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Hunting the Elusive Morel
Morel mushrooms were a rare treat in my childhood. Dad searched for them along the Missouri and had the best luck near rotted cottonwood trunks. He showed me how to bathe the fungi in saltwater to remove sand and insects and then sauté them with butter and salt. At first I was wary of the morel’s brain-like appearance, but became hooked by its rich, meaty flavor.
Although I enjoyed my dad’s finds, I had never hunted myself until last spring. I did know that hunters are very secretive about their hunting techniques, so I turned to Tony Kellar, a Sioux Falls outdoors enthusiast and author of Camping & Cooking with the Bare Essentials, for advice.
“The best time to find morels is usually when the lilacs start to bloom,” says Kellar, whose tattooed, athletic build reflects an active lifestyle. The season varies throughout the state, but it’s normally late April and early May. The tasty morsels are found on moist forest floors, especially near rivers and lakes. Look for yellow or tan mushrooms with spongy caps, but beware the false morel. It can be poisonous. True morels are hollow throughout, while false morels are solid.
Kellar suggests following an experienced hunter. That may be difficult to arrange, as hunting spots are top secret. But you can be initiated. Kellar introduced his friend Jarett Bies to morel hunting during a kayaking excursion on the Missouri.
“Tony explained the shape and how, like a 3-D painting, once you found one you’d suddenly see more,” says Bies, a writer and avid kayaker from Vermillion. He and Kellar hunted on hands and knees along the edge of the beach, and soon calls of “got one” rose from the brush. Of course, Bies was warned not to reveal the location. “I doubt I could relate to anyone where we were, so the secret is safe,” he says. The morels were rinsed, buttered, and baked right on the sand. “The flavor of these wild treats makes all the subterfuge worth it,” Bies says.
Last May, my husband Jeremy and I went on our own excursion. We searched a shady area west of Yankton, the ground damp with rain. I used a stick to poke around the dead leaves for about an hour with no success. Thoughts of the time Jeremy dragged me along deer hunting popped into my head — a nice hike but nothing to show for our efforts.
“Let’s try this ravine,” Jeremy said, and gracefully descended to the bottom. I slipped on some loose dirt and traveled down on my back. After shaking the dirt and leaves from my hair, I took a few careful steps into the ravine and finally spotted the unmistakable tan fungi. “I found one!” I shouted.
“They’re everywhere!” Jeremy exclaimed.
We picked about 5 pounds of mushrooms that day. As we carried our bounty out of the forest, Jeremy stopped short at the sound of other hikers.
“Shh. Stay here,” he whispered while gesturing behind a tree. “I don’t want them to know about our hunting spot.”
Jeremy and I kept our harvest, but some hunters sell to gourmet or natural grocery stores. Molly Langley, owner of Coop Natural Foods in Sioux Falls, occasionally buys morels for resale. She learned about the culture of secrecy the first time she bought from a morel hunter. “I remember saying, ‘Where did you get them?’” says Langley. “The seller found another corner of the store to look at and wouldn’t tell me.” She purchased the mushrooms. “We packaged them up as we do our other local mushrooms,” says Langley. “They were gone in 12 hours.”
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the March/April 2012 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.
Citrus mushroom pasta
3 tablespoons unsalted butter (can substitute extra virgin olive oil)
3/4 lbs. morel mushrooms
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1/4 cup chicken broth
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
pepper to taste
8 ounces whole wheat spaghetti
Morels can be stored in the refrigerator in a brown paper bag, or in a colander at room temperature. The mushrooms begin drying slowly, but will rehydrate when cooked.
Prepare mushrooms by brushing away loose dirt. Then cut each in half lengthwise and soak in salt water for about 20 minutes to remove insects and tiny snails. After soaking, you may wish to rinse each mushroom separately to remove any remaining sand.
To make the sauce, begin melting butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and onions and cook for about one minute, stirring often. Then add mushrooms and sauté for a few minutes until tender.
Decrease heat to low and add salt, lemon juice and parsley. Once pasta is cooked al dente, turn the skillet back to medium heat. Add the pasta to the mushrooms and toss together. Next add chicken broth and pepper to taste. Serve sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. (Makes about four servings)