We trust our own mushroom-foraging acumen when we're hunting for chanterelles midsummer through early fall. But in the spring, once the snow has melted and warm days have returned, we rely on our mushroom purveyor to find us fresh wild morels—harbingers of the vernal season. They are mysterious and elusive, not always returning to the same spot of the previous year. Some varieties appear in old orchards, a cluster of them at the base of a dying tree; some come up where fires (either natural or man-made) have burned the earth, a sure sign of regenerative growth. One spring, we couldn't believe our luck: We almost tripped over a single beige morel that had popped up in the grass in the middle of the backyard. But we were too scared to eat it, unsure whether it was safe to consume.
It's easy to find cultivated morels; they're available year-round at the supermarket. But they're too dear and often banged-up, and they have no flavor. In the winter, we use dried morels for their concentrated, earthy flavor in our stews, braises, and ragù. By spring, we're ready for the subtly smoky flavor of fresh wild morels.
Morels are found throughout the United States. They are part of the Morchellaceae family and include many species within the Morchella genus. Their cone-shaped caps, distinctively pockmarked like a natural sponge, range in color from pale creamy white (seen in the morels called "whites") to yellow or gray ("blondes"), to golden tan, to dark brown, to nearly charcoal ("blacks"). The darker the color, the deeper the flavor. They can be short and pinkie-thin with tight caps, or fat with frilly ridges, as small as a walnut or as large as a deer's ear, a pineapple, or any size in between. Their off-white, hollow stems are contiguous with their caps. We love them all, large or small, white or chocolate-brown.
Like most mushrooms, morels need to be cleaned before use—the honeycomb pockets in their caps trap sand, dirt, and sometimes little critters. We use a pastry brush to remove any debris. If the mushrooms are particularly dirty or large, we cut them in half lengthwise, which gives us a chance to brush out anything unwanted from the hollow stem that runs the full length of the mushroom. If they're impossibly sandy, we give them a quick rinse and brush out the stubborn grit, being careful not to waterlog them in the process.
Now, it's time to cook them (and cook them you must, as they contain toxins that are eliminated by heat). We like to sauté them in butter, so their meaty yet delicate texture and nutty flavor take on the richness. Every season, we fall into a flavor jag: One year, we sautéed our morels, doused them with cream, and served them spooned over wild Copper River salmon or toast, or stirred into pasta. Another year, it was bathing them in butter, seasoning them with salt and pepper, and serving them over tender peeled asparagus.
This year, we're dipping them in batter and frying them, in a classic preparation from the Midwest. But instead of a thick, doughy version, we make a thin Italian-style fritto misto batter of flour, white wine, and salt. It coats the morels lightly and fries up sheer and crisp. We sprinkle them with salt while they're draining and still hot, then eat them like salted peanuts.
For dinner, we'll pile the fried morels, hot and crisp, on top of a thin seared ribeye steak, keeping the morels the hero of the meal. Earthy morels and steak medium-rare make up our springtime steak frites jag this year.
Who knows what next year will bring?