A few Junes ago, Ted was mowing the occasional blades of grass in our lawn.
Along the edge of the woods, underneath the oak trees, he spotted a couple of oddly shaped mushrooms. Are they morels, he wondered?
Oh, yes, they were morels. And the more we looked, the more we found.
Two quarts of morels!
Have I told you that our land was once used by a charcoal maker? He was known as "The Indian," because he was a member of the Narragansett tribe that has its roots here in Rhode Island. (Nobody we know remembers his name.) There are large concrete platforms buried beneath our grass; on those platforms, more than forty years ago, The Indian burned wood into charcoal. A mushroom forager told us that the residual ash in our lawn creates a happy environment for morels.
I noted the date on the calendar, and the following year, with anticipation -- and with recipes in mind -- we hunted and hunted, but didn't find a single morel. The year after that, just a handful. Last year, none.
We should have dried our harvest that first year.
Dried mushrooms I've purchased from farmers and farm stands in France (cepes) and in the Pacific Northwest (mixed morels, chanterelles and porcini) have kept for more than two years in tightly-sealed glass jars in my pantry, with no significant loss of quality.
On the short list of pantry items I’m never without, dried mushrooms, ground to a powder, enrich soups and stews; reconstituted and left whole, they feature in my favorite risotto, as well as beef stew, saffron orzo with shrimp, pasta with goat cheese and mushrooms, and Tuscan meatloaf.
Whenever I make vegetable stock, I add dried and fresh wild mushrooms, which contribute the meaty taste we now know as umami -- the fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Invaluable in a vegetarian diet as a meat substitute, mushrooms contain protein and all of the essential amino acids, as well as significant amounts of Vitamin D, potassium and phosphorous.
Quality is the key. Buy from a reputable source, preferably from the places known for their mushrooms: France, Italy, Poland, and the Pacific Northwest. Good dried mushrooms aren’t cheap. Don’t buy kibble -- which is, no kidding, what the bits and pieces are called. Your dried mushrooms should look like mushrooms, and you should be able to distinguish one variety from another. Check also for too much "dust" in the bag (a sign of staleness) or tiny wormholes in the mushrooms (a sign of stowaways).
From ancient times, mushrooms have held a place in mythology because of their seemingly magical ability to appear overnight; in many cultures, mushrooms are revered as a symbol of super-human strength, because they can push away stones as they grow upright through the soil.
If you’re in my neighborhood in early June, stop by and check the lawn for super-human morels.
Potato and mushroom soup
Adapted slightly from Sarah Leah Chase's Cold Weather Cooking, one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, this Polish soup is rich and creamy, and can be made vegetarian if you prefer. Serves 10.
1 cup dried porcini or mixed wild mushrooms (not shiitake)
4 cups water
3 leeks, white and light green parts, rinsed, trimmed
1 medium onion
3 ribs celery
1 large carrot, peeled
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 lb white mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp caraway seeds
4 cups beef broth, vegetable broth or water
5 large potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch chunk
4 cups whole milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
Place dried mushrooms and 4 cups water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain the mushrooms, reserving the cooking liquid. Coarsely chop the mushrooms and set aside.
In a food processor, finely mince the leeks, onion, celery and carrot. Melt the butter in a stockpot over medium-high heat, and add the minced vegetables. Sauté 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the fresh and dried mushrooms and caraway seeds. Continue cooking until the vegetables are very tender, 15-20 minutes.
Meanwhile, pour the reserved mushroom liquid into a pot, being careful to leave any sediment behind. Add the broth and potatoes. Simmer until the potatoes are tender, 20-25 minutes. Add the potatoes and liquid to the sautéed vegetables, and mash half of the potatoes against the side of the pot with a large spoon to help thicken the soup.
Add the milk to the soup and heat through, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Whisk the sour cream, flour and paprika together in a small bowl until smooth. Stir into the soup pot to blend. Cook the soup a few minutes over low heat, being sure not to let the soup boil, or it will curdle. Serve hot.
Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.