Last summer seemed endless with the ongoing wildfires throughout Alaska, but out of the ashes rose morel mushrooms, a delicacy that in other parts of the country can be pricey and rare. We have such an abundance — I have had friends from all over the state, especially around the Kenai burn, text me photos of their 40-plus-gallon hauls. One friend, Teeny Metcalfe — with the biggest morel she’s ever found — even had some air-dropped to family in Juneau! Whether seeking or preserving, here are some tips from various morel enthusiasts in our community:
– Look for mushrooms that are fresh, firm and dry — not water-logged. Avoid those that are shriveled, soft, wet or spongy. Cut, leaving the “foot” undisturbed. If you pull it up by mistake, trim off the dirty end before placing it in your bag or basket. Pick out any worm holes and clean, using a damp paper towel or a dry pastry brush. It’s best not to put dirty mushrooms in with clean ones — this will make your life easier when you get home. Avoid plastic bags, as they promote deterioration by holding in the heat and moisture of the mushroom. If you use a bucket, drill some holes in the sides and bottom; this will help keep mushrooms cooler and they will last longer.
– The key to drying mushrooms without altering their wholesomeness and appearance is to minimize the amount of time exposed to heat; a dehydrator is optimal. If you don’t have a dehydrator, you might be tempted to use your oven, but this will likely cook them before they dry, even on the lowest setting. Local morel lovers Anne Wilkas and Matt Jones say they “spread them out on trays and/or newspaper for 12 to 24 hours with a fan blowing over them before transferring to window screens and putting them in our boiler/mechanical room for a day.”
– Freezing mushrooms also works well. In the case of morels, you can freeze them whole on a sheet pan and then vacuum seal them together for storage. Or they can be sautéed and then frozen in portion sizes.
As for cooking/enjoying them, Teeny’s been making cream sauces to serve with filet or halibut. For a simple sauté: Trim off any tough, dirty ends of about 8- to 10-ounce morels. If they’re large enough, cut them in half lengthwise. If they are damp from cleaning, pat dry with paper towels. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive or grapeseed/avocado oil (avoid butter in the beginning because of the water content). Add mushrooms and sauté 5 to 7 minutes, shaking pan every so often to loosen the mushrooms to avoid burning. Reduce heat if needed. Add some dry sherry or marsala and let cook off 1 to 2 minutes. Add a pat of butter and let melt into the pan; add 1 to 2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce, some fresh black pepper. Optional: stir in about 1/2 cup heavy cream or crème fraiche. Add freshly chopped parsley, lemon zest, and garlic and shallot. Serve over toast, steamed rice, fresh pasta, polenta or along with grilled halibut or crispy chicken thighs. Or sauté and top pizza or stir in some whisked eggs for a morel frittata or omelet.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
8 to 10 ounces fresh morels (if using dried, pour boiling water over to cover, 15 minutes and drain liquid, reserving liquid to add to the sauce)
6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (about 3 pounds)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly-grated nutmeg, to taste
2 tablespoons avocado, grapeseed or canola oil
2 cups dry sherry or marsala
1 1/2 cup heavy cream or crème fraîche
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium shallot, minced
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley or chives or dill
1. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Lightly season all over with salt and pepper and a grating of fresh nutmeg. Heat oil in a large heavy-bottom pan or cast-iron skillet set over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add chicken, skin side-down, and let cook, without moving, 10 minutes. Check chicken and if browning too quickly, reduce heat slightly. Let cook another 10 minutes, checking skin every so often to make sure it’s browning evenly. Try not to move it around too much. When chicken is golden and crispy on one side, turn and cook another 20 to 25 minutes, moving chicken around to ensure even browning. Chicken should be nice and golden brown and crispy on all sides. Remove chicken pieces to a plate. Remove all but about 2 tablespoons chicken fat from pan and reserve for another use (matzoh balls; roasted potatoes).
2. Add sherry to pan and turn heat to medium-high and let cook 2 to 3 minutes, scraping bottom of pan to loosen up any good chicken bits. Reduce heat to medium and add morels and cream and soy sauce. Add chicken, nestling the pieces into the mushrooms, being careful not to get sauce on the crispy skin-side up. Stir and taste sauce, adding more soy sauce or pepper, as needed. Let cook another 10 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Add more cream if sauce is too thick. Stir in garlic, shallot, and parsley. Serve hot with steamed rice, hot cooked pasta or grilled bread.
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