When life gives you morels you toss them on a lightbox with a sous vide hen egg soufflé and a bunch of other cool and tasty shit, right? Yeah, me too. In this case, “life” happened to be my mushroom-hunting homie Jon Rowley, a seafood legend, who magnanimously bestowed so many of his self-gathered morels on me I had whirls of fungi dancing before my eyes without eating anything in the hallucinogenic family. But then, these ‘shrooms incite fantasies almost richer than brilliantine cubensis trips because they are so supremely of the earth that you want to be dead sober when you eat them just so you have a chance at remembering the mushroom lust for the other 364 days of the year when you don’t get to masticate morels.
The first time I foraged for them I was in high school. Either I had very free-spirited or utterly defeated parents because they let me move with my boyfriend to a little resort town called McCall, ID for the summer. We lived in a fifth wheel trailer on a lakeside lot of his grandparents’ vacation home.
I took a job in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant as a dishwasher and lowly prep cook. Every morning it was my duty to finely dice several mountains of tomatoes for the salsa. I sold hemp necklaces on the side by smothering the sidewalk in a tie dyed sheet and plopping upon it to weave my wares in front of curious tourists. I was nothing more than a curious tourist myself, but I was kitted out in an asphalt-grazing white frock that induced people to call me “Glenda the Good Witch” and glass beads clung like a koala bear onto the lone dreadlock jauntily-cocked offside my head.
Jerry had just died and Phish would never replace The Dead in my heart so I skipped the summer tour in favor of bucolic resort life. I met a man who swore he fought during the civil war- he had military-issued longjohns with wooden buttons to prove it- he didn’t seem a day over 50 and he said he’d been holed up in a cave with his mule since the war. He looked like a trapper and told such a tale over his bottle of rye I nipped on the sly that to this day I wonder if I saw a ghost. He spoke of gold and many fires. Morels lick the tails of fires, chasing them for nutrient-rich forest the way fast girls court danger on the backs of motorbikes with glowing chrome exhaust pipes.
One day we met a shaman who invited us to a sweat lodge at his home tucked into the elbow of where a mountain meets the forest floor. We helped build a fire to heat the rocks we foraged from the creek ten paces away. As the rocks baked in the hot blue coals, the shaman told rhythmic stories about a terrible past to five of us, his literal and figurative children. His daughter made me comfortable in my own adolescent skin, wrapping her ample, warm body around my small self in a way that made it ok that I was sitting nude with generations of strangers.
When the rocks were hot we brought them inside the lodge and poured creekwater over them. The room was devoid of light and the temperature so high the air ate our breath. The shaman incanted guttural words from his ancestors in a language I do not know but the meaning of his chants penetrated me like the bone-scalding heat.
Just when the burning darkness gave way to tumbleweed visions spinning tricks on my eyes, it was time to scurry outside under the star-laden sky and roll in the frigid creek. Three times we repeated the process and by the end our bodies had gone, cleansed by the ice water and scoured by the salty blaze. Our souls laid bare, I began to think about what fuels that ephemeral part of existence that needs more than cheese fries and ranch dressing to survive.
Art, music and nature, or even the pulsing reverb of a city at night.
But some foods have the ability to split a soul and smear themselves inside, like truffles, oysters and mushrooms. Maybe those who have yet to appreciate these foods are still seeing shadows dancing from a fire inside Plato’s Cave. When the fetters unloose and the people break outside the cave to see reality, they gain the ability to savor the earth’s most visceral sustenance.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
— William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: A Facsimile in Full Color)
The next day we hiked a forest that had been kissed by flames the year before. I spent half a day with my eyes peeled to the pockets of moss and twigs already accumulated on the woody floor, but I didn’t spot a single morel. A lot of people stalked through the woods that day, professionals who follow a climatic circuit of fungal growth much like Native Americans used to migrate from pinion pine to camas bulb to lake salmon depending on the season. These professional mushroom hunters carry maps detailing burn zones and identification guides chockfull of mushroom varieties from the rare and prized matsutake to the easily-identified yellow chanterelle. They also carry guns and knives- mushroom hunting is big business and it’s not uncommon for fisticuffs to turn to fired shots if thousands of dollars of the daily haul is at stake.
Feeling dejected and unwilling to compete with compass-wielding, fatigue-wearing pros, I laid in a clearing to gaze at the drifting clouds. No sooner had my eyes uncrossed from staring at moss all day than I spotted my first morel. And right behind it, six more. I carefully sliced the morels clean through with my virgin blade and placed them in the lonely basket I had carted around just for them. Suddenly everywhere I looked I saw morel after morel. In patches I had combed surely very thoroughly an hour before there were now two here, four there, and I understood I only needed to quell my eager lust to see them for what they were. Ask anyone who has experience hunting mushrooms- this is often the way it goes. You have to learn to see things a different way.
I prepared those morels by sautéing them in a little butter with a splash of wine. Morels, butter and wine is an instinctive culinary triumvirate that is virtually no-fail. These many years later I read that even Michael Ruhlman agrees with me, stating here that “they taste best cooked gently in a little dairy fat.” Not wanting to defy the satisfaction of intuition, I opted for a similar preparation this time around, slicing these morels that Jon gifted me into wheels and sweating them in butter with a little sherry. A smattering of thyme completed their simple elegance and I served them with other strong, one-note components that unite for a classic, perfect bite.
The most visually-arresting aspect of the dish is the sous vide hen egg soufflé, the technique for which can be found in this earlier post. In addition, I made gnocchi from hominy mixed with a few morels rather than using the more typical potatoes. This idea proved very successful and perhaps I will visit it in greater detail in a subsequent post, where the morels are not meant to be the stars. I reduced the leftover morel stems in wine to make deep, pungent syrup and used the resulting savory cordial to add umami to an emulsion of chickweed puree that wound up the consistency of aioli. Chickweed is a sadly-underrated green. The spongy leaves are sweet and sprout-like and remind me of a more delicate version of my favorite green, mache. I used pistachio oil to emulsify the chickweed puree and added a few crumbled pistachios to amp up the green, woodsy flavor. Salt-baked golden beets and caramelized spring garlic rounded out the earthy flavors of the dish.
For me the elements that compose this plate remain largely true to their original form and benefit from lack of excessive manipulation. And yet, when presented together, tasted together, savored together, they combine in such a way as to surpass the lone components while still giving the morels top billing.