Having just retired from my twenty year career as a physician, this morel season found me with an abundance of time on my hands. This was to be my year to bring home bags and bags of morels.
Described as nutty, meaty, buttery, even chocolatey, morels have a delicate flavor that is sublime. Make sure to cook your morels; don't eat them raw. Raw morels contain a toxin that will make you ill, although not seriously, and the effect is exacerbated if alcohol is also consumed. But by all means pair your cooked morels with the best hearty, full-flavored red wine you can get, such as a Cabernet Sauvingnon, a Bordeaux, or a Rhone.
When cooking up morels, it is best to keep it simple. Don't bog them down in sauces, or drown them in wine. Pan-Fried Morels are a simple, gutsy dish with a texture not unlike French Fries, and one of the easiest recipes you will ever make. Once the preparation is mastered, you can tuck your pan-fried morels into softly scrambled eggs, or top Creamy Polenta, or use them in my Risotto with Pancetta and Morels.
Did I find the motherlode of morels this spring? Not exactly. I had more luck cooking up these wild mushrooms than tracking them down. Luckily, I was able to benefit from the charity of friends, who happen to know exactly where to find these elusive mushrooms.
- fresh morels, a few cups
- extra virgin olive oil, 3-4 Tbsp.
- kosher salt or sea salt
- pat of butter
- leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
- Gently wash your morels. Use a soft bristled brush, such as a toothbrush, to remove sand and grit. Tap them gently to coax out any small insects hiding within.
- Cut smaller morels in half, larger ones into quarters or eighths.
- Place a nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Once nice and hot, add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot enough to bubble, add the morels.
- Stir fry until brown and a bit crispy, but don't overcook. You want them to be meaty and chewy too. Now add a pat of butter.
- Toss with kosher salt, or some other flavorful coarse salt. Add fresh thyme leaves.
- Serve atop polenta, scrambled eggs, bruschetta, or alongside a perfectly grilled steak.
The salty crunch of the pancetta, the meaty tenderness of the morels, and the creamy al dente rice all add up to the perfect risotto. If you don't have morels, you can substitute one pound of mixed wild mushrooms, such as chanterelle, crimini, and portobellos.
- 8 paper thin slices of pancetta (or bacon or proscuitto)
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 lb. fresh morels, halved if small, quartered if large, or 1 cup dried morels, reconstituted in cool water for 20 minutes, drained and patted dry. (Save the poaching water to add to your risotto).
- kosher salt
- 5 cups chicken broth, homemade if possible
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
- 1 cup fresh or frozen baby peas
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 Tbsp. heavy cream
- freshly ground pepper
- fresh thyme leaves, for garnish
- Preheat the broiler. Place the pancetta slices on a baking sheet in a single layer, and broil for 1-2 minutes. You want them crispy but not burnt. Drain on paper towels. Crumble. Hide from those who wander through the kitchen and can't resist snacking on them.
- In a medium saucepan, heat the chicken broth and keep it at a low simmer.
- Prepare your morels as described above in Pan-Fried Morels with Thyme, but go easy on the salt because the pancetta is also very salty. Set aside. (Hide these with the pancetta crumbles.)
- In a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil, then add the garlic and shallot over medium heat. Once they are softened but not yet brown, add the Arborio rice. Stir the rice to coat the grains for 1-2 minutes.
- Increase the heat, and add the chicken broth to the risotto 1 cup at a time. Keep stirring until all the liquid has been absorbed, then add more broth. Cook until the risotto has a creamy oatmeal-like consistency and the rice is al dente.
- Add the peas and stir to heat through.
- Stir in the thyme, the heavy cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan.
- Top with Pan-Fried Morels with Thyme and the Pancetta crumbles. Gently stir and serve with more Parmesan at the table.