Acclaimed American poet William Jay Smith has so far painted the most accurate picture of the morel mushroom, in a short excerpt from his 1969 nature poems series. "Not ringed but rare, not gilled but polyp-like, having sprung up overnight -- these mushrooms of the gods, resembling human organs uprooted, rooted only on the air."
The air in which the rare, mud-colored polyp is rooted has unfortunately experienced some of the same annoying irregularity that keeps the cherry season short this year. Some rain followed by long stretches of bone dry and even hot weather have made treasured morel clusters scarce. You may see them at the markets one week. But the next, nothing.
"Buy them when you see them," advises Karl Oldnettle of Clearwater Farms, one of California's most reliable sources of high quality wild edible fungi. "We can promise nothing this year. The weather has been so inconsistent in northern California. Same with the harvests."
This would be the prime season for morels in ideal conditions. Most specimens that are brought in right now come from more reliable mushroom climates north of the California border. If morels are a passion for you it might be time to suit up and head north. Foraging on your own (assuming you know your wild mushrooms, otherwise please leave this to the experts) may yield better results than waiting for a good crop to come in to the markets. Wild food guru and recent James Beard Award winner Hank Shaw has been regularly Facebooking shots from his mushroom hikes in the Sierras east of Sacramento. It's enough to make morel-loving -- and now deprived -- city folk twitch for a taste of the great outdoors.
Assuming you do manage a nice handful or two of these prize fungi, please be sure to cook them thoroughly. They contain hydrazine toxins when raw, which will ruin an evening with some nasty digestive cramping; thorough cooking nulls the toxin. Keep it simple -- cook them in butter or a rich olive oil with minimal seasoning, which will better showcase the sweet, earthy flavor.
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This season, perhaps more than ever, is a good time to try your hand at preserving morels to extend their season. UC Davis has a great dehydration primer for all fresh foods, including morels.
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