I couldn’t believe it as I stepped over a log and almost fell on my face. But in my half stooped position I was a bit closer to the ground, and beneath some scattered leaves I saw the brown hue of a morel mushroom peeping out. My mouth dropped open in amazement.
I don’t usually have this kind of luck. More times than not I’ve gone “shrooming” and have come back empty handed. But last weekend I splurged and bought myself a steak, and I thought a side of fried morels would be just the ticket to accompany this rare treat.
When I first moved to the Northwoods close to 30 years ago, I befriended an old timer named LeRoy, and he taught me plenty about the ins and outs of hunting down these delectable fungi. LeRoy had lots of little tips on when to go looking for these beauties. He always used to say “when the leaves on the oaks are as big as mouse ears, morels are out,” and that was what I had observed on the oak in my front yard that morning. I even picked a little leaf off and imaged it on the head of a mouse, and it would have fit just right.
And so off I went into the woods to a certain spot that had produced morels in the past. But these are elusive growths, and I poked around for about an hour before I finally, literally, stumbled upon a morel bonanza hiding inconspicuously under some leaves. They brought a smile to my face, but a little longing too-my friend LeRoy would have loved this moment.
LeRoy was the man who taught me about mushrooms, but I would advise anyone who has even the slightest inkling of pursuing this hobby to get a very knowledgeable mentor, especially if eating your finds is the goal. I do have a mushroom guide I refer to frequently, but I would not eat a mushroom unless I actually saw someone else consume it first, or have a deep trust in the person who was identifying the fungus.
In fact, when I first started getting interested in mushrooms, I had no intention of eating them. I just found them fascinating aspects of the land, and I’m still captivated by their shapes and growth habits. But before I met LeRoy I was far too leery to actually consume them.
And then when I moved up north and met LeRoy, he introduced me to the culinary side of fungi. One day I brought him a specimen I had found, and he looked at me as if I was the most beautiful girl in the world. “Do you know what you have there?” he asked, shaking the brown morsel in my face. I shook my head. “You have one of the most sought after mushrooms in the world-that’s a morel!” And then we both went back to the spot and picked a few more, and LeRoy showed me how to prepare these delicacies. I was hooked.
But I also learned that there are several different types of morels that grow across the country, and the ones in the Northwoods don’t look like the traditional ones often found in the middle of the state. According to Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms, the Northwoods variety is in the morchella elata category, while the more traditional looking morel is called morchella esculenta.
But whatever they are called, that morel find the other day provided enough mushrooms not only for a side for my steak, but also as an ingredient in a delicious omelet, and I still have enough to make a pot of my favorite mushroom soup. It was a favorite of LeRoy’s, and we always made a batch every year if we were lucky enough to come home successful after one of our “shrooming” adventures.
LeRoy passed away a few years back, and I miss him and all the knowledge he used to impart. He will live on in my heart, but I can’t help but smile whenever I see a morel on the forest floor. That’s what LeRoy used to do.
Insanely Good Cream of Morel Soup
1/2 cup butter
1 Tbs. minced garlic
1 large onion, diced
8 ozs. fresh morel mushrooms, sliced
1 Tbs. chicken soup base
1 Tbs. all-purpose flour
2 cups water
2 cups heavy cream
1/8 tsp. ground dried thyme
salt to taste
2 tsp. ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Stir in the garlic, onion, and morels; cook, stirring frequently, until the onions have softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in chicken soup base and flour; cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Pour in water and cream; bring to a simmer, and cook 5 minutes. (If you want a creamier soup puree half of the soup in small batches, filling the blender no more than halfway full each time. Return soup puree to pot.) Cook on low 10 to 15 minutes. Season with thyme and salt and pepper before serving.
Associate Editor Mary Ann Doyle is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.