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Springtime treats and tricks

Food for Thought

However you pronounce it (mor-els or mor-els), they’re a flavorful treasure to be found only in spring and only under specific conditions. Whatever those conditions are (and the expert hunters don’t all agree) once you’re discovered them, the next step is to figure out just how to get the most from them. Having enjoyed them as a child and nearly every year since, I’ve learned a few things about finding them, cleaning them, storing them, and the best ways to cook them for the most flavor.
Mushroom hunters are notoriously vague about just where and when to go searching for these elusive morsels. Some say that you won’t find any before the asparagus, or the peonies, have broken through the soil. Others say you must wait until the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. A number of successful hunters maintain that you won’t find them until there has been at least one warm, humid night to bring them out of hiding. As for where to look, everybody has their own clues to the most productive environment. Stay away from hog pastures, some believe; others claim you should search where horses are pastured. I’ve been told of bonanzas around dead elm trees, around and even on the tops of old tree stumps, under pine trees, gooseberry bushes, or just about any place on the south slope of a hill. I’ve been informed that the best mushroom hunters are young children because they are close to the ground, or that the best way to spot them is from high up on horseback.
I must confess that I’ve eaten far more mushrooms than I’ve found during my lifetime, but I made sure my children knew as much about finding them as they could learn from experience as well as from other, successful mushroom foragers. Now that time has made it difficult for me to trudge up and down wooded hillsides, leap across creeks and gullies, crawl under bushes and over fallen branches, climb fences, and trudge for miles over rough ground, I must rely on the generosity of others to provide me with a satisfactory supply each spring.
My mother always dumped the mushrooms, which she called “sponge mushrooms,” into a sink full of salted water to force out any slugs or bugs hiding in them. Then she rinsed them, drained them, and stored them in the refrigerator. She still had to use them fairly soon, because of the water they contained, or they became soft and spoiled easily. I learned that it is best not to wash them until just before use, but if they are especially dirty and must be washed before storing, it is wise to put several paper towels with them in a plastic bag. The towels will absorb the extra moisture and help keep them fresh and crisp much longer. The towels should be replaced with dry ones when they become damp enough to squeeze any water from them.
As for cooking, everybody has their own favorite recipes for mushrooms, and my favorite is in scrambled eggs; I saute them gently in butter before adding beaten eggs. All the flavor from the butter and the mushrooms goes into the eggs and nothing is lost. The only way I knew them as a child was dipped in beaten egg, then cracker crumbs, and fried in butter. This kept them from shrinking as the moisture was cooked out, so it looked like more, but it was a trade-off with the crumb crust hiding some of the flavor. I learned, later to dip them into a mixture of beaten egg and about half as much water, drain them in a colander for several minutes, then shake them in a bag with a mixture of corn starch and cracker meal, and fry them in a mixture of butter and vegetable oil. This provides a lighter crust, still keeps them from shrinking, and doesn’t soak up as much oil. In just the past couple years, I found another way to coat and season them without the doughiness produced by the egg and crumbs. After washing and allowing them to drain on paper towels, I shake them in a bag with dry onion ring coating mix before frying them in a combination of butter and oil. This adds a nice flavor and a delicate crust that doesn’t seem too greasy. Morels can also be used in all sorts of recipes such as soups, sauces and casseroles, but it seems a waste when button mushrooms will do as well.
In years when luck is on my side, I try to save some of the mushrooms for use later, or at least for a treat on special occasions. Mother used to air-dry the extras by simply placing them in an old pillowcase and hanging them out on the clothesline on dry, breezy days until they were totally dry and rattled like a bag of paper mâché. She stored them in the cupboard and reconstituted them in hot water, weighted down with a heavy plate until they were plumped up again. While uncooked mushrooms don’t freeze well, it is easy to sauté them in butter until limp, without any flour or other coating, and seal them, along with the resulting buttery juices, in plastic bags and freeze them.