It's April, the second week of, and the weather has been less than spring-like for the past seven days. Snow, sleet, rain and even some hail have been alternating with brief glimpses of the sun this past week, with below-normal temperatures prevailing, leaving us longing for more than just the occasional tease of spring! Those longing thoughts lead me down a trail, literally, of some favorite spring memories of foraging for one of my favorite foods; morels! Now, if you hail from the Midwest, these lovely fungi are more familiar as "sponge mushrooms", or any number of other common names, to you. But regardless of what we call them, they are arguably more than worth the hours spent hunting for them (or the price to buy them), each spring.
During my childhood, my mother would take us out into the woods to find them, and it was always such a thrill when we did. Usually we found only a few, but they were delicious in our scrambled eggs the next morning, and occasionally the conditions would be just right and we would find many. Oh, happy day! Years later, I trekked to Michigan with family just to hunt for them. Up there, they could literally be found in big patches, just as promised by my then father-in-law, Don. Though I thought the tales he told of finding them like that were exaggerations ("fish stories" for fungus, so to speak), they were indeed true. While never experiencing that back home in Indiana, as my family grew I could always count on my son, Nate (the outdoors man), going out into the woods and finding some for us to enjoy each spring.
Morels are a delicacy, to be sure, but I had no idea of just how much so back then! It boggles my mind now when I think of how we would gather the family and fry literally pounds of them, pile them on a platter, and sit down to a meal with fried morels (dredged in flour and a touch of cornmeal, fried in lard or shortening with a bit of butter-how rich!) as the entree. We called it a "mess" of mushrooms! Since I can't forage for them, I now have to purchase them, and the cost is prohibitive to consuming them that way! Those foraged "sponge mushrooms" we enjoyed then cost between $30 and $45 per pound here in Chicagoland during the height of the season. Definitely a splurge.
For you who have experienced them as I did, or enjoyed them at a fine-dining establishment, you appreciate these earthy morsels of goodness. To make it easy for all of you who already love them, and for those who haven't partaken of them yet but are curious as to what all the fuss is about, I'm sharing a recipe that highlights morels, without breaking the bank! I adapted this recipe from one by one of my favorite chefs and cookbook authors, Patricia Wells. Crispy, cheesy and decadent with both morels and more traditional mushrooms, this is a great appetizer or accompaniment to soup or a salad. Definitely try this recipe!
And warm weather hurry up and get here already.............
Morels and Gruyere Cheese On Grilled Toast
1 ounce dried morels (if you are fortunate to have FRESH morels, the equivalent is 3-4 ounces)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 ounces fresh mushrooms, washed and thinly sliced (I like baby bellas)
8 slices firm bread (I used a dense multi-grain, a large French or sourdough baguette works, soft bread will not hold up well in this recipe)
½ cup sour cream (or creme fraiche, if you can find it-there's a recipe coming later for this!)
4 ounces Gruyere cheese, freshly grated (plus extra for sprinkling on before grilling)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
A small handful of fresh chives, minced
- Cover the morels with boiling water and set aside for 30 minutes. Drain them and rinse with cold water, then cut in half lengthwise. Rinse again, making sure they are cleaned of any grit or sand, and drain well.
- Preheat the broiler.
- In a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the morels and the fresh mushrooms and cook until they have absorbed the butter and wilted, several minutes.
- Toast the bread on both sides under the broiler.
- Add the sour cream to the mushrooms, increase the heat to medium-high and cook until the sour cream has reduced by half, several minutes more.
- Add the 4 ounces of cheese to the morel-and-sour cream mixture and cook, stirring constantly, just until the cheese is melted and incorporated into the mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
- Place a generous tablespoon of the mushroom-and-cheese mixture onto each piece of toast, sprinkle with a bit of the extra Gruyere, then liberally with chives and broil just until hot and bubbling. Cut in half to serve as an accompaniment or into quarters to serve as an appetizer. Serve immediately.