The annual mushroom season in Wyoming is finally in full swing after some heavy rains followed by very warm temperatures. The morel mushroom grows in abundance around the foothills here in almost every wooded watershed that has sandy soil and plentiful downed timber. As a cook, all wild mushrooms are appealing, but the risk of picking the wrong kind is too great to take. Morels are unique in that they do not look like any extremely toxic species. The false morel is toxic, yet quite different than the edible species in its visible anatomic structure. It is not hollow and the stem attaches to the cap inside the top where as the true morel is a tube with the stem attaching at the base of the cap. Morel mushrooms are the only wild mushroom that I feel safe identifying myself. This year, I found almost three pounds of beautifully large, yellow and gray morels within a 100 foot radius of the house. Definitely, my best forage ever!
When harvesting morels, one must be careful not to take too much. Groups of these mushroom stands are actually interconnected by filaments below the ground. If the root is removed from the ground the fungus will not survive. Cut the stem approximately 1/2 inch above the turf. Also, leave at least 30 - 50% of the mushrooms where they are growing to ensure their repopulation in larger numbers the following spring.
Morels have a wonderful flavor that compliments many vegetables and meats. A personal favorite is sauteed morels with asparagus, garlic and shallots. Serve them alongside a duck breast or quail, or even on top of a juicy steak. The savory depth of these wild gems can be compared to nothing else. Some people consider their flavor to be buttery, rich like clams or crab, or even like soy and noodles. Fresh morels are great to cook with, but dried morels can last all year long in the pantry and will rehydrate back to their original splendor quickly and easily. It is dry enough here to leave on the counter to dehydrate, but I sometimes like to string the mushrooms and let them hang to dry. It is best to store them in a closed container after drying to prevent them from getting stale.
Morels clearly have many nooks and crannies for dirt to hide within, therefore it is best to soak them in cool water for at least five minutes to loosen the sand and sediment. Next, rinse them off and dry them well before cooking. To reconstitute dried morels, simply pour warm-hot water on the mushrooms and let them soak until they return to a normal texture and size (usually ten minutes).
When cooking morels, it is best to brown them in a smoking hot pan with a generous amount of oil with a high smoking point such as rice bran, safflower, macadamia, grapeseed, or canola blends. Wait to season the mushrooms with salt until after they are browned as the salt will extract moisture from the cells and end up steaming and simmering instead of caramelizing the proteins. Once brown, season with salt and pepper, deglaze with white wine, add sliced asparagus, onion and garlic, let simmer a bit, then fold in butter to make a saucy bond within the pan. Serve immediately.