Morel Mushroom Hunting

In the ongoing quest to feed the family using local, natural products; morel mushroom hunting has become an annual right of late spring in Jackson Hole. The hunt for mushrooms is a mystery for many varieties of mushrooms. The location of good patches is a closely guarded secret. In some years the right combination of weather will cause them to spring up all over the valley. Most years, though, it is a frustrating sometimes feudal effort to locate them in just the right time and place. There is one sure fired method that one can always count on in the Rocky Mountain west and that is forest fire burn areas. The spring following a forest fire you can always count on there being a lot of morels. You still have to wait for the right moment in, the complex matrix of weather events that tell the morels when to pop up but when it is on, it usually way on.

In late June, the word came down from some other mushroomers in Jackson that things were happening in the in the New Fork burn area near Pinedale,WY. This had been a big 40,000 acre burn last summer. At 40,000 acres it not a big deal to keep it a secret. There were plenty of mushrooms for everyone.

Early the next morning Marc Hirshfield and I loaded up in his truck with USGS maps and headed for the burn area. Marc is the owner of Betty Rock Cafe and and a partner in the Rendezvous Bistro, two of Jackson Hole's best dining institutions. It took a couple hours to get to Pinedale and navigate the maze of Forest Service roads to find our way into the depths of the burn area. Before we had even unloaded and geared up for hunting, I found my first morel.

Walking through a heavy burn area is like no other place I've been. There is a strange beauty to it. This area was totally lifeless except for morels.

For the first couple of hours we collected many mushrooms here and there. Any normal time it would be considered good harvesting. Being that we were in a burn area though I was looking for the motherload. Just as we were starting to head back to the truck to drive to a new spot we struck gold. All of the sudden there morels as far as you looked in any direction. The next three hours were spent picking the morels as fast we could crawl or bend over and cut them off.

Marc harvesting in his mycologist ensemble

As our backs began to get sore and our bags got full, it became time to head for the barn. Once we got back in cellphone range we called ahead to let friends and family know to meet at Marc's house for a morel feast.

There are limitless uses for morel mushrooms. There subtle earthy flavor and unique texture make them wonderful in many dishes. When they are fresh out of the woods it doesn't take much and you don't need to mess around with them to make them taste great. Since we had a hungry group of mushroomers waiting for food we didn't have time to get fancy anyway.

We started the evening with appetizers of straight morels sauteed with a generous about of olive oil, salt, and a finely chopped rosemary, green onion and garlic tops plucked fresh from the garden.

The main course was pizza's on the grill. My latest advancement in my never ending quest to make the perfect pizza is letting the pie dough age in the fridge for many days. The batch we had that night had been festering for a week. I think it develops some kind of sourdough phenomena. I don't know the details but I know is it gets soft, stretchy and delicious.

Pizza dough recipe:

8 cups of flour. I used a high gluten, all-purpose, all natural flour from Montana Wheat. You can use half semolina or whole wheat.

2 tablespoons Honey. Sugar or maple syrup ok.

2 cups tepid water

2 teaspoons salt

1/4-1/2 cup olive oil

I use my kitchen aid with a dough hook. Add water or flour as needed to get the dough to form. Finish with some kneading by hand. I put the dough in the fridge in a bowl or ziplock with some olive oil rubbed all over it. Let it proof in the fridge for 1 day to a week. You can let rise traditionally out of the fridge for same day use.

We made a couple of different pizzas using mozzarella, goat cheese, prosciutto, chopped scallions, chives, garlic greens and different herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage.

A few techniques I use for grilled pizza.

1. Roll out the dough thick or thin. (Having grown up in central Ohio,one of the under appreciated thin crust pizza centers of the Universe, I like thin crust). Marc who serves pizza in their restaurant can throw and spread the crusts by hand but I need a rolling pin.

2. Slather the pie in olive oil and grill one side. Lid down. Careful not burn it!

3. Saute or grill the mushrooms. I have a mesh screen designed for cooking pizzas on that is great for putting the morels on the grill without losing them. Toss them in a bowl with a generous amount of olive oil, salt and herbs.

4. Put toppings on the grilled side. Put a little salt on too.

5. Put the pizza back on the grill lid down. If you can turn off part of the grill or move coals to one side it is best to put the pie away from the direct heat so it has time to melt the toppings before the bottom burns.

Enjoy!

Coyote Loops freshest salad. Watermelon and you have a feast!

Moreling Tips:

1. Find an experienced mushroomer. Charm them into taking you hunting.

2. Collect mushrooms in a mesh bag so the you distribute spoors around while you are hunting. More morels next year!

3. Cut the morels off a little above ground level with a knife. Pulling them out of the ground disturbs the mysterious underground network of mushroom life. It also keeps you from getting a lot of dirt/ash in your mushroom sack. I like a fairly long 4-5 inch one handed opening pocket knife. If you need to use both hands to open the knife it slows down the picking or encourages you to walk around with the knife open which can lead to stabbing yourself when you trip over an unnoticed rock.

4. Don't wash the mushrooms. They are like little sponges. You want them to soak up yummy not water. You can brush them off. I find that them shaking around the mesh bag does a fairly good job of cleaning. I don't worry much about eating a little dirt and ash from the middle of nowhere in the Wyoming wilderness. Compared to the innumerable unknown in ingredients in a McDonalds meal, a little dirt doesn't seem so bad. Terroir baby.

5. Mushrooms can be eaten fresh for several days. As soon as they start to go bad they should be frozen or dried. I dry them for a few hours in the oven with the door open at 150-175 degrees on my mesh pizza trays. They should be like crunchy Styrofoam when they are dry. MAKE SURE THEY ARE FULLY DRY BEFORE STORING IN AN AIRTIGHT CONTAINER. I had one batch that wasn't fully dried and lost about 20% due to mold. TRAGIC!!

6. Reconstitute in water for a couple hours before using. They will be almost as good as new. Use them in any recipe that calls for mushrooms.

A few favorites of mine are:

1. Handmade pasta with sauted morels, herbs, garlic and olive oil and/or butter.

2. Braised chicken with wine and morels.

3. Stir fry with pork, morels and garden fresh vegetables.