“You have to look for them like this,” whispers Clint, a robust, strapping mushroom forager as he crouches over one knee in the reception space at the Visitors Center and Chamber of Commerce of McCall, Idaho.
He earnestly peers over the floor, waving one hand gently over the imaginary pine needles before him, pivoting slowly, gingerly.
“You’ve got to be patient, because you have to LOOK, under the twigs, SLOWLY…and then…you see one! And then another! I found about forty just yesterday.”
Photo by Lee, Idaho morel hunter
He uprights his six-foot plus frame, his ruddy face glowing and baseball glove-sized hands cupped, filled with the notion of a successful search. “And, oh, my, they are delicious! And this is a great year for them.” This gleeful ambassador is delightfully putting the "fun" in fungi by mentoring locavore-curious visitors to this magical town in the Gem State.
May is the "Merry Month of Morels"--the official food of McCall--according to the Chamber, and morels are the King mushroom in the state of Idaho. In mid-May when soil temperatures rise above 50 degrees, blonde morels are the first to appear followed by grey and black fungi. As the days grow longer and warmer more edible varieties appear, including luscious gold chanterelles and earthy porcinis into the summer and fall.
Spring is the time that casual foragers and mushroom bounty hunters take to the hills to search out the prized plant, which is not only sublimely rich in flavor but in monetary riches as well -- morels can command over $40 per pound.
Photo by Wide Open Spaces
A memorable morel meal is just as much about the journey as the destination of the bounty into a fire-livened skillet. Found on the sunny side of mountain slopes, the spongy treats pop up underneath the shelter of cottonwood, larch, and fir trees. Old logging sites and forest fire burn areas with loamy, well-drained soil are prime territory for mushroom hunting.
Kim and Lee, foragers from nearby Donnelly, Idaho, say morels especially like the environment of old growth trees and shady dips from bores in the ground left by fire-felled fir trees. Kim advises to look for trilliums, whose buds are beginning to turn maroon, as a good indicator that humidity levels and temperatures have warmed enough to entice the morels up from their winter beds. They also recommend following the tracks and “other indications” left behind by wildlife, a natural symbiosis.
Scanning the forest floor at five thousand feet, Kim says harvesting the morels into a wicker basket or mesh bag helps to spread the spores over the ground, effectively sustainably harvesting the plant.
“Don’t pick all that you find clustered together; harvest just a few from each spot," she explains. "That helps regenerate the plant underground. We want to collect more next May!” she points out.
Photo by Mary Howley
With prized riches in hand, it’s time to decide upon a method of preparation to celebrate a successful treasure hunt. Morel mushrooms lend themselves to a wide variety of dishes from frittatas to short rib braises, savory crepes and spring inspired salads.
“My Grandma used to just soak them in salt water to clean them, then she’d dust them with flour and fry them in a pan so they were super crispy, oh, we would eat them by the pound!” Kim recalls happily.
Morels are very versatile when served with wine; both red and white work well depending on the other ingredients in the dish they are paired with. Pinot Noir and morels are said to be a “match made in heaven”, but bubbly can work just as successfully.
This recipe is on the lighter side of options, featuring two more classic spring characters: leeks and watercress. When offered with white Portuguese Vinho Verde the combination is delightfully herbaceous and light, foretelling long summer days of wine and mushrooms ahead.
makes approximately 18-24 servings
One dozen-or so-fresh small morel mushrooms, cut lengthwise and cleaned by soaking in salted water for a half-hour, then drained, rinsed well, and patted dry.
1 baguette sliced crosswise in quarter-inch thickness
½ cup sliced -- into rounds, then quartered -- green seedless grapes (Sounds fussy, but it will only take a minute!)
8 ounces goat cheese at room temperature (or another semi-soft cheese such as St. Andre, rind removed)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 cup diced leeks, white and pale green parts only
2 dozen sprigs watercress
1 cup crisped and crumbled jamón or prosciutto
Kosher salt and black pepper to season
1. Lightly brush the slices of bread with olive oil, season with kosher salt and pepper, and toast slices on both sides at 400 degrees; keep at room temperature.
2. In a large saucepan, sauté the morels in olive oil on medium-high heat until they begin to crisp. Add leeks and thyme, reducing heat to medium, and cook until the leeks are soft and translucent. Cool slightly.
3. Gently fold the grapes and lemon zest into the cheese, and then very lightly fold in the mushroom-leek mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Schmear this mixture onto the toast, lay a few watercress sprigs on top of each toast and sprinkle jamón crumbles over all.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.