Mushroom Hunting: Morels for Christmas Dinner

By Tom Nauman

By the time you read this many of you will already be feasting on morels. If you're fortunate enough maybe you've found more than you can eat before they start to spoil. So, you can give them away and be the neighborhood nice person. You can sell them. You can take them to the auctions at one of the area festivals. You can also preserve them. Whatever you do don't let them spoil!

Vicky and I have found they will stay fresh longer if you only soak them for 5-10 minutes in lightly salted water. We then remove most of the water by placing them on paper towels for several minutes and then put them in a perforated vegetable baggie in the refrigerator and write the date on the baggie. We consume the oldest ones first. Morels will last 1-2 weeks in the fridge providing they were fresh when you picked them.

If you just can't eat them fast enough and want to give them away, don't relinquish them to able-bodied people that should be foraging for themselves. Remember the landowner who gave you permission to hunt on his property. If he or she is a farmer, chances are they are too busy in the field during the height of the season to find their own. It's customary to offer half of your find to the landowner. It's also a good way to not wear out you welcome.

There are many people willing to buy morels. The problem is finding those people. Terry and Barb Judd of the Hennepin Food Mart buy and sell morels every spring.

There will be two morel auctions this spring to either buy or sell morel mushrooms. The first is at the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship in Magnolia, Illinois on May 3. The second is at the Spoon River Morel Mushroom Festival at Shad Hill in Farmington on May 10.

By now you are looking up at the title of this article and wondering just what kind of mushroom has Tom been consuming. We do have morels for Christmas dinner. They are preserved by any of several methods. We have found that dehydrating preserves them best without any loss of texture or flavor.

Don't wash or soak any mushroom that you intend to dehydrate! Slice them in half and brush away any dirt or critters. You may string them and hang them in the sunshine or place them in a single layer between two screens and elevate them for air circulation in the sunshine. We have a dehydrator that provides both heat and circulation. Dry them until they are crispy, like a potato chip. Remember that bigger, thicker mushrooms will take longer to dehydrate. If we use a dehydrator, we cut them in rings rather than in half. We're able to control the thickness of the pieces so they are similar in size and will dehydrate in the same amount of time. It's not necessary, but we then place them in an air tight baggie in the freezer. They should store equally as well in a paper bag and not refridgerated at all. When you ready to devour them, simply place them in water for 15-20 minutes and they're ready to use. the same as if they were fresh. I like to take them right from the freezer and let them rehydrate as they are cooking in soup.

Bill Felt of Oquawka, Illinois prefers the half-cook/freeze method. Bill breads the morels in a cracker/flour mixture (I think he uses an egg or two in the mixture also) and then fries them half-way. He then freezes them on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, they can be gathered into a baggie and kept in the freezer. Then when the Mississippi River is also frozen and he can't take his boat out, he retrieves the morels from the freezer and finishes cooking them.

Morels can also be pickled. Credit for this recipe is due to my sister, Marge Kennedy of Henry, Illinois. It also works well with the fall mushrooms.

Ingredients: 1 lb. fresh whole mushrooms, 2 medium onions thinly sliced and separated into rings, One and one-half cups red wine vinegar (or tarragon & vinegar blend from Heinz), One and one-half cups water, one-half cup packed brown sugar, 4 tsps. pickling salt, 1 tsp. dried tarragon (crushed).

Thoroughly wash mushrooms and trim stems. In a 3 qt. saucepan combine onion rings, vinegar, water, brown sugar, pickling salt, and tarragon. Bring to a boil. Add mushrooms. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Lift mushrooms and onion rings from pickling liquid with slotted spoon. Reserve liquid - keep hot. Pack mushrooms in hot jars leaving one-half inch headspace. Cover with boiling pickling liquid leaving one-half inch headspace. Put on lids. Process in boiling water bath (half pints and pints) for 5 minutes. Makes 4.5 pints.

There are two ways to have fresh morels for Christmas. The first is to obtain them from Terry Farms in Auburn, Alabama. They grow them indoors year-round. I'll find out more and give you a full report in a future column. The other way is to spend Christmas in the proper latitude in the southern hemisphere!

Don't forget - The Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship is Saturday, May 3 in Magnolia. Phone 309-364-3319 for details. The Spoon River Morel Mushroom Festival is Saturday, May 10 at Shad Hill in Farmington. Phone 309-245-4452. I'll be at both, hope to see you there.