Thursday, May 05, 2011

Got Me Some Whatchamacallzits

Last Sunday I phoned my cousin-in-law to get a southwestern lower Michigan fishing report. He was at his cabin.

“Too chilly and windy”, he said. “Nobody has been out on the water, but we did go out in the woods this morning and found about three dozen whatchamacallzits (his term for morel mushrooms)”.

If I wasn’t in the middle of yard work a quick trip to the lake would have been in order. He called back later in the day and told me he had found a few dozen more.

Yesterday he called to ask me if freezing them was ok since he ended up with so many. No, I told him. The best way to preserve your whatchamacallzits is to dehydrate them and store them in vacu-seal bags. He then told me if I wanted to drive out to his main residence in Hobart IN he would give me a bag since he had too many and they would spoil. He didn’t feel like dehydrating them so this morning I went on a short morel mushroom rescue mission.

It’s been a while since I have eaten fresh morels. They are outstanding when sautéed with some sliced carmelized leek in a ton of butter and used as a topping for a yummy steak. This is serious eats, folks. It’s a real seasonal treat. While I never, ever top a steak with anything else but butter, morels are the exception.

Morels are in season during mid-spring for only a few weeks or so. A rainy period really brings them out. He told me this is the best year in memory for the delectable and rare fungi due to an unusually wet early spring.

Finding them isn’t easy. They grow in the dense woods and prefer to be near decaying trees. Last year’s leftover leaves conceal them well in the mass of monochromatic decay. As new vegetation sprouts it tends to cover them up further.

Morel hunters equip themselves with a long stout, straight stick, an old mesh onion bag, sharp knife and rubber boots. It is said that placing them in the mesh bag helps drop the spores along your path making the picker some sort of Johnny Morelseed helping to spread a bounty for the following year.

Morels are quite safe to eat since they look like no other mushroom. Holding the plastic bag of fresh morels up to my nose gave off an aroma that reminds me of a rich red wine. Other than using the term ‘nutty’, the flavor is indescribable.

If one is lucky enough to find anyone selling them at retail they go for well over $20 per pound dehydrated. This is the only way restaurants can get them because morels cannot be cultivated.

On my way back west to the bunker, in front of Johnson’s farm stand on route 6 near Portage I saw a sign that said: WOOHOO ASPARAGUS! Quickly turning in I found beautiful green shoots of fresh local grown asparagus, the first picking of the season. I asked the lady if the pile I was picking from was the woohoo asparagus or the usual garden variety (snark). She didn't get the joke.

Next stop would be the Valpo Beef Mart where I would pick up some thick beef strip steaks.

When I picked up the morels he had already soaked them so there was no need for me to do so, but I did anyway. If you pick some fresh morels the first task is to soak them in a mild brine for an hour up to overnight. This will draw out any insects or creepy critters hiding in the nooks and crannies (there almost always are). Another tip is to rinse them well afterward to remove the ever present earthen grit.

While eating sautéed morels in butter is safe eating them raw is not. This is not potentially fatal but it will give you a serious tummy ache. Breading and frying them is a waste, this makes them lose their delicate flavor and makes them taste as pedestrian as those fried button mushrooms they serve in bars. Do not waste morels by frying them.

Grilled steaks smothered in fresh morel and leek sauce, fresh steamed asparagus and mashed potatoes with leeks? This is nothing short of the very best the Midwest can offer.

Here’s a recipe I have used in the past, it’s a no fail way to prepare a perfect steak & morel dinner.

Springtime Steak & Morel Dinner

- Beef filets, strip steaks, porterhouse or venison chops.
- One leek the size of a Louisville slugger.
- Morel mushrooms
- Potatoes
- Half & Half or cream
- Fresh local asparagus

Bring your choice of meat to room temperature and coat with vegetable oil, sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper.

Boil potatoes with peel on in pot and mash when cooked through.

In one pan, carmelize chopped leaks in butter. Adding a pinch of sugar helps.

Slice morels lengthwise (smaller ones in half) and sauté with butter in another pan.

Add half the leeks into pan with sautéed morels and the other half to the potatoes.

Steam asparagus until bright green, do not overcook.

Add desired amount of half & half into pot with mashed potatoes, leeks, and mix well. OK to add garlic powder if you wish.

Grill steaks (charcoal grill is best) to desired doneness. I recommend an instant read thermometer to check steaks, when it hits 140 degrees remove steaks from grill.

Fix your plate by topping steak with copious amounts of the morel/leek/butter sauce.

Add asparagus, mashed potatoes and top them with more butter.

As always, timing this all to come together at once is a challenge.

Good luck, and enjoy.


Dan from Madison said...

Love love love Morels.

Mark said...

They go for about $20 per 1/4 lb at the Madison farmer's market - crazy. It's been a bit too cold up here yet, but later this weekend they should be ready.

Gerry from Valpo said...

Everything is a few weeks late north of I-80.

Is that $20 price for fresh or dehydrated?

Mark said...

Gerry it was for fresh.