Tis the season for morels here in the St. Louis Metro area. They have been popping for a little over three weeks now. Morels aren’t actually one of my favorite mushrooms, for a few reasons. Don’t get me wrong; I like them, they just aren’t one of my favorites.
Why is that you ask? For starters, it is often the only wild EDIBLE much less wild mushroom that many people know about. Therefore the woods are thick with people hunting them. Then there is the whole jackass aspect. For whatever reason, perfectly reasonable, ordinarily nice people turn into insufferable, egotistical, obnoxiously competitive jerks during this season. Lastly, there are the newbies who have no interest in actually learning anything, they just want to know what they can eat or if it is going to make them trip.
The whole mess makes me very unhappy and I find that it just isn’t worth it. We aren’t particularly competitive so the braggarts are taxing. The egotistical paternalistic asses make me want to commit acts of violence, and the newbies that put their lives in the hands of total strangers on the internet are very unpleasant. I actually snapped on several people across that spectrum in the last few days. With all that in consideration, and the fact that we are usually utterly over morels after the first week… why bother.
One of the reasons we are often over them after the first week, is that we usually bread morels in cornmeal (don’t use flour, it ruins the flavor. Crushed Ritz crackers are ok, but we like cornmeal) and fry them. We don’t eat a lot of fried food, so that gets pretty overwhelming, pretty fast. We decided that this year, we were going to make a concerted effort to stop frying mushrooms. At least directly. We did make an exception on the frying in one recipe, because we didn’t know if you could bake Rangoon’s. More on that later. So in the spirit of #morethanjustfried and stretching our culinary skills, we decided to make some different things.
First, my daughter made morel and cheese cannelloni, which I didn’t get pictures of, but let me just tell you that ricotta cheese brings out a phenomenal amount of flavor in the morels. I think it is the acidity in the ricotta, and the marinara, but it was bar none one of the best morel meals I have ever had. It inspired this dish, and I used the leftover ingredients from her cannelloni to make it.
First things first, my husband went out and found some morels. Some of them were the small M. diminutiva, a few M. esceulenta, and some M. importuna. There were a few M. semilibera (half free) and at least one verpa, but for this dish, those were fine. The mushrooms were all clean and firm enough that they just needed a quick rinse, which is a rare treat.
Once they were rinsed, I chopped them. I’ve started cutting them into rings and then cutting the rings. I find that they provide a better mouth feel than cutting them in half and then cutting the halves. I put a 10” cast iron skillet on a medium heat and set the cut morels aside in a bowl. While my skillet was coming to temperature, I diced half of an onion.
When my skillet came to temperature, I put some extra virgin olive oil in it. I’m trying to get away from butter. I don’t like the greasy aspect it gives to food, and the flavor it imparts is not worth it. I think I have crutched on it for too long and I need to learn how to develop flavors without using the fat in the butter to bring it together.
I put the onions and a teaspoon of chopped garlic in the skillet. I gave it a very quick sauté, about 2 minutes, perhaps, then I added a cup of water to the skillet and let the onions sweat.
Why did I do that? Onions can cause gastric distress in some people. I was told by a chef that sweating the onions helps break down the alkaloids that cause this, as well as making the alliums sweeter. It is supposed to work on all alliums. Another reason is that I can dramatically cut down on the amount of fat that I need to cook as the water prevents sticking and disperses the flavor evenly.
Once onions and garlic were cooked and began to caramelize, I added the morels, and another half cup of water. I stirred to keep them all moving. Another reason to add water, particularly after you add the mushrooms is that the water picks up the flavor of the morels and spreads it to everything else in the skillet. You need to keep your temperatures low, so that it doesn’t break the flavor of the mushrooms down, and I find that cast iron really helps with this because it provides a mellow, even heat.
Once cooked through, I added a small tub of ricotta cheese. I recently got soundly chastised by a bunch of creepy old geezers who claimed that I ruined the morels and smothered their flavor with the cheese. WRONG!!! Any mild, soft cheese will NOT overpower the morels. I mean, I haven’t tried with brie or anything, but cream cheese and ricotta, far from overpowering, absorb and meld with the flavor of the morels. Ricotta in particular seems to amplify it. I suspect that the acid in the ricotta brings out a rarely seen depth in the morel flavor profile. All I can tell you is try it for yourself! You will probably be surprised!
I seasoned the filling mixture with some fresh parsley, dried oregano, basil, and morel salt that I bought from Larry Evans of Fungal Jungal and made sure that everything was smoothly blended.
While this crazy morel cooking party was going on, my husband took a bunch of thin cut pork loins and bashed the hell out of them making them even thinner. He took waaay too much joy in it, let me tell you. He finished abusing them right around the time I finished with the filling. He laid the pork loins out, I put the filling in them, and he put them in a silicone baking dish. [I really love silicone baking dishes. Really.] I sprinkled some of the horrible shaved parmesan/romano cheese blend that my daughter keeps around for just this reason (freshly shaved decent hard cheeses just doesn’t want to stick right. Probably would have been ok on these loins, but I forgot we had it until after I had already put the junk cheese on).
I popped it in the oven at 350 degrees and let it bake about 15 minutes. It didn’t look done enough, so I let it go another 10 minutes. That was a mistake. It was pretty much criminally overcooked at that point. Well, the filling was fine, but those thin pounded pork loins were waaaaaay over cooked. It was still delicious, just very chewy.
I think what impressed me the most was how the morel and ricotta came together. It was easily the most flavorful morel based dish I had ever had to that point. I blew it out of the water a few days later, but at that time, this meal was easily the best morel dish I had ever had, criminally overcooked pork and all.
I STRONGLY urge people to give it a try!! It could easily pair with chicken or even eggplant. You could probably modify it even further and make it a sauce to serve over pasta or as a filling in lasagna. Which totally gives me an idea. I’m currently out of fresh morels, but I’m headed out tomorrow. Should I not find any, I will just order some from Larry Evans. The dried morels I bought from him were from a burn site in Montana. They have a very strong and unique flavor to them, but more on that another time.
What are your favorite morel recipes that are #morethanjustfried ??