Every Spring for a week we indulge ourselves in eating morels for dinners. I make rice dishes, fresh pasta, soups, casseroles, and salads with these delicious mushrooms. One would think eating morels every day is boring, but all that time we do not miss any meat, poultry, or seafood. Today I cooked my last morels this year. It was sad and funny — couldn’t decide what recipe deserves the honor. The first and the last are always special.
Opening the box is one of my favorite moments. First, I stick my nose inside and smell morels’ concentrated fragrance. Then, I admire the variety of their shapes and shades and let their aroma to slowly fill my kitchen. “Into the woods — It’s time, and so I must begin my journey!” I’ve heard there are morels in Texas, but probably not enough to make them easily available. My supplier is Marx Foods; I order them online. The price for #1 grade morels includes overnight shipping and depends on purchased amount. All concerns about mushrooms safety and origins are answered on MarxFood’s web-site. They also have wonderful collection of morels tips and recipes (see links in Recipe Notes section).
This year I invited Austin foodies to join me and make the price per pound more attractive. As a result, our morels were better quality and way cheaper than what we could find in ATX grocery stores. There were morel aficionados as well as people more experienced with eating morels than handling them, and we shared our know-hows.
Store fresh morels in a refrigerator, wrapped in brown paper bag or dry paper towel to absorb extra moisture. They keep for up to 10 days. Preferable temperature is 40-45°F (vegetable section with humidity control).
There are quite a few ways of cleaning fresh morels (again, see links in Recipe Notes section). I personally insist on quick bath for them right before cooking. Put the morels in a large bowl of cold salty water and gently swish them. Using your fingers, lift the morels out of the water and put on a clean kitchen towel. Sometimes, after initial inspection, I prefer to keep mushrooms in salty water for about 30 minutes. Do not agitate water when lifting morels — all dirt and unwanted creatures are on the bottom of the bowl now. Now your morels are ready to cook.
If you know how to cook cremini/portobello mushrooms or chanterelles, you know what to do with morels. First, they are seasoned and cooked on high heat with a small amount of oil to quickly release and evaporate moisture. Than, the heat is reduced to medium-high and morels are finished with the addition of dairy products (heavy cream, butter, or soft melting cheese), vegetables, and herbs. White and green onions, leeks, scallions, chives, ramps, and thyme (lots of thyme!) are the best companions for morels. The only spices I use are black pepper and nutmeg. Everything else alters their taste.
Served over rice they make a quick and fancy dinner. But don’t confuse it with morels risotto. It is not the same dish. I was going to write an ode to risotto when found a perfect description in wiki (see Basic Preparation section). Master the basics, and you will never need a recipe for any variation of risotto. There are three key points you need to know.
Choose the right short-grain rice. The most balanced quality/price choice is Arborio rice. For fancy risotto choose Carnaroli (available in Central Market). With the right rice, constant stirring is the second step. It creats a smooth creamy-textured rice sauce for al dente rice grains.
The fat, wine, and liquid used during the cooking affect the final taste of risotto. With tasteless cheap vegetable oil, low quality wine, and water, the result will be blah. My favorite fats for risotto are duck fat, bone marrow, and French butter. Match the liquid with the main flavor. Use seafood stocks for seafood risottos, chicken stock — for poultry risottos, etc. The more rich and flavorful your stock is, the better is the result, because that’s what rice grains absorb.
It takes 20 minutes to cook risotto. That’s what you need to consider when adding the ingredient that you will use to name your risotto. Ask yourself for how long it needs to be cooked and you’ll get the answer when to add it to the rice. In some cases you need to add it to soffritto, in others — right before mantecatura.
Now, let’s go to the kitchen!