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In Praise of the Fungal Phoenix 

Through foraging or the farmers market, get some of the morels that are in abundance this year

Morels have no psychoactive properties but are definitely magical. The caps have a brainly look that might make you feel like you're hallucinating, but these whacky, whimsical mushrooms are for real, and can cause real-life magic to happen. This is especially true if you are hunting them, but preparing morels can be an adventure, too.

Morels are widely considered the finest-tasting mushroom on the planet. Their meaty flavor and fleshy texture allow them to mix well with fat and wine and lend a soulful fungal aroma to soups.

click to enlarge A dish the author lovingly calls "Wild Things." - ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari Levaux
  • A dish the author lovingly calls "Wild Things."

Morels grow, and are hunted, on every continent except Antarctica, and are named in most languages. They could spring up anywhere as long as the soil temperatures and moisture levels are right, but they prefer creek beds, disturbed ecosystems and the back yards of morel pickers. They appear in clusters, so that if you find one, don't move until you've scanned the whole area.

Most of the morels picked, including the ones for sale at fancy markets, are known as phoneicoid morels, named after the phoenix. For reasons barely understood, these morels proliferate in the burned mountain forests of the West. When you go after them, you quickly look and smell like a burned forest yourself.

Finding morels is half art, half science and half persistence. It's an ecological puzzle you solve by noting the elevation, slope angle, the direction it faces, and surrounding plant species, if any remain. Pinecones can look like morels and get your hopes up. That's why they call it mushroom hunting, rather than picking.

Last week when I went hunting I did not have my morel goggles on. In retrospect, the burn I chose was at too high an elevation, so the soil wasn't warm enough. Back in town, I bought a nice basket of morels at the farmers market. Then I went to Diamond Jim's Casino, which houses a small but well-appointed liquor store that carries the correct type of sherry for morel cooking.

Morels need sherry as much as they need butter. But not so-called "cooking sherry," which tastes more like salt water. We need drinking sherry for morel cookery, but not the good stuff. High-end sherry does not offer any advantage over a $7 bottle of Fairbanks. But alas, on that day, Diamond Jim's was out of stock.

As I stood crestfallen in Diamond Jim's, a friend called my name. Being a great hunter of elk, morels and other wild things, I knew he would understand my plight. So I explained, to him and the room in general, why I needed that Fairbanks.

They just wanted to know where I had found them. Reflexively, I spat out a false location, because they deserved to be lied to. Anybody foolish enough to ask a morel hunter where he found them, so they say, is foolish enough to believe the reply.

"I prefer vermouth," offered the bartender. My head swiveled.

"For morels?" I asked. She nodded.

"Great!" Do you have any vermouth?

"No."

Fortunately, dry vermouth is easier to hunt down than Fairbanks. I found a bottle across the street. And I'm happy to report that the bartender was correct.

Here's a recipe for a dish I first ate by a campfire one rainy June night, when I was camping with a bunch of pickers. There is a certain smell that's only available around a fire, in the middle of a burned forest, in front of a pan of simmering morels simmer in deep butter. It's the smell of the wild, and a whiff of the future in the middle of desolation. And a shy reminder that destruction can pave the way for new growth.

It blends a decadent morel sauté with wild rice and the untamed flavor of sage. It's the wild earthiness that you are hunting for when you eat wild mushrooms.

Wild Things

This hearty, earthy recipe is good served with meat, but that's hardly necessary. Ultimately, it's a showcase for morels. If you have to buy them and they're really expensive, you can make up the difference with regular button mushrooms, or other wild mushrooms like oyster or porcini.

For a sumptuous, saucy alternative, skip the wild rice and almonds, and add a cup of heavy cream to the sauteed mushrooms instead.

Serves 8

• 2 cups wild rice
• 1/2 pound fresh morels (or morels cut with other mushrooms), sliced in half from tip to stem
• 1 medium sized onion, chopped
• 8 tablespoons butter
• I cup cheap, dry sherry or dry vermouth (failing those, dry white wine)
• 1 cup chicken stock
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon dried sage (or a tablespoon fresh)
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• Juice and zest of a quarter lemon
• 1 cup slivered or sliced almonds
• 1 large bunch of parsley
• A handful of chives or ramps

Add the rice and six cups of water to a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Cook it on medium until the water is gone and the rice is soft and splitting open, about 50 minutes. If it's still kind of hard and crunchy, add another cup of water and cook for another 15 minutes or so. Turn it off before it burns and let it sit with the lid on.

While the rice cooks, melt the butter in a pan on medium-high heat. Add the onions and layer the morels on top. After about 5 minutes, as the onions start to cook down, give it a stir. After another 5 or so minutes, when the onions turn translucent and the pan starts to dry out—about 10 minutes—add half of the sherry (or vermouth), as well as the stock, nutmeg, black pepper, salt, sage, soy sauce, lemon juice and zest. Simmer for about 20 minutes on medium. Add the other half cup of vermouth, and simmer for 10 more minutes with the lid on.

While it simmers, trim and chop the parsley and chives.

When most of the liquid has evaporated from the pan, add the rice and stir it around. Add the almonds and give it another stir. Turn off the heat, stir in the parsley and chives and serve.

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