Let’s face it. Morels look scary. With crinkled, cone-shaped caps and no gills, they should be more at home in outer space than your kitchen. But to mushroom lovers, this alien-looking fungus is one of the world’s most beautiful foods.
Martin Kouprie, executive chef and co-owner of Pangaea Restaurant in Toronto, Ont., finds morels inspiring, calling them “the harbinger of great things to come.” The first mushrooms of spring, morels are prized for their nutty, woodsy flavor. Their brief appearance adds urgency to their allure. Unlike cremini, button and shiitake mushrooms, morels can’t be cultivated. They grow only in the wild and must be foraged by hand. The short season, which usually starts mid-April, lasts a mere four to six weeks. Rain can slam this already small window shut.
Buying and cleaning morels
Fortunately, with the growing popularity of seasonal food, you don’t have to head to the woods for morels. Kouprie says many farmers’ markets will carry them. If you can’t find morels, ask some of the growers. Chances are they’ll know who sells fresh morels.
Once you find a vendor, make sure the morels are displayed in a single layer. Stacking can crush the ones beneath and allows moisture to build up. Given the porous caps, damp can quickly lead to mold. Look for dry, clean tops with no bugs. Insects aren’t usually an issue early in the season, but will quickly become a problem with rain.
Despite their deeply etched tops, morels are easy to clean. Just tap them gently to get rid of any sand and you’re done. If you’re not going to use them right away, refrigerate them in a paper bag. If your morels arrive wet, rinse them off, dry them with a paper towel and use them right away.
Perhaps their eerie looks are a warning. While morels are highly versatile in the kitchen, they have one demand: “Cook me!” Never eat them raw as they contain small amounts of hydrazine toxins. But don’t worry. These are destroyed during cooking.
Not sure what to do with your morels? Sauté them in butter, stuff them with your favourite filling, add them to sauces or simply use them as a garnish. They also pair well with other early spring vegetables like fiddleheads and asparagus. If the idea of a spring mix appeals, combine them in an omelet or seasonal side dish. One of Kouprie’s signature dishes is risotto loaded with morels. It’s so good his wife swears it got her through labour.