I don’t think I’ll ever get over morels. Even when I’m old, with wrinkles and a cane and clothes that smell like moth balls, I’ll still squeal with glee at the sight of them. They remind me of something I used to say about the Golden Gate Bridge, back when I was in college in the Bay Area. I loved that bridge. I remember telling someone that I could live out the rest of my earthly days without ever feeling blasé about it: its rich shade of orange-red, somewhere between rust and brick; its fat cables climbing through the fog; the way I always felt when I drove across it, as though I were really going somewhere, somewhere important, somewhere dreamt-of and written-about and pined-after, and, for a little while at least, mine. I feel that way about morels, only minus the orange-red part, and the cables, and the bit about going somewhere. I don’t think I’ll ever be blasé about morels.
This is one of those times, in all honesty, when I feel silly to be sitting here, writing this. I mean, the dish I want to share with you is sautéed mushrooms served on toast. It’s a topic that hardly warrants a recipe, much less a whole treatise. But one day a couple of weeks ago, Brandon and I happened upon a crate of local morels at the market, and on a whim, we asked for a half-pound. It was only eight dollars – a steal, people – and so we shook the vendor’s hand and hurried them home, giggling all the while like a pair of thieves after a particularly good robbery. I threw a knob of butter into our big, heavy skillet and set it on the heat, and when it had turned to a fragrant slurry, I tossed in the mushrooms. They sizzled for a minute and then set to softening, wringing themselves out like tiny sponges, and when they were nearly dry, I stirred in a spoonful of crème fraîche from a carton that I found at the back of the fridge. We piled the cream-slicked morels atop slices of toasted bread, and then we sat down to eat, and that’s when a silence fell over the table. No, scratch that. It wasn’t silence, because there was some contented sighing too, and I believe that someone – possibly me, in fact – banged her fist on the table in swoony disbelief, mid-swallow. Brandon announced that he felt like a king. I nodded in agreement, smacking my lips, and pronounced myself his queen. We chewed, and we sighed, and we slapped our thighs, and so it went for at least ten minutes, the two of us, totally and completely silly with satisfaction.
Hence this treatise today, and a recipe of sorts, because since that night, I’ve been socking away every spare penny to buy more morels, so long as the season lasts. It made sound spendy, but I’ll tell you a secret: Brandon has been out of town, and buying morels for one is much easier than buying them for two. In fact, it’s downright cheap. (Plus, I can eat them atop the hippie-style wheat bread I like to keep around, and no one is here to scoff or complain. Phew.)
And there’s something about eating a food so rare, so sought-after, and so drop-dead simple to prepare. Warmed in butter, morels relax and bloom, releasing their rich, woodsy flavor to mingle with the sweet, toasty fat. A glug of cream may seem a tad over the top, but for me, it’s the clincher. Stirred around the pan, it picks up any slips and nubs of flavor stuck to the surface, and it slides around the mushrooms like a soft, velvety cloak. All told, it goes down astoundingly well with a gin and tonic, just so you know, and a green salad is nice too, and piles of summer fruit for dessert. Sighing is optional, but suggested.
Creamed Morels on Toast
Lately I’ve been eating as many morels as my wallet will allow, and when it comes to cooking them, my best advice is this: keep it simple. Many people like to add minced shallots or garlic, or a squeeze of lemon, or chives, or wine, or whatnot, but not me. I say, let ‘em be. Their flavor is delicate, nutty, and fleeting, and it needs only butter and a little cream to coax it out. I cooked some today with a small shallot – which is pretty classic, recommended by countless recipes and cookbooks – but its sweet, pungent fragrance just smothered the poor things. From here out, I’m sticking with my usual, bare-bones method, outlined below. It’s only a rough guide, and you need not really measure: you could use more or less of nearly any ingredient, and the end result wouldn’t suffer. You could even use another wild mushroom, if morels aren’t available.
Oh, and about the toast. If you’ve got a nice, chewy-crumbed country loaf lying around, that’s perfect. Or a baguette. Either way, I like to take a slice, drizzle it lightly with olive oil, and slip it under the broiler until it has just a touch of color. In a pinch, though, even my regular old sandwich bread does a pretty fine job. It’s just some hippie-dippy sprouted wheat stuff, but toasted – and buttered, or left plain, either way – its earthy flavor and nubbly crust make a nice foil for the rich mushrooms.
About 3-4 ounces fresh morels
About 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1-2 Tbsp. heavy cream or crème fraîche
Salt, to taste
Clean the mushrooms with a small brush – a pastry brush works nicely – to remove any dirt and debris and hidden woodland cargo. Cut them in half lengthwise, and brush out their hollow centers as well. If they seem sandy, wash them briefly in water, and drain them well. [Ideally, though, you don’t want to get them wet unless you absolutely have to.] Set them aside.
In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the morels and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to release some water. Reduce the heat to medium, let the mushrooms reabsorb their juices, and continue cooking until they are nearly dry. Add the cream or crème fraîche, season with a dash of salt, and stir over the heat for a minute or so, to incorporate the cream. Serve, with additional salt as needed, over toast.
Note: Like many things, these morels are even better the next day. I like to reheat them briefly – in the microwave; gasp! – so that their juices flow freely, and I’m continually stunned by how much fuller their flavor seems after an overnight rest in the fridge.
Yield: 2 small servings, or 1 bigger one, or 1 small serving with delicious leftovers