Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Mother Load

I have a friend who is as addicted to hunting morels as I am.

The first batch she got this spring she sauteed up when she got home and ate before her husband returned. After all, we rationalized, it was only 9 mushrooms. Hardly enough to share. And just the beginning of the season.

A week later, we walked up a hillside staccato with poplars, on an East facing slope, scattered with May apples and Jack in the pulpit underfoot. If you know the terrain morels like, you'd know this was perfect.

Except it wasn't. Oh, there was one here, and after a great long while maybe another, but nothing to write a blog about. And to top it off, we went with our children, one of them dramatically and actively unhappy. The kind of reticence that gets expressed like: "This is the worst day of my life."

For a mother who ranks these few morel-gathering weeks in Spring among the best of the year, this is bad news. The dilemma -- to press on and risk turning the poor tired thing against mushroom scavenging for the rest of her natural life, or give in, potentially leaving the elusive morels to shrivel without being found, or worse, snuffled by a passing bear? (This last is my imagination. I have no idea if bears eat mushrooms.)

We tried cajoling, creating a scavenger hunt in the woods, flat out bribery. We tempted with snacks, and let the tykes rest on a log while we foraged in circles around them. We crooned, "c'mon sweetie, Mommy only gets to do this once a year,"  and when that didn't work, "buck up, it's just an hour of your life." (Face it, if you're a mom you've been there.)

In the meantime, up we walked, over fallen logs, scanning the thick carpet of dead leaves covering the forest floor for the honeycomb caps, camouflagued by the matching downed foliage. They gave us only enough to keep us from quitting -- just as we decided we'd leave, another would show itself, teasing us, daring us, taunting us to find the next. On we went, led by the morels, from one slope to the next, prodding the exhausted tyke to hang in just another moment.

When it seemed we had come up blank, the day a bust (plus, we were late for soccer practice) we headed back to our car.

"Over here," yelled a kid, running down the wooded slope ahead.

"I found one," screamed another kid, the one who just a minute ago had been seemingly near extinction. I looked down to make sure I wasn't going to trip on my way to see, and spotted a big black morel, just by my foot. As I reached for my pocketknife to cut it neatly at the dirt, I saw there were -- 6. Right in a row.

"JACKPOT," I heard a scream, and it wasn't me. From then on it was a frenzy, everywhere we turned, and sometimes where we stepped, a virtual dell of morels. We collected 2 pounds in the last half hour alone.

This is how morels operate.

It was a very good day. We div'ied them up, (this was our share, above) and left. We were late to soccer. And later, over a large glass of red wine (or lemonade) and morels sauteed in butter, as we replayed the last half hour, and plotted our return to the woods, no one cared at all.

This is how morels get you. Reel you in. To be fair, though it may be a lot of effort to find them, once you find them you need do nothing to them, indeed, they are best that way. Morels, like cats, do not like water, and keep themselves extremely clean. Cut them clean off at the bottom, and brush off any dirt before you put them in the paper bag or coffee can you collect them in and they will stay that way.

Melt a little oil and butter in the pan with some coarse salt and stir in the morels. Slice the big ones in half and leave the littles, add some shaved parsley if you have some in your garden. Stir them just until they soften, then serve.

Over a rare veal chop:

And if you have enough, the next morning, over eggs and toast:

It was after all, first batch of the spring. And to our neighbors, thanks for the woods. Sorry you were Ghana.

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