Despite the allusion in the title, no, I did not go foraging for magic mushrooms. Rather, I drove out to San Bernadino in search of fresh morels during the brief period which they are in season. Morels are not like your typical cap mushroom, instead of having an umbrella shape these are oval-shaped with a honeycomb-like upper portion consisting of a network of ridges with pits between them. These unique mushrooms have a delicate, meaty, nutty, and earthy flavor and are prized in the culinary world.
This was my very first mushroom foraging trip and what a thrill! Foraging is hard work, you have to know the conditions in which morels thrive, find areas that meet those conditions, look for tell-tale signs (e.g. shade, pine needles, snow plants), and continuously scan the ground around you. It’s also key to not overlook any morels in the midst of pine cones since they can look surprisingly similar at times.
Despite hiking for hours in what seemed an aimless fashion the wonder and excitement in finding a patch of morels made the sweat and aching muscles all worth it. It takes a sharp eye to spot a fungus the color of the earth amidst the forest floor and each find feels like gold. We also found a few different types of mushrooms on our hike including one called a “hole in the ground,” which grows in a way similar to the truffle, albeit without the flavor. It starts under the surface and grows out and up to form a circle so that it’s hollow inside, quite literally a hole in the ground.
At the end of a 7 hour hike my friend and I had found almost 40 morels; which is not bad for first-timers. We returned to our camp and met up with the group of mycological society members who also had been out hiking that day. We traded stories, described the spots where we had found our morels, and displayed our treasure. It sounds a bit nerdy, but I love people who are enthusiastic about their food and hunting for mushrooms is definitely that; marrying science with field experience. I can’t wait to go foraging for chanterelles next!
Our camp at the lovely Alpine Meadows Retreat was lovely; while the cabins were pretty basic the chef tailored our meals to our event and even made my meals vegan and gluten free for me. Dinner was chalk full of mushrooms, even some of the ones we found on our hike. In a word, scrumptious. I definitely ate a bit more than my body required, but it tasted so delicious: mushroom risotto, sautéed mushrooms, and pasta with a mushroom ragout. It was heavenly.
In order not to waste all that effort I started cooking some of the morels as soon as I got home. I didn’t want to overpower them with anything so I just made a simple sauté with sliced morels, butter and garlic. Before you start in with the contradiction, I used Earth Balance butter substitute, which is vegan. The dish was clean and really brought out the earthy and delicate flavor of the morels. As a bonus, the ridges on the morels made the meal look like I was eating an octopus, which I found amusing.
*The handy thing about soaking mushrooms is that not only does it clean the fungi but it infuses the water to make mushroom stock. After removing the morels you can strain the liquid through a cheesecloth (or a paper towel in a pinch) and you’re left with a mushroom stock you can use pretty much in any recipe that calls for water.
Makes 1-2 servings
2 large or 4-5 small fresh morels (you can find them at Whole Foods)
1 tablespoon Earth Balance butter
3 garlic cloves, sliced or minced
Place the morels in a bowl of water so that they are fully submerged. These mushrooms have lots of little crevices in which dirt can get trapped so you want to swish them around in the water a bit and let soak for 20 minutes.
Place the morels on a cutting board and I recommend that you set aside the water for mushroom stock that you can use it at a later point in time* (see asterisk above for details). Then slice each morel in half lengthwise, take each half and thinly slice horizontally. If you mess up the slices it is perfectly fine, it all tastes the same in the end.
Add the Earth Balance to a pan over medium heat. Once the butter melts, add the garlic and stir for one minute. Then add the morels and stir for 6-8 minutes until the mushrooms start to release their juices.
Plate and serve.