders start popping out of the ground for a mere week or two.
Thank you Doug and Courtney. And thank you to Karen Mertens, as well, who did some excellent grandmothering while the moms were out playing in the woods.
Morel and Goat Cheese Crostini
(Adapted from a recipe by Waverly** on Food52)
(serves 5, 2 pieces each…double, triple, quadruple if you can…they will disappear)
1 baguette, thinly sliced (10 slices)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
½ teaspoon Kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a non-stick skillet and place each bread slice into the melted butter. Flip each slice to butter the second side. Place the slices onto a cookie sheet and sprinkle them with the salt. Bake for 10 minutes, flipping the slices once with tongs. The slices should be just barely golden. Remove them from the oven and set aside.
3 tablespoons butter
6 ounces fresh morels, cleaned and sliced lengthwise
1 tablespoon shallot, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
goat cheese, to taste, softened
Add the additional 3 tablespoons of butter to the non-stick pan. When the butter has melted and the foaming has subsided, add the shallots and cook for two minutes until softened. Add the chopped morels and sauté for five to six minutes. The morels will release ample juices. Allow it to reduce down and continue to sauté until the morels are golden. Add the fresh herbs and the lemon juice and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Remove the morels to a serving bowl. Place the goat cheese, the bowl of morels and the crostini on a serving platter and allow people to assemble their own crostini. Or, spread a little cheese on each toast and then distribute the morels evenly between them. Top with a little parsley or fresh thyme and devour.
You can also add a chopped clove of garlic. Add it with a minute or two left in the saute time.
My husband was floored by this simple bite. He very much hoped that the children would reject them so that he could have the entire platter to himself. And, a little research on Food52 taught me that the mother of this recipe, Waverly, is also a lawyer turned full time mom. Funny coincidence. I think I like her a lot. Also, for a primer on the word “umami” and what it really means, see this post by Jon Rowley.