A walk in the woods in the heartland’s early spring is intrinsically rewarding, but while you are enjoying those first few sunny days after a nourishing spring rain, why not look for things that can feed your belly as well as your soul? The woodlands of the upper Midwest are teeming with gourmet goodies in the spring, and this abundance is there for the taking, if you just know where to look. Tops on most hunter/gatherer lists this time of year? Morels.
Gathering wild foods is probably the most sustainable, and certainly the most ancient way to provide delicious and nourishing food for your family. It dates back to before the dawn of our species, and continues to this day (how’s that for sustainable?). Archeologists have uncovered the remains of a 6000 year old man, and in the pouch found with him were several mushrooms. The arrow in his back may have indicated that he was foraging in someone else’s territory. Such severe penalties are less likely today, but it is still a good idea to make sure you have the landowner’s permission.
Although today our innate instinct to gather has been redirected toward grocery stores and shopping malls, it is still there just as surely as it was with the “Mushroom Man.” Sadly the tools and tricks our ancestors used to find wild edibles have been replaced by knowing which coupons to clip and which grocery has the best deal on frozen pizza. It need not be so, and learning a little bit about how to find the elusive morel is a good place to start.
The Truffle of the Heartland, the King o’ the Midwest Woods, the mushroom that put the “fun” in “fungus” is the wildly popular – and just as elusive – Morel (Morchella esculenta). Of course it should always be emphasized that you should have some expertise when hunting mushrooms because if you’re not dead certain, you might be just plain dead — so consult experts such as those at the Prairie State Mushroom Club (www.geocities.com/iowamushroom/) before you taste anything.
Theresa Marrone starts looking when the lilacs are in bloom. Her book, Abundantly Wild: Collecting and Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest, (published by Northern Trail Press and available at their website – www.northerntrailpress.com) Marrone reveals all the secrets to finding all these and 70 other wild edibles of the region, complete with recipes like fiddlehead pie, asparagus with garlic grits, and morel pizza.
So now that the days are a little longer, and a little warmer, why not plan a trek through the woods? You’ll get some great exercise, and you can find some wholesome goodness along the way.
Sautéed Morels with Lemon
20 fresh morels,
3 each eggs, beaten
1/2 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 each lemons
Salt & Pepper mix, to taste
24 each baby lettuce leaves, for garnish
Split the mushrooms lengthwise and rinse them thoroughly. Look out for ants that sometimes live in the hollow insides of the fungus head. Pat the mushrooms dry with clean terrycloth. Toss in the seasoned flour until thoroughly coated, then set aside.
Split one lemon and juice it. Mix this juice with the wine. Cut the other lemon into 8 wedges. Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Test the oil with a drop of the egg. If it browns quickly (but not immediately – that’s too hot), it is ready. Dip the dusted morels into the egg, let the excess drip off, then place them carefully in the pan. Do not over fill the pan. Saute a couple minutes on the one side and then gently turn them to cook on the other side for @2 more minutes. Remove to a clean terri cloth, and proceed in the same manner with the remaining mushrooms. Be careful not to let the pan get to hot.
When all the mushrooms are finished, deglaze the pan with the wine-lemon mixture, then strain through a fine mesh sieve or through cheesecloth.
On clean plates, using teaspoons or squirt bottles, drizzle some of the olive oil, and less of the balsamic vinegar. Place 5 mushroom halves on the plate in a star pattern. Garnish with a lemon wedge and the baby lettuce leaves. Drizzle with the lemon-wine mixture and serve immediately.