Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mushroom Hunting

It was an early spring day in 1967, so early in the season that the leaves were barely buds on the trees. The sun was warm but the breeze was cool. We joined another doctor's family and headed into the woods to hunt mushrooms.

With directions from a trusted friend, we hoped to find lots of morels. The locations with the biggest mushrooms would never be shared, but we might find some small-to-medium ones. And besides, it was a nice day to be outside.

My fifth birthday was not until later that year, and yet this was not my first, nor would it be my last, mushroom hunt. I enjoyed being outside, and I loved looking down at the ground as we walked along, spread out across the area, I decided that being closer to the ground was an advantage and I found a lot of them. I had learned to pick them carefully, so that they snapped close to the ground. They were then placed carefully in the brown paper bag I had with us.

The only difference between this hunt and others is the photographic evidence. (I'm the littlest one with the pale blue sweatshirt.)

Once we got them home, the morels were inspected to make sure any insects were removed, then well-rinsed, drained, then tossed gently in flour or fine cornmeal and fried in a large skillet. It had to be large because we always ate them all. I don't remember anything we had with them, though I'm sure there was other food. But when we ate morels, they are all I remember.

The areas we used to hunt mushrooms was gradually lost to us, developed for housing, or changing hands to someone we didn't know (and therefore couldn't get permission from). By the time I was in junior high school the only morels I saw were gifts to my dad from one or another of his patients.

After college I stayed in Massachusetts (where I once thought I saw a tiny morel by the back steps of a building, but only once and it was a many years ago). I never see morels in the grocery stores here, and I have given up looking for them there.

So I was surprised a few years ago to find a package of dried morels in the store. They were expensive, but I couldn't resist them. I brought them home and put them in the cabinet because I had no idea what to do with them. With their water-weight gone they were as light as air. I knew they had to be reconstituted, but was pretty sure I wouldn't want to fry them the way my mom had "back when."

Soon after I was delighted to read a post by Molly Wizenberg at her blog Orangette in which she swooned over some morels. I bravely asked for her advice in the comments and she suggested sauteing the reconstituted mushrooms with green beans or asparagus.

It took me three more years, but while my wife was out of town, I finally gave it a try. In fact, I ran two parallel food experiments. I played with some short-grained brown rice and some black wild rice, cooked together as a kind of pilaf. While that was going I turned to the morels.

I opened the package dubiously, wondering if they would just crumble to a powder. They survived OK, so I soaked half of the package in hot water while I cleaned and cut the asparagus (on sale that week). I heated up butter in a skillet and sauteed the mushrooms and asparagus. I no longer remember which went in first (I got two phone calls while I was trying to cook) but it certainly looked OK.

I plated it with the rice and remembered to take a picture before diving in.

I want to tell you that it was perfect - that the morels had the same taste I remember from childhood. Alas, I cannot. They were good, and they were entertaining, but the texture was definitely lacking, and the taste muted. I can't blame the poor mushrooms, deprived of their water so long ago that they probably barely remember themselves. But what they mostly did was spark a desire in me to track down fresh morels, somehow. I'll be on the lookout.

And on an up note, the rice was very pleasing to me and I even remember the proportions I used. We'll be having that again.


Maria said...

This would be great if only I liked mushrooms. My partner and my daughter adore them, though.

Lovely memory, yes.

sister AE said...

I promise I'll write about a food you like one of these days!