I roamed the yard this weekend, in search of weeds to exterminate. Mostly the house is surrounded by hordes of dandelions. In springtimes past, I spent many hours, trowel in hard, uprooting dandelions. I left the lawn pitted like a miniature battlefield, and then, next spring, they bloomed again in dazzling multitudes. After three years, I realized the dandelion is invincible. Now, I try to appreciate its scraggly beauty, the first spray of color in spring.
Among the dandelions, I stalked a different foe, the dreaded spear thistle, a plant that stabs viciously at fingers and feet. The thistle bears fine, sharp needles, a peril to man and beast alike.
I found several thistles, and treated each with herbicide. And so I spent a half hour, wondering about dandelions and thistles, when suddenly, amid the apple trees, I made a discovery: The morels have returned!
The morel mushrooms on my land seem to sprout every other year. This relates to their growth cycle, which I’ve read can require five years, and I assume also to the amount of spring rain. When I’ve found them, I’ve intentionally left some untouched, hoping the spores will seed larger crops, and this seems to have worked. This year I count about fifty.
Morels grow worldwide, but they’re difficult to cultivate. They thrive best among the neglected leaf litter of forests and seem to favor old orchards. I had never seen them prior to living in Vermont. They are famed as much for their taste as for the fanatic morel hunters, who roam the spring woods, foraging until their baskets overflow, then zealously safeguard their favored spots. They have colorful nicknames, including “sponge mushroom,” “molly moocher,” and my personal favorite, the “hickory chicken.” And morels are expensive, generally twenty dollars per pound. At a market in Chicago, I saw them for thirty dollars per pound. At that rate, I could make some good cash.
I picked about ten bucks of fresh hickory chickens.
To make a dinner from the morels, I added the other great springtime forest crop, the furled shoots of ostrich fern called “fiddleheads.” The ferns grow in damp ground everywhere, much easier to find than morels. They’re named, of course, for the resemblance to the curled head of a violin. Like morels, they’re harvested for just a few weeks in spring. I got mine at the local market.
It takes some courage to have a meal of morels and fiddleheads, for each ingredient is individually poisonous. According to my reading, morels contain “a weak toxin” that yields nausea, numbness, and confusion. Fiddleheads generally cause stomach cramps, and occasionally contain a carcinogen which, to discourage overgrazing, causes blindness in sheep. And there’s a bastard relation called “false morel” which can cause coma and death. I was pretty sure I didn’t have the false morel. But I’m a gambler, and my papers are in order.
The key to avoiding disease, of course, is to cook properly. The fiddleheads need to boil for ten minutes, during which time the water turned the color of squid ink and certainly appeared poisonous. Then they are sautéed in oil; I added a little garlic salt. The morels were also sautéed, a reliable internet source assuring me that the toxin is “thermolabile,” and therefore destroyed by heat. I cooked some plain; others I first dredged in flour.
In the end, I had a meal of morels, fiddleheads, and rice, garnished with a bit of lemon juice. The fiddlehead tastes like a grassy mix of broccoli and asparagus, with al dente firmness. The morel has a nutty-earthy flavor, and a slightly burnt edge from the sauté pan; the texture reminded me of grilled trout. Both ingredients had good taste, but in truth I valued them more highly for their interesting back story than their flavor. Adding a glass of fresh IPA, it was a nice spring dinner.
If you enjoy these posts, please subscribe. Just scroll to the bottom and click ‘Follow this Blog.’