Thursday, April 28, 2011


Let me start by saying that amateur mushroom hunting can be a nasty little game of foraging roulette–a gamble you don't want to lose. You really, really shouldn’t do it unless you have an expert along. Yes, there are ways to identify mushroom species with a degree of precision (by taking spore prints, for instance), but then there’s the matter of poisonous “evil twins,” which mimic their edible cousins, sometimes concealing themselves within an otherwise innocent fairy ring.

Though I’ll enthusiastically pluck fiddleheads, nettles, wild onions and dandelions for the dinner table (and would dig ramps if I could find them), I stop at fungi. It’s just not worth the risk. There is, however, one exception I’ll make, and that is morel mushrooms. This may make no sense at all to you, since I have zero credentials as a mycologist, but morels are an exceptional bunch in that, to a practiced eye, they can be pretty much be identified by appearance alone. They have distinctive conical, honeycombed caps, which may range in color from platinum blond to yellow to black. Sometimes, they resemble pine-cones. Their closest deadly doubles, the false morels of the Gyromitra genus, bear them merely a passing resemblance–in other words, they're more like distant cousins than twins. To me, false morels look like melted, misshapen horror-show versions of the real thing, and I can't imagine being fooled or tempted by one. If there’s any doubt, though, slice the mushroom in half lengthwise: a true morel will have a hollow core from top to bottom, while a false morel’s cap is filled with fleshy or cottony stuff.

This first flush of Spring is the time morel hunters dream of all year, and it coincides with other glorious things, like the unfurling of fiddleheads, the bursting of buds, the warming of soils. In some areas of the South, the season is already wrapping up right now, but in northern climes it’s just beginning. You can chart the fervor on message boards where morel maniacs share the vicinities, dates, and conditions of their finds with fellow aficionados–but will never reveal their "spots". The Midwest and Pacific Northwest are hotbeds of morel hunting activity. In the latter, carpets of black morels may sprout up following forest fires, drawing hundreds of hunters to a burn site. Michael Pollan wrote of this phenomenon in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Morels are known to proliferate after good, soaking rains, and while there’s no guarantee where or when they will pop, they’re found throughout most of the U.S. from April through May, with outliers emerging in some places as early as March, reportedly as late as August. Morels also seem to have affinity for certain species of trees–so you're more likely to find them in certain forests than in others. Areas near poplar
and ash trees, old apple orchards, dying elms, and some conifer forests all seem to encourage morel growth, but then the mushrooms may materialize almost everywhere, including in mulch piles, suburban lawns, and along railroad tracks.

My own experience with finding morels is limited to Virginia, around the second week in April, in a light poplar forest scattered with dogwoods and hollies. There are generally bloodroots growing nearby. But I won't tell you any more than that.

Last week, I got my five-year-old in on the game of "mushroom hunt." My children won't touch mushrooms of any kind–all because of the disturbing Story of Babar, in which Babar becomes king after the old ruler eats a poisonous mushroom, turns green, withers, and dies (this, after poor Babar's mother is shot by a hunter and he flees, takes up with a sugar mama, and then takes his cousin as a child bride). But my girl was happy to poke around the forest floor with a stick, and as further proof of the power of books, she insisted on wearing her daffodil-colored wellies, which she adores because "in books when it rains people always have on yellow boots or yellow raincoats."
I'm always surprised we never find more than a few there, because if I were a morel that's where I would want to hide out: up on that enchanted hill enjoying views like this:
But you just never know. In fact a friend, whose name and address shall remain anonymous, e-mailed me a picture that same week: 
She found this specimen and some companions peeking out of the ivy in her Brooklyn backyard. She had been purging her borders of them nearly every spring for years, for fear the kids or dog might take a bite and poison themselves.
If you happen upon some morels this spring and decide to eat them–if not your own finds, then those that are sure to appear in finer food stores and farmers' markets–you should know how to treat them, for there's really nothing like a fresh morel. Earthy, nutty, and even somewhat meaty, they have a texture reminiscent of tripe, meaning all those little folds just provide more surface area for crisping and for holding onto sauces. 

First, the matter of cleaning. Your 'shrooms may have soil or small bugs clinging to them, being that they are products of nature (all morels are wild–even those found in Brooklyn). I recommend brushing the soil off with a soft brush or clean cloth, and if they are especially gritty, you will have to resort to some water–something I almost never recommend for mushrooms, since they're essentially sponges. You can clean dirty morels by submerging them in a bowl of lukewarm water, swishing them carefully, then putting them on clean towels to dry. Use them fairly soon after cleaning so they don't turn soggy. For larger morels, first slice them in half lengthwise (top to bottom). 

Always cook morels. Though not poisonous, they do contain a compound that can can irritate some people's stomachs, especially when consumed in quantity and with alcohol. Cooking takes care of this. The fresher the mushroom, the simpler the cooking should be–at least, that's my rule of thumb. At the most basic, a little butter and salt does the trick. Slice the morel in halves or quarters (depending on size–some giants may require more cutting). Choose a shallow skillet that won't crowd them, put the heat on medium high, throw some butter in and let it start to brown slightly before adding your morels–the butter will turn nutty and sweet (just don't burn it). Cook the morels for around 10 minutes, stirring, until they're still tender but crisp on the outside. If the morels release water, allow a few more minutes' cooking time for that liquid to evaporate. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

You can fold these sautéed morels into an omelet, or just put them on toast. You can also make a lovely pasta sauce by first sautéeing minced shallots in butter for a minute, then adding some chopped thyme leaves and the morels. Sauté as described above, then add a bit of vegetable or chicken stock, cook until reduced by half, and swirl in a generous measure of cream and/or creme fraiche at the end. Add salt and pepper at the very end to taste, and stir in a few spoonfuls of pasta cooking water to make it saucier if needed. You can scatter some chopped, fresh herbs on top, like parsley, chervil, and/or tarragon. 

Morels taste heavenly tumbled in the pan with some of their vernal cohorts, like fiddleheads, asparagus, and ramps. If you happen to have access to all of these, well, then the gods of spring are clearly smiling upon you. 

Morel links:
American Mushrooms
The Great Morel  
"Wildman" Steve Brill (local NYC foraging trips)

Friday, April 8, 2011


This post goes out to my young old man, who just got his ticker fixed. I wanted to get this to you, Dad, while you were still a docile patient, but I’ve been busy: traveling first to Cleveland to see you, then to Florida for a wedding, and in between scrubbing the classroom dollhouse and nurturing newborn fish and baking birthday cupcakes (strawberry) for the five-year-old diva. 

I know it hasn’t been too much fun being you these past couple of weeks. Snow frosted the view outside your window, and Nurse Ratched was not the sunniest company. There have been aches and pains. The standard-issue attire was not your usual exuberant best, and the mandated accessories were even more appalling–no doubt you were delighted to shed them. Most dismaying of all, perhaps, was the abrupt switch from your usual epicurean standards.

So let’s talk about something else for a bit, shall we? I think this would be a fine time to introduce our mutual friend, le Toc-Oeuf.

For readers who may be scratching their heads right now, the Toc-Oeuf, if you have not seen one, could be considered among the cleverest or most pointless of utensils–depending on your needs. While I don’t have much patience for single-use gadgets in the kitchen (other than something like an oyster knife, which is the only way to get the job done), the Toc possesses a singular, streamlined beauty, and nothing else can quite accomplish what it manages to so elegantly do.

Which is, if used properly, in a quick “toc!” to neatly snap a perfect little dome of shell off the top of an egg. Simple, yes–but not so straightforward. Retract and release with too much force, and you'll shatter the shell. Not enough, and you'll get the equivalent of a hanging chad. I've got the technique down and these days, I mostly wield it with a Sunday morning flourish to pop a portal into a soft-boiled egg.

But I’m sure the inventor of the Toc intended a more refined purpose in far more rarefied settings when he or she first conjured this sharp little plunger of stainless steel. Dad and I first made the acquaintance of the Toc years back (was it really almost 10?) when we shared the privilege of spending a few days behind the scenes in the gleaming kitchen of L’Arpege, in Paris. L’Arpege, the Michelin three-star restaurant helmed by chef Alain Passard, had made headlines the previous year for banishing all red meat from the menu and focusing primarily, religiously, on the vegetable. If I recall, the news was scandalous, and many speculated that Passard was losing his mind. Cuisine végétale and la grande cuisine were phrases not usually uttered in the same breath in France, so you might imagine there was much scoffing and pfft-ing. But the concept worked. And Passard charges a pretty penny for his plant-centric creations. Classics include a whole, perfect beet roasted in a dome of sea salt, which is then cracked away à table to reveal the tender jewel within. Another favorite is an onion gratin cooked so slowly that the onions do not color at all but become sweet as dessert. Then they’re quickly fired with some very fine quality Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Having worked in other restaurant kitchens, I was struck by the comparatively Zen quality of Passard’s kitchen. In most restaurant kitchens I’d experienced, there had been testosterone, cursing, red hot momentum. Here, the cooks worked with controlled, calm precision. Everyone was civil. Passard himself was gentle, kind-eyed, and quietly intense. I, a guest, was actually allowed to partake in tasks, such as slicing onions thin as grass blades for that famous gratin. One day I finished off a heap of onions, eyes streaming, and Passard himself approached to inspect the results. As my heart pounded, he sifted through my shavings of onions, then picked up the discarded root end of the vegetable, held it out with a raised eyebrow, and pointed out a section of usable vegetable I’d left around the root. It was a lesson–no one would have thought twice about throwing away what I had in an American kitchen, but in France there is more discipline, less waste. And I saw this economy and respect applied in other ways–sort of the vegetarian equivalent of nose-to-tail eating. For example, after tomatoes were blanched and peeled, the skins at L’Arpège were not chucked but chopped up very fine, slowly cooked, and spun into a vibrant filling for delicate ravioli.

One of Passard’s signature dishes was and still is his amuse-bouche egg, the execution of which is made possible by–you guessed it–the Toc. The egg yolk is coddled very slowly in its shell and topped with sherry cream, maple syrup, and a scattering of chives. There are variations–I recall he may have used avocado cream and pistachio oil during my visit, and I’ve lately read that he sprinkles in a little quatre épices (an Asian spice blend). But the important thing is always the maple syrup.

With every guest receiving one of these delightful eggs as an introduction to the meal, dozens of eggs each morning have to be carefully toc’ed and settled back into their cartons again until ready for cooking (at which time they bathe and bob merrily in one of the gorgeous copper pots that adorn the kitchen). Someone has to do it. And, as temporary stagiers, we were handed the eggs and the Tocs, given a brief lesson, and entrusted with the task of crowning each egg with a perfect hole. We were also handed a razor blade to smooth out any imperfections. As it so happens, Dad turned out to be a whiz with the Toc. An absolute prodigy! He didn’t even need the blade (as I did) to salvage any borderline cases. As he would have it, he went down in toc legendry at L’Arpège. And of course, he took it upon himself to track down one of the gadgets for himself, and one for me.

If you're up for trying this at home, now is the time. I checked on Amazon, several "egg toppers" are available there (the model I own was purchased at Mora in Paris). In the Northeast, maple syrup season has just wrapped up, the golden nectar freshly bottled. Use Grade A (medium or light) for this recipe. Chickens are venturing into the pastures, and chives are breaking through the warming soil.

And Dad: there are also fish to catch, blue crabs to pick (and shedders to fry), corks to pull, mountains to climb, and flea markets to mine. Perhaps this year morels will be waiting for us in the woods. Take good care of yourself, and get back into shape for all the adventures ahead! 

*Subscribers: oops! I accidentally hit "publish" earlier without including recipe or pictures. Apologies if you get this twice. 

Arpege Eggs
Adapted from Patricia Wells, The Paris Cookbook
Serves 6

  • 4 TBS heavy cream
  • 3/4 tsp. sherry vinegar, or to taste
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 6 very fresh eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp. minced fresh chives
  • 2 tsp. (or so) maple syrup, preferably Grade A
  • Optional: 1-2 ounces caviar, such as American Paddlefish

  1. Place bowl in a freezer to chill. In the bowl, whisk cream until soft peaks form, then stir in sherry vinegar and salt to taste. 
  2. Using an egg topper or Toc-Oeuf, remove top third of egg shell. Or, use a sharp knife. Carefully pour egg white out of shell, leaving yolk inside. Clean outside of shell with a damp towel, then set into egg cup. Repeat with remaining eggs. 
  3. Using a shallow saucepan or deep skillet, pour in about 2 inches of water and bring to a gentle simmer. Carefully set eggs afloat in water and cook until yolk just begins to set around edges (watch carefully), about 3 minutes. Using your fingers, carefully remove eggs from water and set them into egg cups. 
  4. Sprinkle each yolk with minced chives season with salt and pepper. Then, spoon whipped cream into the shell just to rim, and drizzle with maple syrup. Optional: top with a dollop of caviar.