I know. I didn't believe it either, until Richard Bailey took me out foraging the other day. We jumped a guardrail, headed down into a ravine, and there they were—hiding in the leaf litter beneath an old, abandoned apple tree.
Bailey is an amateur mycologist—he learned a lot of what he knows from his wife, who's German—and he says he found his first morel growing near an old apple tree stump in his driveway a few years back. He consulted a guidebook—Mushrooms of Cape Cod and the National Seashore by William Neill and Arleen and Alan Bessette—and discovered that the stump was ideal morel habitat. "Fruiting," the entry read. "Near dead elms, in old apple orchards, burned areas, mixed hardwoods, and sometimes under conifers." Bailey's been finding them every spring since.
Morels are strange looking—the ones we found were about four inches tall, sticking out of the ground at a slight angle, with a short, smooth, cream-colored stem and a golden top that looked sort of like a cross between a brain and a honeycomb. But they're also beautiful. They're delicate, and hollow, and they give off the air of something elusive. Partially, of course, that's because they are: they're one of the most prized wild edible mushrooms in New England. As my friend Eric puts it, they're the kind of mushrooms that can own a dish.
The time to forage for them is now. Bailey says to wait for a warm day following a wet day, around the season when the apple trees are in full blossom, or just after the petals have passed. The book says they're around anytime from April to June, and that they can be found alone, or in clumps. We found six by our tree.
Bailey's only condition for sharing was that I had to eat mine; I couldn't chicken out. I didn't—I did some research first, on what sort of false morels might be lurking around (read more on that over here and in the book)—but once I was sure, I dug in. I got out a scoop of oat groats from our grain CSA and a bag of shiitakes I bought from Julie Winslow a few weeks back, and simmered them with onions and mushroom broth into a rich, earthy pilaf. I cut the stems from the morels, used a paintbrush to dust them off, and spooned the pilaf inside.
I added a drizzle of melted butter and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan, and that was it. I put them in the oven, and the mushrooms sort of melted into the butter as they warmed up, while the cheese got crisp on top. My two prizes didn't last very long. Alex and I counted to three, took our first bites, and a few minutes later, congratulated ourselves on the fact that we weren't dead. I wish we could have them again, and again.
No luck yet, but I've been scouting old apple trees all week.
The good thing about this recipe is that if you can't find any morels, it has two parts, and you can at least enjoy the first. Step one is to make an oat groat, shiitake, and mushroom broth pilaf (adapted from Whole Grains Every Day Every Way by Lorna Sass), which any one of you can do once the Orleans Farmers' Market opens this ( ! ) Saturday ( ! ) and Julie Winslow starts selling again.
We got our oat groats from our grain CSA, but you can also buy them New England-grown from Wood Prairie Farm in northern Maine. If you've never had oat groats, you're in for a treat. Shape-wise, they're similar to rice, but they have a sort of silky sweetness that makes them ideal for things like pilaf or risotto. (Also, if you don't have a mushroom broth recipe already, there's a good one over here.)
Of course, if you have part two—the morels—you're in for a treat. They soak up the butter and Parmesan on the outside, and inside, the pilaf adds an earthy richness that makes the whole thing pretty divine. Either way, I think you'll find the pilaf, stuffed or on its own, is a nice side dish. I imagine it would go particularly well with a roasted chicken and a heap of creamed spinach.
2 cups mushroom broth
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 and 1/4 cups slivered shiitake mushrooms
1 and 1/2 cups dry oat groats, rinsed
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
2 morel mushrooms, roughly 4-5 inches long
1/2 ounce grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bring the mushroom broth to a boil, and leave it to simmer, covered, while you work.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, celery, and shiitakes and sauté for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent. Pour in the oats and stir until everything is well-mixed. Turn off the heat and pour the boiling mushroom broth over the oats. Add the salt and stir well.
Cover the Dutch oven and put it into the preheated oven. After 35 minutes, taste the oats. If they're tender, remove them from the oven and let them sit for 5 minutes. If not, keep baking (you may need to add a bit of boiling water if the oats are not yet tender but getting dry). They shouldn't need more than another 10-15 minutes at most. Once you pull them out of the oven, let the pilaf rest for five minutes; then stir in the thyme. (Note: do not turn the oven off. You'll need it again in a few minutes.)
Clean the morels of any bugs and dirt (a small paintbrush works well) and cut off their stems. Spoon in pilaf—you may need to use something like the end of a chopstick to pack it down—until the mushrooms are full. (You will have extra pilaf. Quite a bit, in fact; save that for another meal.)
Arrange the stuffed morels in a small baking dish. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan, and drizzle them over the mushrooms. Sprinkle the tops of each morel with grated Parmesan. Bake 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are soft and the cheese is crisp on top. Eat at once.