Morels galore

Morels are coveted, but beware of the “false morels.”

Morels are coveted, but beware of the “false morels.”

Like harbingers of renewed life, morels push their wrinkly heads through the ashes of last year’s fires to greet the return of spring. It was in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road that, aside from its miserable human characters, several morels were the only living things to occur in the story’s burned-out landscape.

Indeed, these highly coveted edible mushrooms of the Morchella genus have an affinity for the chemistry of burned things. Mushroom hunters know to look as soon as the snow melts in a forest burned the summer prior. In such places, morels can rise by the millions, creating a gourmet bounty that is as seasonal as the spring itself. In other words, now is the time. Already, professional foragers are turning over bundles to wholesalers and retailers. Corti Brothers and Whole Foods are outlets worth watching.

Those wishing to collect their own morels must, firstly, know the rules and regulations on mushroom hunting. In some areas, the activity is entirely prohibited, while in others, daily harvest limits apply. Google before you go. Secondly, morel hunters must know the “false morels,” ugly, toxic look-alikes that may cause severe discomfort or death if ingested.

Unlike other common wild mushrooms, morels do not share a predictable symbiotic relationship with any plants. While porcini mushrooms can be found under Monterey pines and other conifers—and chanterelles under oak trees—morels, as the mantra goes, grow where one finds them. They do, however, seem to favor disturbed soils, and burned out forests aren’t the only places morels grow. Gardeners and landscapers may encounter entree-sized uprisings in backyards. City parks, wood-chip piles and compost heaps often host morel blooms. This reporter recently found a handful growing at his doorstep.

In the kitchen, try a light sauté and a garnish of salt and garlic to bring out the deeply woodsy flavors that have made this mushroom a star. For as with many of nature’s finest edible things, less is more, and easy does it on the morel.