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Cooking Local Fried Morel Salad

April 20, 2012

    Welcome back to the kitchen. Spring is in full swing! I had a potluck recently and was delighted when a farming friend brough a big bowl bursting with fresh greens picked that very day. If nothing else, your local salad bowl should be running over this time of year!
    We also have asparagus, which we’ve been celebrating on the show, and this latest cycle of rain and sun can only mean one thing: morel mushroom season is nigh! Morels are one of the most delicious gifts of the forest. They take a little practice to spot and maybe some insider knowledge to get a huge stash, but these valuable mushrooms are definitely worth the trouble to go out and collect.
    Morels are prized by many throughout the world for their wonderful, nutty, earthy flavor. The French especially have mastered the art of cooking with this wild fungus. Now, if you’ve ever considered buying morels, you know they can get pretty expensive. Luckily, the flavor goes a long way.
    And even better, we live in a great area for morel hunting, which seem to grow in particular abundance in pine forested areas disturbed by fire. So don’t waste your money on morels in the store; pick these treasures for yourself in the forest! I could try to give you a few tips, but you probably know a much more experienced mushroom hunter than I who can take you out looking in person. That’s what I do! (Also, as a note of warning, please do not eat ANYHTHING you find out in the woods without consulting an expert. It is not worth risking the consequences).
    But of course, however you come across a big paper bag of fresh wild morels, snap it up and get cooking! I love adding morels to simple pasta dishes, maybe some olive oil, garlic, parsley, black pepper, and aged parmesan. Morels also go great on top of a grilled steak or a burger. And they are incomparable in rich red wine type stews. Truth be told, there are few savory dishes that wouldn’t benefit from the complex, incomparable flavor of morels.
    Now, if you ask most morel hunters how they like to enjoy their haul, you will of course get a variety of answers. But the one thing I hear over and over is the theme of simplicity. When you are working with something so delicious and fresh, less really is more. Morels split in half and sautéed in olive oil with garlic… yum! I might eat those just over the top of some crusty bread.
    Another classic favorite are breaded and fried morels. A little bit of fried crunch is a great balance to the mushroom’s natural chewiness. In fact, I’m craving some fried morels on top of a fresh baby greens salad. The full flavor of the mushrooms will almost act like a meat in the center of this dish, but you could also add some crispy bacon if you need more protein.
    Now, when you are working with fresh, wild morels, you are going to want to try and clean them a bit but DO NOT USE WATER. Mushrooms are very porous, and the morels will soak up water like a sponge and become impossible to fry correctly. But these things do grow up through the dirt, so you are going to want to take a brush, like a basting brush or even a soft toothbrush, and scrub away any excess crud from each mushroom.
    Cut off the bottom of any morels that are hard or crusty, though if they are fresh you shouldn’t have to cut away much at all. Split each mushroom in half the long way. Sometimes morels are called dryland fish, because these halves look a bit like a fish when they are breaded and fried. For this recipe I’m assuming we are working with about a pound or so of fresh morels.
    Mix up some about 1/4 cup of flour and ½ cup of corn meal with a pinch of salt and some fresh ground black pepper. Mix this all together and put it on a plate or pie pan. In a separate pie pan or wide bowl, whisk up two country fresh eggs and a splash of milk (up to a quarter cup or so).
    Soak some of the mushroom halves in the egg batter, then immediately roll them in the cornmeal coating, making sure some is stuck to all sides. In a big cast iron pan, start melting about 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter (we will likely add more butter as we fry these) over a medium heat.
    While the butter is melting, peel and cut up two cloves of garlic. When the pan is hot, add in some battered morels, making sure they are not overcrowding each other too much (otherwise they won’t get crispy). Add a pinch of the copped garlic to the butter with the mushrooms as well.
    After a few minutes (between 3-5), start carefully turning the morels over. You want them to fry up nice and golden brown and crispy, but not blacken or burn. If your butter starts to smoke, immediately turn down the heat.
    As your fried morels finish cooking, fish them out of the pan (I like to use tongs) and set them on a plate with paper towels to drain off some excess grease. By the way, we would normally fry things in canola or other cooking oil, but butter and mushrooms are a natural marriage made in heaven.
    You will likely have to cook your morels in a couple of different batches, as they will not all fit in the pan at once. Add a bit more butter and a pinch of garlic with the start of each new round. Don’t skimp, they won’t fry right!
    Now, there are plenty of backwoods family morel recipes that call for a breading of crushed saltines, ritz crackers, or even cornflakes. But I find the cornmeal and flour mixture gives a nice nutty crunch but otherwise doesn’t get in the way of the wonderful morel at all. So, bread and batter with what you will, I prefer the cornmeal.
    When your first batch has cooled a bit, try a mushroom. Do they need a little more salt and pepper? Season as needed.

    While the last morels are browning in the frying pan, let’s make up a beautiful salad. I’ve got arugula, Russian red kale, some fresh herbs, and plenty of other great local greens that are coming out of area greenhouses. I’ve also got some of that incredible asparagus from our neighbors to the east.
    So here’s what I’m thinking: let’s use the butter leftover in the skillet to quickly sautee the asparagus. It is infused with morels and garlic, and if it isn’t too full of burned cornmeal it will taste delicious. And while we are sautéing asparagus in morel butter, let’s also peel and slice a few shallots to go in there. Shallots are a bit of a pain in the ass to peel, but their flavor is out of this world.
    So snap the last inch or so off each asparagus stalk and cut the bunch into thirds. Peel two or three small shallots and cut them into thin strips. Take the last fried morels out of the skillet and fish out any chunks of batter that have been left behind. Add another small bit of butter or olive oil if needed, and sauté the shallots for just a minute or two before tossing in the asparagus. Now, the asparagus will cook very quickly, and I like it slightly underdone, so I am just going to let them sauté for about 2 minutes before removing the pan from the heat.
    Make a nice big bed of lettuce, greens, kale, and what have you. Top that with the sautéed shallots and asparagus, and then top all that with the golden glory of the fried wild morels. Yum! For a dressing I’ve just mixed up some fresh lemon juice, a little Dijon mustard, some fresh spring tarragon, balsamic vinegar, a pinch of sugar, and a little garlic crushed in a pinch of salt. When those ingredients are mixed, I add about the same amount again of extra virgin olive oil and stir well.
    And really, that is it! I know this recipe is pretty simplistic compared with some that we have done. But why overcomplicate a miraculous wild bounty of morels mushrooms? In fact, some of you might skip the salad part all together and just eat the morels as quick as they come out of the pan. Even some people who think they don’t like mushrooms can come around to a good morel.
    I’d love to hear your favorite spring recipes, and your favorite dishes with wild foraged ingredients. Send me any questions, comments, or suggestions to Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.