I had never had a morel mushroom when friend and artist Molly Knickerbocker mentioned she was meeting her father to forage for the elusive mushroom. The whereabouts of these magical mushrooms are often a highly guarded secret. I was intrigued. Morels can capture up to $40 per pound.
Priya Hutner and Katie Capano with their bounty of morels.
Chris Clark and Katie Capano went foraging a few days later and invited me to partake in a beautiful vegan Alfredo linguine with morel mushrooms and peas. Capano offered to take me out to forage for morels and we made plans for the following day.
The key to finding the mushrooms is to look for places that have been burned, old logging areas or places with downed trees. Morels tend to grow in small clearings, in places that are not too rocky, not too hilly, not too wet nor too dry. They emerge as the snow recedes and flourish when temperatures are 60 degrees and above during the day and around 40 degrees at night.
We found a spot in Truckee that fit the criteria. With our heads down and eyes peeled on the earth we began our search. Capano was the first to spot the pinecone-looking mushroom among a sea of pinecones.
“They’re like castles growing from the ground,” she said with pure delight. She took her knife and gently cut the mushroom at the base. I held out a mesh bag. I’d read it was best to collect the morels in a porous bag. The theory being the spores would spread back into the ground.
I finally spotted one morel and then another: some big, some small. I held the morel to my nose and drew in its earthy scent. Morels are blackish brown in color at the cone with a cream-colored beige stem; some are slightly blonder. They reminded me of a sponge in texture. We also came across the toxic false morel, which is more orange in color.
A sliced morel
Once my eyes adjusted, morels were everywhere. The mushrooms seemed prevalent in the moister areas of the woods. By the end of our two-hour walkabout, we had collected close to 3 pounds.
I sautéed green spring onions in butter until tender, added a handful of sliced morels and then placed them over a bowl of gluten-free penne with a dash of Himalayan salt and cracked pepper. The flavors of the mushrooms were earthy and meaty, creating a simple delectable meal.
A morel risotto with scallops
Capano, Knickerbocker and I went back out the following evening. We decided to return to the scene of our last adventure. We found ourselves frolicking in the woods, squealing with glee with each fabulous fungi we found. “They remind me of little brains,” Knickerbocker said.
Knickerbocker invited me to her home for dinner. I brought scallops, asparagus and English peas from my Mountain Bounty CSA box. Molly was stirring a risotto with morel mushrooms when I arrived. She roasted the asparagus with finely chopped morels and sautéed the scallops, which she dredged in flour, sumac and salt. The peas were added to the risotto. We sipped on gin and elderberry tonic cocktails, which was like drinking summer. I loved the crispy roasted morel bits that topped the asparagus. The risotto was rich with a slight nutty flavor from the morels.
Gluten-free penne with morels
I’ve decided that morels are a most delicious delicacy.
It is best not to wash morels. Wipe them gently and place in the fridge with a slightly damp paper towel. Use them soon after picking. They can be dehydrated, as well. The season in Tahoe for morels is short — only a couple of months. But there is still time to get out, get into the woods and attune your eyes to one of earth’s tempting treats.
Priya Hutner is a writer, health and wellness consultant, and natural foods chef. Her business, The Seasoned Sage, focuses on wellness, conscious eating and healthy living. She offers healthy organic meals for her clients. She may be reached at [email protected] or visit theseasonedsage.com. Visit TheTahoeWeekly.com to read more.