With this installment, we’re introducing a new feature on Health & Family that will bring you the latest trends in food. We’ll introduce you to seasonal delicacies and bring you some of their history and even the lore that surrounds why we started eating them in the first place. These goodies might be a little less familiar than the usual fare but are often packed with nutrients that make them worth the extra work to find. And because there’s no point in learning about foods if you can’t taste them, we’ll ask leading chefs, dieticians and nutritionists for their advice on their favorite ways to enjoy these gems.
For our first foray, we’re turning to one of the first fresh foods to emerge after the winter freeze: mushrooms. And morels are among fungi foragers’ favorites.
What they are: These hard-to-find mushrooms typically grow near ash, aspen, elm and oak trees. They’re recognizable by their distinctive honeycomb-like head and hollow stem. They grow all over the U.S., but the different varieties — white, yellow and black — tend to grow at different times and range from smaller than your palm to a foot long (aptly called Big Foots).
Season: You’re in luck. Normally, the season for morels runs from mid-late April to mid-May. But because this spring got off to a late start, according to farmers and foragers, the season will probably last at least a few more weeks.
Nutrition: A cup of fresh morels packs about 60 calories.
Morels are fussy fungi, to say the least. “Mushrooms, and morels in particular, have their own plan,” says Mary Carpenter, the owner of Violet Hill Farm in West Winfield, N.Y. “The entire year of weather needs to be conducive to them fruiting. If conditions are perfect, I’ve heard tell of people having found them sporadically through to fall, but some mushroom stories are like fish tales.”
Because they have such a short growing season and are hard to root out, dedicated foragers protect their favorite harvesting spots with the same close-mouthed dedication that fishermen reserve for their fishing spots. No one, according to longtime fungi followers, reveals their morel spot. “You can look online for where and when to find morels, but never specifics. You never give away your spot,” says Carpenter.
Finding morels may be challenging, but that’s what makes foraging all the more fun. Serious morel lovers even pilgrimage to morel-hunting festivals across the upper Midwest or join in guided foraging trips.
Lewiston, Mich., resident Jack Skrceny — referred to by friends as Mushroom Jack — says the Lewiston Morel Mushroom Festival attracts thousands of morel fans, who camp out in the forests for about a week to search for morels — and fortunately, there are plenty to go around. “Right now people are camped out in the woods. We get more people for morel season than deer season,” he says. “I collect thousands in a good year. If I have less than 500 in a day, I’ve had a bad day.”
To be a successful morel hunter, you have to learn about the trees that these fungi favor, says Skrceny. They’re often found near hardwood trees like elm and ash, and find dying ones especially attractive. Old decaying apple orchards can be a hot spot. In Skrceny’s area, the black morels are the first to pop up and are the tastier of the bunch. When those disappear, the meatier but lighter morels begin to emerge. “I start out eating them until I get sick of them, but then I preserve them by drying them out,” says Skrceny.
Carpenter says she teases her kids, telling them the morels are protected by fairies and that’s why they’re so hard to find. “If you see one, stop, squat and look. You have to almost train your eyes to see them,” she says. “Wise mushroomers will tell you women are better at finding them than men since their eyes are a little more adapted to seeing shades and contrasts. Kids are even better since their perspective is lower and just different. We took our 20-month-old last week and he was able to show us ones we didn’t see. It was a proud parent foraging moment.”
The good news for those of us who don’t have such sharp morel-searching skills? They’re a popular menu item in vegetable-friendly restaurants and are commonly sold at farmers’ markets. Carpenter sells whatever morels her family collects at the New York City Union Square Greenmarket. Morels are also sold commercially through supermarkets, and Whole Foods Market is typically stocked with the mushrooms when they’re in season. (It took some time for me to spot them, but I found the morels tucked in with the other locally foraged mushrooms at my local store.)
Morels are also easy to cook. They can be sautéed, grilled, pan-fried — however you prefer to eat them. Stuffed morels are also a popular dish, since their stems are hollow and easy to fill. For a simple morel recipe, try Skrceny’s easy (and perhaps highly authentic) morel recipe:
- Rinse morels
- Slice them in half
- Sauté morels in 2 tbsp. of butter in a pan over medium heat
- Lightly roll morels in flour
- Fry in well-oiled pan until golden
More adventurous chefs can try Whole Foods Market’s senior culinary educator and chef Chad Sarno’s adapted frittata:
Fresh Morels and Asparagus Tofu Frittata
- 1 (14- to 16-oz.) package silken tofu, drained
- 1/2 cup canned light coconut milk
- 3 tbsp. nutritional yeast
- 2 tbsp. cornstarch
- 1 tbsp. tahini
- 1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
- Ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 cup chopped leeks
- 1/2 (14 oz.) block firm tofu, drained and crumbled
- 1/2 cup asparagus tips
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh morels
- 1/4 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
- 1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves, chopped
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut a parchment round to fit into a 10-in. ovenproof nonstick skillet or cast-iron skillet. Set aside.
In a blender or food processor, purée silken tofu, coconut milk, nutritional yeast, cornstarch, tahini, turmeric and black pepper. Set aside.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat until hot. Add leeks and cook about five minutes or until beginning to brown and stick to the skillet. Add a splash of water to the pan and stir well to dissolve any browned bits. Add crumbled firm tofu, asparagus, morels and olives; cook five minutes, stirring occasionally. In a large bowl, combine tofu and vegetable mixture with puréed tofu mixture and basil. Pour mixture into the prepared nonstick skillet and bake 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and gently run a knife or rubber spatula around the edge to prevent sticking. Return to the oven and continue to bake 15 minutes or until golden and firm. Let stand 10 or 15 minutes before slicing.