For much of the country, morel season is fast approaching or even here if you live in the deep south or California. Here in Pennsylvania, as the trees leaf out and trout lilies bloom, I begin to find the elusive morel in April. We actually have several species of morels on the east coast, with Morchella americana being the most prominent species in my experience. Morchella diminutiva, Morchella angusticeps and Morchella punctipes also make appearances in Eastern North America during the spring months and all are good from a culinary standpoint.
The most important thing to remember with all Morchella species is that they must be thoroughly cooked. Failure to cook your morels will result in severe gastric upset. Other than that little caveat, morels are a delicious mushroom.
I do enjoy eating morels fresh, but morels are really an ideal drying mushroom. I usually eat a few meals with fresh morels, especially when I find big ones that I can stuff and bake, but the majority of my morels end up in the dehydrator. I do this for two reasons.
Reason #1: Dehydrating concentrates their flavors. Morels are a mild flavored mushroom in the first place, so removing the water content from the mushroom concentrates their flavors. The re-hydrating liquid becomes liquid gold in terms of flavor.
Reason #2: Fresh morels are quite brittle. Stir them in the saute pan a little too much and they crumble apart. After drying then re-hydrating, they toughen up a little and hold their shape better, but are quite tender again after a good soak and cooking.
Being such a mild mushroom, you have to be careful not to overwhelm their flavor with other ingredients. Garlic is good with them, but not too much. Other mushrooms and lots of heavy seasonings will drown out their subtle but amazing flavors. They pair exceptionally well with mild dairy products like butter, cream and fresh (but mild) cheeses. Light meats such as chicken, veal or white fish work well with them. My dish pairs giant white runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) with dried Morchella americana and Northern Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica). If giant white runner beans are unavailable, I would substitute with a dried white lima bean or any other creamy white bean that you like.
Morels and Giant White Beans
- 1 cup dried Giant White Runner Beans
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 8 Bayberry leaves (sub with bay leaf if needed)
- 1 cup dried morels
- 2 cups water
- 1 Tbl cooking oil
- 1/2 clove garlic, minced
- 1 Tbl butter
- Chives for garnish
Soak the beans in cold, salted water overnight. Don’t worry about the old wives tale of your beans becoming tough in salt. This is not true and your beans will be more thoroughly seasoned if you allow them to soak in seasoned water.
Discard soaking water and cover beans in fresh water with thyme and bayberry. Boil until tender, about 1-2 hours. Add water as needed to keep covered, but allow water to cook down so that the beans are in a thick gravy when done cooking. Remove bayberry and discard.
Soak morels in hot water for 30 minutes. Strain the morels, saving soaking liquid, squeezing the excess liquid from the morels.
Heat the oil in a saute pan over medium high heat and add morels. Season with salt and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until they brown. Add garlic after they have browned, stir for 30 seconds, then carefully add the reserved morel soaking liquid. Turn heat down to medium and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Add a little more water if needed so that the morels are in liquid. At end of cooking time, let the water cook down to that the morels in just a little wet and add the cooked beans (including bean cooking liquid). Allow this mixture to simmer until all liquids have evaporated into a thick gravy, but don’t let it dry out. Stir in butter, taste and add additional salt as desired.
Sprinkle with chives and sop up the rich morel gravy with a good crusty bread!