The morel mushroom is the fruit of a fungus that sprouts in the moist soil of woods and forests. The most common are the black morels and yellow “blondies.” Both have a stem and conical body covered with pits and ridges like a honeycomb, making them easily recognizable to anyone who takes the time to look. A LOT OF TIME and patience, as I learned on Saturday, stooped over with eyes scouring the ground, pushing aside small bulges in the duff (dried pine needles and mulch) to uncover camouflaged morels slumbering under their forest canopy.
The hushed ponderosa and sugar pine woods at 4000 feet in the Sierra Foothills is the weekend playground of a fellowship of foragers called the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz. Their motto: “when it rains, it spores.” My connection came by way of Henry Young, a 35+ year veteran of mushroom hunting who leads his own local bay area mushroom forays and education programs. For a novice like myself, Henry provides much-needed reassurance that I won’t accidentally pluck a poisonous look-alike. This being my first mushroom foray, I came away with a HUGE new respect for the price of morels at $20-40 per pound in grocery stores due to their short growing period in April and May and the heroic efforts involved in gathering these wild beauties, one well-hidden morel at a time.
Ruby has been foraging since she was a baby, carried by her parents through the woods on their foraging forays. She is intrinsically clever at finding morels.
The red burst of a Snow Plant flower emerging from the duff is a good indicator of prime morel habitat. Like a fungus, it lacks chlorophyll and is nonphotosynthetic. It was also reportedly one of the favorite flowers of the naturalist John Muir.
A saffron-colored dwarf mistletoe is found growing on the pine trees and looks like sea coral, enhancing the underwater mystique of the morel’s habitat.
Today’s recipe for Cod in a Morel and Asparagus Nage is a favorite from Chef Daniel Boulud. Cod is easily substituted with any delicate-tasting white fish, such as halibut or sea bass, and even salmon. In the past, I’ve used dried morels reconstituted in water or you can find small fresh morels in grocery stores in April and May. This is a simple, one-pot meal using a vegetable enhanced poaching liquid of butter, chicken stock, and vermouth, otherwise known as a nage (French for swimming.) Vermouth is a wine infused with botanicals of various roots, barks, flowers, seeds, herbs, and spices. The pitted sea sponge morels absorb the aromas and flavors of this inspired forest swim.
- • 3 oz. brioche, cut into bite size cubes
- • 4 TBSP butter
- • ½ lb. fresh morel mushrooms, stems trimmed
- • ½ bunch asparagus
- • 4 skinless cod fillets, 6 oz. each (or other white fish)
- • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- • 1 cup pearl onions, peeled and halved
- • 2 TBSP Noilly Prat or other dry vermouth
- • ½ cup chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
- • ½ cup heavy cream
- • 2 eggs, hard-boiled, then grated or finely chopped
- • 2 TBSP chopped chives
- • Salt and ground white pepper to taste
- Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and arrange brioche cubes in a single layer. Melt 2 T of butter and drizzle over top. Bake in an oven preheated to 350°F until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle croutons with salt to taste, cool, and reserve.
- To clean the morels, dunk them in a bowl of cold water, drain, and repeat until the water runs clear. Strain, and pat dry with a towel.
- Prepare the asparagus by breaking off and discarding any tough, white bottoms. Cut stalks, on an angle, into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
- Season the cod fillets on both sides with the lemon zest and salt and pepper. Set aside.
- Melt remaining butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add pearl onions and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes until softened but not browned. Add mushrooms, asparagus, and salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring, until any liquid has evaporated, about another 3 minutes. Add vermouth and simmer until almost dry. Add chicken stock and cream, and simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Add the cod, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for 8 minutes, or until the fish can be easily pierced with a toothpick. Pour lemon juice over the cod.
- Divide the fish, vegetables, and sauce among 4 dinner plates. Sprinkle each serving with egg, croutons, and chives.
Marjorie Young says
It was such a pleasure to meet you and spend time together. Your website is one of the most visually beautiful that I have seen. I’m so glad you have now added one more experience to your foraging experiences. Hope we will see you again “out in the field”
Thank you so much Marje! And thank you for carrying the mistletoe branch through the woods as it made the loveliest addition to these photos. The pleasure was all mine and I can’t wait for the next foray. It was a giggle for me to see such tiny little morels selling in the grocery store today. Thanks to you and Henry, my family enjoyed HUGE fresh morchellas and they were truly divine! Yvonne