If you are an Angeleno with a love for morels, you have two options. You can either creep through the misty, moss covered forests of northern California (think hobbits at the break of dawn) to zero in on a treasured morel patch, assuming you have one, or you can visit Clearwater Farms at either the Santa Monica or Hollywood farmers markets for “responsibly harvested” morels. We love a good hike, but we're opting for the asphalt jungle this year.
Responsible harvesting is about as close as you can get to actually cultivating wild mushrooms, harvesting some but not all, and seeding the area with crushed mushroom heads to ensure a healthy patch the following year. Clearwater Farms' Carl Oldnettle says the in-state honeycombed caps will be at his booth, weather permitting, through June.
This year's pickings (“harvest” seems out of place with foraged crops) look pretty promising thanks to a nice and damp springtime up north. The cost is still “wild harvest premium,” at around $36 a pound, but fresh morels are second only to truffles in the fungal world for their heady flavor and musty earth aroma.
Purchase your morels from a trusted vendor. California and the Pacific Northwest mushroom regions have a poisonous false morel that could ruin your day pretty quickly. And to add to the mix, California's Death Cap mushroom (yeah, it's not good) is slowly pushing into Oregon and Washington, throwing even longtime pickers into confusion. The premium you pay for good morels is one part scarcity and one part screening.
Morels can still hurt you, as you cannot eat them raw. They have a chemical within that dissipates when they are fully cooked, so take the time to give them a nice long butter bath in a hot skillet.
Morels preserve exceptionally well, either with careful drying (rehydrate them in milk) or freezing. Drying is a cinch if you're using a good dehydrator, but absent that, you can still preserve them outside on a pair of nice sunny days on a rack or in a very low oven (150 degrees max) for several hours. For freezing, soak in water and freeze on a sheet pan. Once frozen, collect and store in an airtight freezer container or bag. Cook frozen morels on direct heat as the slow thawing process tends to mush them up a bit.
One crop's blessing is another crop's curse – the rains coming to the central valley this week help prime the soil for wild mushrooms, morels included, but as we're smack dab in the middle of one of the best cherry seasons on record, local cherry orchard owners are just shaking their heads. Rain at this point in the season cracks the tight skin of the cherry fruit still on the trees, essentially ruining a prime crop. Vicky Murray of Murray Family Farms remembers, not too fondly, of an El Nino year a couple of years ago when it was raining during cherry season and they could hear the fruit cracking open as the rain came down. “It was a heartbreaking sound,” Murray recalls.
Bottom line: If you have plans for cherry preserves, cherries in syrup, cherry pie filling, or any other iteration of cherry canning to make the season last, get your fruit sooner rather than later. If the rains damage the crop, your selection for the tail end of the season will be slim, depending on where the rains hit hardest.