The entry about identifying morels is here.
The Moody Sclerotium
This “risotto” was the fate of the morels that appeared in our yard late last month, which is unfortunately probably going to be the only harvest this year because the landlord decided that our little patch of moss and dandelions needed to be mowed and in the process, chewed up the ones I had left to see if they’d get bigger. Curse you, lawn maintenance norms.
I find it difficult to separate the gustatory pleasure of morels from their market value, even when I get them for free. Obviously I’m not the only person who thinks they’re great—they’re widely admired for their nutty, richly umami flavor and chewy, meaty texture, which is one of the reasons they’re as expensive as they are. But there are reasons for the price that aren’t related to how they taste, too. Fresh morels are extremely fragile, so they have to be handled carefully and transported and sold quickly. They can be dried, which makes them considerably easier to transport and store, and dried morels are nearly as good as fresh when they’re soaked in some hot water. But they’re expensive too, even when you take into account that about 3 oz of dried morels are equivalent to about 1 lb fresh.
The main reason that morels aren’t as readily available or as cheap as button/cremini/portabella (which are all the same species: Agaricus bisporus) or even the more exotic and flavorful shiitake or oyster mushrooms is because there’s an intermediary step in their life cycle that makes them exceedingly difficult to cultivate—the lump labeled “Sclerotium” in the diagram. According to Thomas Volk, a biology professor at UW-Lacrosse, the sclerotium is made up of big, thick cells that can survive all kinds of bad weather—including, say, Michigan winters. In the spring, the sclerotium has two choices: form a new mycelium, which is a network of cells arranged in tiny threads underground, or form a fruiting body—i.e. a mushroom.
All kinds of factors have to be exactly right for it to pick the “fruiting body” option—soil nutrients and moisture levels, CO2 levels, humidity, temperature. To complicate matters further, different species probably fruit in response to different factors, and the same species might even respond to two different sets of factors. That would make sense given that the same morel fungi seem to work like symbiotic partners with living trees (the mycelia can extend even farther than the root base, bringing useful nutrients closer to the roots) and saprobes that feed on the tree as it dies, possibly speeding its demise and then thriving on the remains for years.
The symbiotic/semi-parasitic relationship with trees adds yet another complicating factor. Morels seem to prefer ash trees, tulip trees, old apple trees, and dead elm trees, although they can grow under any tree and also seem to like areas cleared by wildfire. But you can’t just grow them in a basement or a parking lot somewhere; you kind of need a forest.
There have been scattered reports of effective cultivation strategies—a few patents have been filed and I read somewhere (can’t find the link now) about at least one company that figured out a way to cultivate them, but ultimately failed because it couldn’t come up with a cost-effective way to remove the grit from all the little brainy ridges without damaging the texture or rendering them too unstable for transport. There are also anecdotal reports of huge crops appearing where people have poured the water used to soak or rinse morels over a compost heap or on the roots of a tree. And earlier this month, The Traverse City Record-Eagle quoted a chef from a hospitality company saying they were sourcing them from a “a gentleman, a scientist, who has figured out how to raise them, like farm-raising fish…year-round and at a fraction of the cost of the dried ones.” But whatever the gentleman-scientist’s secret is, he must be guarding it pretty well. I still only see them in markets around Ann Arbor between May and June, and this year they seem to be priced around ~$40/lb.
So I almost never buy them (or much of anything else that’s $40/lb+, even taking spices into account, which obviously get used in much smaller quantities; the only exceptions I can think of are saffron, vanilla, and cardamom; even cinnamon and Szechuan peppercorns are only half as much per lb) and I find myself wanting to “stretch” the ones I get. The most common preparation seems to be breading and frying them, usually using flour or cracker crumbs and butter. I’m sure that’s delicious, but with only 5.5 oz, it would yield two or three appetizer/small plate portions at most. Cream sauces are also common, usually paired with pasta or meat, and they show up in recipes for egg dishes, like omelets and quiche, especially with ramps—the wild leeks that appear around the same time in the early Spring. I decided on something risotto-like because the defining characteristic of risotto is that the starch is cooked in the dish rather than separately, so it seemed like a good way to really get the morel flavor infused into multiple dinner-sized portions of food.
Instead of using one of the varieties of starch-exuding short-grained rice that give risotto (“little rice”) its name, I decided to use Israeli couscous (or ptitim). Israeli couscous is basically just a bigger version of normal couscous—the grains are probably closest in size and shape to barley. They have a little more chew to them than normal couscous and they’re often toasted lightly before being boiled in liquid, which gives them a nutty flavor that I thought that would play well with the morels. Some people recommend against soaking fresh morels because they claim it changes the flavor and texture, but I wanted to be sure to get all the dirt and any critters out. If I had known about the home cultivation technique, I might have dumped the water under the tree, but instead I strained it with a paper cloth and used it for part of the cooking liquid. Aside from that, the recipe is classic risotto: some shallots and butter, a little white wine and homemade chicken stock, and lots of parmeggiano regiano grated into a heap of delicate curls with a microplane (that way it melts into the dish easily and doesn’t clump up).
It was one of the most delicious things I think I’ve ever made.
When Food is Worth Its Weight in Gold
I’m not even the biggest fan of mushrooms. I hated them as a kid, and probably only acquired a taste for the flavor due to years of vegetarianism, since they’re so often used as a substitute for meat, especially in Euro-American cooking. But the texture, especially of all of the different sizes and colors of agaricus bisporus, still squicks me out. They’re one of the few foods I actively avoid and, occasionally, especially if they’re big, try to surreptitiously remove from my plate. I have less of an aversion to other varieties—I’m actually rather fond of porcini, shiitake, maitake, and enoki mushrooms, but I still tend to prefer them minced, cooked, and combined with other ingredients—part of the flavor profile, but not the dominant note.
So I’m a little surprised how much I liked this “risotto” given how intensely mushroomy it was. I probably never would have ordered anything like it from a restaurant menu because I would have assumed I’d only enjoy it moderation. But there was nothing moderate about how much I liked it. I could have eaten it for multiple consecutive meals. I would prefer it to just about anything else I can imagine eating for dinner tonight. I want it again. I want it now. And I suspect that at least part of that is due to the fact that I know how much morels are valued—both the fact that they’re supposed to be “gourmet” and how much they cost, which probably aren’t unrelated. For instance, it seems more than coincidental that the word we use to describe fatty, savory foods is “rich.”
It certainly seemed like my faux-sotto was different—and better—than it would have been if I had made it with cremini or portabella mushrooms. I find the thin, chewy pieces of morel way less objectionable than big chunks of anything agaricus bisporus. And the flavor was richer and nuttier and more umami than any cultivated mushrooms I’ve ever had. But, as I’ve mentioned before (both in the discussion about robots and the discussion about umami) the physiological experience of taste can’t be separated from the contextual cues and expectations that shape the perception of taste. Whatever real, scientific differences there are between a morel and any other mushroom, they don’t explain how I evaluate those differences as better or worse.
Does lobster taste objectively better than shrimp, or do I just think it does because I know it’s supposed to be better and it’s more expensive? “Objectively” is the wrong word—there’s probably no such thing as “objectively better” when it comes to taste, but it also isn’t as arbitrary and individual as “subjective” makes it sound. Chemical components and measurable physical attributes like texture and temperature elicit relatively predictable responses, and the combinations that generally register as tastier have greater social, cultural, and economic value.
My suspicion is that morels really do taste “better” (to most people, most of the time) than other mushrooms, and would even if there were no difference in their price or availability. However, I think that gets enhanced by, and is ultimately inseparable from, their crazy, mushroom-optional, sclerotium-based life cycle, not because the cycle actually changes anything about how they taste but because it makes them more expensive and exaggerates their perceived value. Or in other words, they are delicious because they are delicious, but they are even more delicious because they are rare, delicate, and expensive. Which doesn’t make the enhanced deliciousness false or invalid. The added pleasure is a bit like a placebo effect—real, measurable, and usually good, despite the fact that the medicine is fake.
On the other hand, it also means that this recipe might be just as good—or nearly so—with any other mushroom, especially if you believed it would be.
Recipe: Israeli Couscous Risotto with Morels
- 2 large shallots (about 1/2 cup diced)
- 5 T. butter
- 5.5 oz fresh morel mushrooms or 1 oz. dried, soaked in hot water for a couple of hours
- 1 cup Israeli couscous (ptitim)
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 3 cups water or stock (and/or mushroom soaking water if you have it)
- 2 t. bouillon (if using water)
- ~2 oz. parmeggiano reggiano, or about 3/4 cup finely grated (microplane highly recommended)
- salt and pepper to taste
1. Melt 4 T. of the butter in a large pot or saucepan. Dice the shallots and cook in the butter until golden-brown (7-10 min).
2. While the shallots cook, brush or rinse any dirt from the morels and slice them into rings, looking out for critters that may be hiding inside. Add to the shallots and cook until the mushrooms begin to release some of their liquid.
3. Add the wine to the mushrooms and cook until about half of the liquid has boiled off—what remains will thicken a bit.
4. Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter and toast the couscous until golden (about 5 minutes).
5. Add the couscous and stock (and mushroom soaking water and/or bouillon if using) to the shallots and mushrooms. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is done, but still has a little chew to it (15-20 minutes). Add more water or stock at any point if it begins to dry out or stick to the bottom.
6. In the last minute of cooking, stir in the grated cheese and season with salt and ground pepper to taste. Remove from heat.
7. Garnish with curls of hard cheese (I use a vegetable peeler) and, if desired, a few chopped herbs like parsley or chives.