Montana Morels: A Seasonal Delicacy

FORAGING FOR MORELS IS A MONTANA RITE of spring. My 5-year-old says it’s even better than an Easter egg hunt. I have to admit, morels sautéed in butter and garlic taste infinitely better than hard-boiled eggs. Over Memorial Day weekend, my family foraged among cottonwoods at a top-secret spot on the Yellowstone River and was rewarded with a giant bagful of the springtime delicacies.

“People seem to love morels more than anything,” says Mira Trafton, a Livingston mushroom enthusiast who’s foraged since she was a kid growing up in Wisconsin. Mira owns a microscope for taking spore prints, and words like “polypores” and “inky caps” roll off her tongue at regular intervals. “Mushrooms are like aliens to me. There’s no rhyme or reason to them. But with morels, it definitely seems to be a temperature and elevation thing.”

Trafton is a server in the dining room at Chico Hot Springs, where pickers show up at the back door every spring with bags of morels, hoping to sell to chef Morgan Milton. “Working at the restaurant is like having a thermometer for when and where they’re popping,” says Trafton. “I feel like I’m cheating!”

Trafton explains that morels come in different flushes and usually start along rivers at lower elevations. “With the Yellowstone, they’ll hit lower down by Big Timber or Springdale before they hit Paradise Valley. Then they’ll move up higher. Burn-site morels tend to come later [popping one to two years after a fire]. Last year, we were getting burn-site morels into July.”

Trafton adds that mushroom hunters are like skiers: “It’s the same kind of mentality. When the powder hits, you’ve gotta go get it. When mushrooms are out, you gotta go!”

Though it takes awhile to get your eyes accustomed to spotting morels, Trafton likens it to bonefishing: “You learn how to see, and once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.” Following are a few tricks of the trade garnered from Trafton.

Morel Hunting Tips

1. Morels cluster. When you see one, freeze and look around slowly. Don’t go charging in, or you might trample a bunch as you walk to it.

2. Leave your dog at home. “All of a sudden you’ll be in a flush, and your dog will run up and trample your little cache.”

3. Don’t pull a morel out by the root, because you want to leave some spores behind. The best way is to cut it with a knife just about even to the ground. “A lot of old school mushroom hunters take a steak knife and small paintbrush, and duct tape them end-to-end so you have a tool that is a knife on one end and a brush on the other. This way, you can cut it and brush it off before placing it in a paper bag.”

4. Paper, not plastic. “I don’t know why, maybe it’s a moisture thing, but all serious mushroom hunters use paper bags.”

5. For safety with any mushroom (even edible ones, like morels), the rule of thumb is to cook before eating. Hunters need to be aware of “false morels” — though Trafton has not encountered any in Montana and wonders if they might be more common in the Midwest. Trafton cautions that the only way to be 100 percent certain of whether a mushroom is safe to eat or not is to take a spore print and look at it under a microscope.

6. Trafton highly recommends two guidebooks: National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms (Knopf) and A Field Guide to Mushrooms: North America (Peterson Field Guides). “Petersen’s is very good on edibility.”

Cooking Tips

Morels have a delicate flavor, so less is more. Following is an amalgam of cooking tips gleaned from Trafton, my foodie sister-in-law Jen Vermillion, and John Stelmack, co-owner of The Mint in Lewistown.

1. Wash the morels (they can get really sandy and dirty) and whirl them in a salad spinner if you have one. If you don’t, let them dry on the counter before cooking. (They really absorb water.) Stelmack says you can also put them in a pan on low heat to draw out even more water, which you can pour off, before sautéing.

2. Cut the morels from top to bottom. “They shrink when cooking, so remember: The mushroom you pick is not the mushroom you get to eat,” cautions Trafton. Don’t bother cutting the small ones, and half or quarter large ones so they’re fairly uniform in size for even cooking.

3. Put at least a couple tablespoons of butter (more depending on how many morels you have) and a clove or two of minced garlic in a pan on medium until the butter is translucent. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper.

4. Sauté for up to five minutes; they cook fast. Eat alone or on top of steak. We added heavy cream (1/4 cup per person) and cooked with mushrooms on medium until thickened and poured over pasta. (One-quarter cup per person)

5. Don’t forget breakfast! John Stelmack adds that his buddy Dave Corcoran, a mushroom aficionado, is crazy about morels in scrambled eggs. Sauté as instructed above but add eggs and capers, then garnish with chopped tomatoes.

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