BURNT OFFERINGS Morel mushrooms thrive often thrive on land burned by forest fire.
Morel mushrooms are the stuff of legend and fantasy. Scattered over the ground, they look like a little tribe of forest gnomes with magical powers, like beings from a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Morels taste like an earthy distillation of fungal flavors and aroma, and command respect from cooks and eaters alike, who speak of them with reverence. For pickers who hear the call, they are a beacon to adventure and profit.
This year's flush of so-called natural morel mushrooms has begun to wane. Naturals come up year after year in the same spots, zealously guarded by those who know them (unless they are in Michigan, whose state government publishes online maps so locals can find them). But the majority of gathered morels, including virtually all of the ones available for purchase, were harvested in the fire-scarred mountains of the West. While a handful of naturals would be considered a decent harvest for a day's foray, the fire-following varieties can be astoundingly prolific in spots that were burned the previous summer. Any reports from Lake County? Sometimes they grow in such density that it takes effort not to step on them. With buyers paying as much as $20 a pound (they can retail for more than $50 per pound), good pickers can easily earn more than a thousand bucks a day for their efforts.
Wait, did I say "easily"? Scratch that.
Even if you live in the mountains, you'll probably have to drive a few hours and bump along dusty dirt roads to a spot that may or may not have had morels that may or may not have already been picked. Simply arriving at a burned forest is a good first step, but hardly a guarantee of success. Within burns, mushrooms are finicky as to where they will pop up. They prefer burnt fir stands to pine, but not too burnt—some blazes are so hot they sterilize the soil to the point where nothing will grow.
Sometimes you show up at the perfect place at the perfect time, only to see the roadside littered with parked rigs, perhaps with out-of-state plates. Virtually nobody you meet will be happy to see you.
Morels should be cooked; eaten raw, they can cause gastrointestinal distress. They're great with butter and cream, as in the following recipe that is as good as it gets:
1 c. morels, either whole or sliced
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp. butter
zest and juice of one-quarter lime
1/2 medium yellow onion, minced
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup dry sherry
Melt the butter in a heavy bottom pan. Add onion and morels. Cook together until onions are translucent and the morels give up their moisture—about 10 minutes. Add sherry, and let it cook off. Add nutmeg, lime zest and juice. Cook a moment and add the cream. Cook five more minutes, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
Whether you went to the trouble of picking them, or forked over your hard-earned cash, the effort and expense will melt away as your mouth heads west to a burnt forest, the exact location of which you will never know.