IT’S TIME FOR MOREL MUSHROOMS!

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Available only once a year, in the early spring and into summer, morels have an unusual appearance, like a small Christmas tree and can be black, yellow or off-white.  They have a strong, earthy aroma, spongy appearance and delicate texture.  Morels are often paired with cream sauces and delicate herbs, such as thyme and fortified spirits, such as brandy.  If you can’t find fresh morels, excellent quality dried morels are available by mail and in specialty shops.

Here are some other things you should know about Morel Mushrooms:

Selection and Storage:  Fresh morels should be firm and as clean as possible.  Depending upon where and when gathered, they may be dry and clean or moist and earthy.  Store accordingly, spreading them in a single layer in a basket or dish in refrigerator.  If damp, cover with a sheet of paper towel; if not, cover with a piece of barely moistened cheesecloth.  Use within two or three days.

Preparation/Fresh:  To clean, trim off very end of stem, them halve lengthwise or cut crosswise into rings.  Rinse quickly and lay on an absorbent towel to dry.  Chop stems and sauté gently or braise or simmer in cream.

Preparation/Dried:  Soak in warm water for about two minutes, or just long enough to be cut-able.  Slice off and discard tough end, halve each mushroom lengthwise and then rinse thoroughly and dry.  Strain soaking liquid through a coffee filter and reserve to use when cooking mushrooms or to flavor soups or stocks.  To reconstitute, rehydrate in twice their volume of water for 10 to 30 minutes or until tender, drain and pat dry.  Leave small morels whole and slice or chop larger ones.

Morels are NOT to be eaten raw.

Here are some recipes to try….

RIGATONI, MORELS AND ASPARAGUS

Serves 4 to 6
1 pound asparagus
Salt
1 pound fresh morels
4 T. (1/2 stick) butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup good-quality red wine
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 cup cream
1 cup rigatoni
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Cut asparagus spears into 1 1/2 to 2 inch lengths, discarding woody ends.  Blanch for about 3 minutes in boiling, salted water, then drain, rinse in cold water and set aside.

Quarter morels lengthwise and cook in butter with a bit of olive oil added over low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add red wine to pan and increase heat.  Cook for 2 to 3 minutes more, or until wine has reduced completely.  Add tomato and cream to pan, stir well, add salt to taste and set pan aside off heat.

Cook pasta to taste in boiling salted water.  Just before it finishes cooking, add asparagus to morels and reheat.  Drain pasta well, then toss thoroughly into a large bowl with a handful of Parmesan cheese.  Add vegetable mixture and toss thoroughly again.  Add plenty of freshly ground black pepper and serve pasta at once with additional Parmesan cheese on the side.

Note:  If fresh morels are unavailable, soak 3 to 4 ounces of dried morels in warm (not hot) water for 20 to 30 minutes, changing it once, then proceed as with fresh.

MORELS AND MUSSELS WITH SAFFRON CREAM

Serves 6 as an Appetizer
3 pounds mussels in their shells
2 T. olive oil
1 medium carrot, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
2 medium leeks, white and green parts separated, cleaned and diced
3 cloves garlic
12 black peppercorns, crushed
4 cups hard cider (or 3 cups dry white wine plus 1 cup apple juice)
Bouquet of fresh herbs:  sprigs of thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, savory and tarragon
1 pound fresh (or 1 pound reconstituted dried morels, weighted after soaking and draining)
1 t. saffron threads
1 cup heavy cream
Salt
Pinch cayenne
1/4 cup snipped fresh chives

Wash mussels carefully, discarding any dead (open) ones and any that feel exceptionally heavy.  In a large non-reactive stockpot or Dutch oven, put 1 T. olive oil, carrot, celery, green parts of leeks, garlic and peppercorns.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 4 minutes without browning.  Add hard cider and bouquet of herbs and bring to a rolling boil.  Add cleaned mussels.  Cover pot for 5 minutes, timing from point when boiling begins again.

Meanwhile, sauté morels and white parts of leeks in a skillet with remaining 1 T. olive oil for about 4 minutes without browning.
Strain mussel broth through a mesh strainer or colander set over another nonreactive pot or saucepan.  Gently crumble saffron between fingers and add to strained liquid.  Add cream, sautéed morels and leeks and simmer until reduced to 4 cups.  Meanwhile, pick mussels from opened shells, removing “beards” as you go.

Add mussels to soup and season with salt and a pinch of cayenne.  Remove skillet from heat and serve, garnished with chives.

FARFALLE WITH MORELS AND FRESH PEA SAUCE

6 to 8 First-Course or 4 Main-Course Servings
1 3/4 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium both
3/4 pound fresh peas, shelled
3/4 pound farfalle
4 ounces thick-sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
6 ounces small fresh morels, rinsed, drained and halved lengthwise
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 T. finely chopped fresh garlic chives or 2 scallions, minced

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  In a medium saucepan, bring chicken stock to a boil.  Add peas to stock and cook over moderately high heat until just tender, about 10 minutes.  Transfer stock and all but a small handful of peas to a blender and puree until smooth.

Cook pasta in boiling water until al dente, about 15 minutes; drain and return to pot.

Meanwhile, heat a medium skillet.  Add bacon and cook over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, until browned and crisp, about 7 minutes.  Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.  Pour off all but 1 T. bacon fat from skillet.  Add morels and cook until they release their liquid, about 4 minutes.  Raise heat to high, add cream and season with salt and pepper.  Cook until slightly reduced, about 2 minutes.  Stir in pea puree and whole peas and cook until just heated through.

Add morel and pea sauce, bacon and chives to pasta in pot.  Toss well, then transfer to plates and serve at once.

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