Morel mushrooms are back -- after a tense few days among antsy pickers up north. Conventional wisdom says that on the West Coast, morels show up in spring after two full days of 80-degree-plus weather and that they favor recently disturbed earth, either from fire, logging or new landscaping. This bodes well for creating new morel sites (there are a few websites dedicated to this kind of how-to), especially considering the market price per pound -- $40 or more depending on quality, adding up to about $10 million in wild harvests each year. But nature hasn't been cooperating much, either with the required warmth or sufficient water. Things finally kicked into gear this past week and -- weather and conditions permitting -- we should see morels into June.
Cultivation attempts aside, no one has been able to make a commercial operation of morel farming, and for this we're mostly grateful. There's a seasonal anticipation of their late-spring arrival that manifests in genuine excitement. One marketgoer smiled next to me as she was filling her bag with some of the larger mushrooms, like she was visiting with a cherished friend. Granted, a friend she intended to sauté in brown butter and chopped parsley and then eat, alone, paired with a dry and crisp Riesling, but we could hardly fault her. They're that special.
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According to the USDA, morels are more valuable than chanterelles and more abundant than American matsutake, the Pacific Northwest's most expensive wild mushroom. Morels are distinct, and in ways other than as a highly sought-after fine food item. They grow in a huge variety of ecosystems and adapt easily to new regions with the right conditions. They have an incredible genetic diversity that scientists have only begun to parse out -- currently morels are classified by color or location-based monikers like "gray type" or "mountain blonde" -- and are being sorted by type much like another gourmet crop with numerous phenotypes in one species: oysters. The part that makes them valuable to the general public is the flavor and ease of preservation.
Something to note when eating wild morels: Cook them thoroughly. The hydrazine toxins that are present in raw morels -- a source of serious digestive discomfort -- are neutralized by thorough cooking. Cook in butter, always in butter, until tender and pliable. They don't need much in the way of seasoning or enhancement; their deep earthy musk and soft texture are best appreciated simply.
Assuming you don't plow through your purchase, you can also dry them with ease, keeping their flavor around past their short season. Spread out on parchment in a very low oven -- nothing over 200 degrees -- with the door propped open for circulation for five to eight hours (time varies according to mushroom size and moisture content). Properly dried morels should feel airy and light, with firm, dry flesh. Spongy or soft morels should be discarded. Store in an airtight and clear Mason jar at the back of a dark cabinet. Reconstitute them by soaking in wine or stock, depending on your intended use.
Knowing where your morels come from is key. Clearwater Farms gets them from trusted wild pickers in Northern California. But beware those that may have been sourced from conventionally farmed orchards. Another common name for the morel is "sponge mushroom," both for its appearance and its ability to soak up nutrients -- and unwanted pesticides -- from its environment.