The Mysterious Morel

Those who know me know that I tend to obsess over things, engrossing myself in the minutiae of a particular subject until I’ve either absorbed all the information I can, completely lost interest or gotten distracted, and then I move on to the next obsession. My fixations are usually food or travel-related, but occasionally they take on a different form, like French dish towels, vintage greeting cards or… uh, the Twilight series. Flighty? Yes. Exhausting? Yes. Controllable? No.

About a month ago, I developed a new obsession: morel mushrooms. I came across an article in the paper about a local woman who hunts morels during morel season, which runs mid-March through mid-April or even into early May in Arkansas. During her hunts in the Farmington area, she would often find over a hundred a day. The article described her hunting techniques and gave a few tips for novices, and went into detail about the morel’s delicious, earthy flavor. I had heard of morels, but had no idea that such a delicacy was so easily accessible – or so I thought.

I Googled for hours on the best locations to find morels in Northwest Arkansas, noting their ideal conditions, like under sycamore trees and along river banks. With unfounded confidence, I dragged a friend to rural Farmington to help me in my search. We furiously rifled through tall grass and fallen leaves for well over an hour, with no luck. A week later, I tried searching the campground my husband and I stayed at on the Mulberry, intent on finding at least one beneath the pine needles, to no avail. Feeling a bit helpless, I resorted to calling the local woman in the article, asking her if I could join her on her next hunting excursion. She seemed enthusiastic and flattered, offering to take me within the next week, but she never called back. With morel season quickly growing to a close, I began to feel defeated.

I then read that morel season lasted a bit longer in Missouri, and with my trip to Kansas City looming, I was hopeful that my fixation wasn’t completely for naught. For those who are familiar with the drive to KC, there is a giant morel mushroom on the side of the road just north of Nevada, Missouri, advertising (what I assumed to be) a morel mushroom farm. I could just swing by and pick up a pound on my way, right?! However, a quick look at their (insanely confusing) website proved otherwise – they only sell morel-infused oils. Curses, foiled again!

But all hope was not lost. During my obligatory visit to KC’s Whole Foods, I stumbled upon a burgeoning basket of local morels, for sale by the pound. My eyes grew to the size of saucers and my stomach did a flip as I gazed upon the huge pile of contorted, gnarled fungi – and then I saw the price: $50.00 per pound! Refusing to leave defeated, I picked out four and drove home elated.

I’d heard from several people that morels should be soaked in salted water for a few hours or even overnight, to help soften them and drown any critters that may be living in the gills. Mine soaked for about 5 hours before I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to eat them, pronto! I drained them and patted them dry, then dredged them in some cornmeal that I seasoned with salt and pepper. After a quick pan fry in some garlic-infused olive oil, I was sitting down to a snack that I had been anticipating for over month. Soft, delicate and earthy, these morels were truly a delight. This simple recipe can be used for any kind of mushroom, from buttons to shiitakes to oysters, but morels make it especially good. Enjoy!

Pan Fried Mushrooms

1/2 lb. mushrooms (small ones left whole, large ones halved)
1/2 c. coarse cornmeal
1 clove garlic, gently mashed
3 Tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Brush any dirt off the mushrooms and rinse them briefly. Combine the cornmeal and salt and pepper. Dredge the mushrooms in the cornmeal and set aside.

Heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat until the garlic begins to sizzle and lightly brown. Remove the garlic clove. Add the mushrooms and fry over medium heat until browned on all sides. Remove from the pan and drain on a paper towel or newspaper. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

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