Morels. Whatever purpose they serve, they have an endgame that is to fill my belly with deliciousness, and for that, I am grateful. It is a pity that they are not around during the fall, so that we may give thanks for them around our holiday table. Imagine the taste of a morel- woodsy, warm, satisfying, with a chestnut stuffing or something hearty and filling, while outside the snow falls or the wind blows, and here you sit with your turkey dinner and a bag of wild fungus made up with any manner of methods.

The best, of course is butter. Whenever I cook with mushrooms, I just put a pat of butter in there, or perhaps more if the mood strikes me, which it always does. Just sautee them up with a pat of butter, perhaps some greens, etc.

The other day, I was at the market, and I thought that all the morels had been wiped, after seeing a short run of them a couple weeks ago. Suffering through the same trial that I did with the ramps, I bought up a few batches of them, and cooked them up, not knowing when the next ones would come in. My surprise overtook me me when I realized that in fact there was a second run, due to the wet weather of recent note in the pacific northwest. Being that it is Seattle, April, and that we are in the throes of the great weatherwarp of the vengeful Volcano, Ejvoekkvufafullküll, I should have known. Good news is, being from Wisconsin, April showers in the woods mean a spike in the fantastic early spring appearance of forageable fungus.

***

One of my first experiences in the kitchen was at L’Etoile, one of the pioneers in the local foraging movement for restaurants. Every Saturday when I was working bright and early, I saw one chef wheeling a red wagon around the circumference of the Capitol Square Farmer’s Market. Looking back, I realize what an amazing market it was, where everything you brought had to be grown on your property, and there had to be a person from the farm representing at all times during market hours. This led to a great deal of local, seasonal produce that encouraged and influenced home cooks and restaurants alike to buy and cook what was growing out their back door. Asparagus in the spring, Strawberries came in june, raspberries, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet corn, apples in the fall, and every color of flower you could grow in our climate. I developed a fondness for gladiolas, and I wish there were more out here.

They’d come around, the foragers from L’Etoile, and one day, my mother asked them if they needed someone to wash dishes. She’d noticed that I was asking to help in the kitchen more now that I was getting curious about food, and the forager told her to send me over after the market was done. I’d do some prep work, some dishwashing, and get to taste a lot of what was going on behind the scenes of a nationally recognized kitchen.

The first day I went in, they had decided that the night’s dinner was going to be Carpenter’s farm rack of lamb with julienned winter garlics and morels. They set me up in the back, and I used all fourteen years of my kitchen knowledge to impress them. They went into the cooler, and came back with about thirty bunches of what looked to be scallions, and showed me how to cut them into thin matchstick widths.

“Slice down the bias, and make them angled and the same thickness all the way across. People will be paying $36 dollars for this entree, so we want it to look good.”

I started slicing, and five minutes later, through sheer meticulous, tongue-biting concentration, I had sliced five, and I’d done a pretty good job, in my opinion.

Bob came over. He was the executive chef, and was expediting the line.

“Would you eat these?”

“Um…I haven’t, but I would.”

“These are all uneven. I’ll put them back in the cooler and see if we can make a pesto for a one-off appetizer with them. How about the morels?”

He took my slipshod spears of winter garlic, threw them into a hotel pan and back in the fridge. He came back a minute later with a flat full of tiny brained mushroom caps, still full of mud at the neck.

“Take these on the fire escape, tap them off, trim them up, and clean them.”

So I did. Out the back door, for I was punished. I took a small paring knife, and flaked off the mud, trimmed a quarter inch off the bottom of each stem to get all the stuff off that nobody would want to eat, and then plopped it into a metal bowl. Occasionally, I’d find a strange-stemmed, not-quite-fully-unfurled oblong fungus, and those, I cut in half, splitting them from stem to tip. This is where my curiousity got the best of me.

I looked inside the morel. What’s inside? I know what white mushrooms look like with their gills, but I didn’t see any gills on these. I opened it up like a book, and inside lay the magical wonder of the forest tucked away.

There were bugs. Not just a couple, but dozens of bugs living inside this one mushroom. For a nerdy food-inquisitive teenager, this was awesome- like finding 20 dollars on the ground. I knew you couldn’t eat them, so I tapped them out over the railing, and put them in the  bowl.

I found out from someone out in the dining room that Cindy Crawford was in the house that night. She was doing a fundraiser in town for Leukemia in honor of her brother. As I washed dishes, I peered over my shoulder through the porthole in the swinging kitchen door. As I ducked out to the back bar to refill my cup with soda, I saw her, and she was beautiful and birdlike and she was eating the morels! The morels that I cut!

That night, I asked Bob if I could taste one. As service slowed, and I got through my last load of dishes, he came over with a few bites of lamb, some waffle fries, and a tiny dish of sauteed morels.

It was heaven. I finally understood why the dish was 36 dollars, or more than I’d walk away with that night. Potato chips were great, but these waffle fries were amazing. How did they get the potatoes cut just so, when I couldn’t even cut a single strip of garlic to a specified width? What was the seasoning that made the lamb so good? (Rosemary) How did this all taste so good?

And the morels. I had smelled them all night in the pan as they were cooking them, and I noticed the residue of the sauce when I scrubbed each dish. All the plates had come back empty. I asked Bob how they did what they did.

“You get your pan hot, add a little bit of oil, and then the mushrooms. If you watch the pan, and you have it just right, they’ll start to sweat. You’ll actually see the dry mushrooms start to get moist and shrivel up, and the liquid from the morels will go into the pan. That’s when you hit it with a pat of butter, a bit of fresh herbs, and a shot of cream, crank the heat, and let it go. The rest will take care of itself. You’ve got the liquid from the morels blending with the cream and the butter, and all you need to make it thick now is just time. When it starts to boil and bubble, you’re just about ready. Don’t forget that. You’ll impress a girl someday.”

Who knew? 14 year old me was picking up tricks on how to impress the ladies from adults. Real Adults! Their hands were rough and their skin was flushed. Sure, they cursed like sailors after dinner service, and sat at the bar with their bottles of cheap domestic swill, but I was going to be one of them. I was going to speak their language, and I’d be able to give the secret handshake, with the nod let the other know that we were part of a small contingent of elite kitchen warriors. My first night, and already I’d seen a Supermodel, found a new favorite food, and gotten tips on how to impress a lady with my cooking skills.

***

Fast forward 16 Aprils. I am at the vegetable stand, and I think to myself on this gray, dreary Wednesday, “What can I do? I need something bold, and something that tastes good. I want to do something special, nothing boring.”

There they were. Morels. I had a little piece of salmon at home, and some leftover ramps from the pickled ones I’d done the day before (this would be the last of the ramps, I swore to myself). I didn’t even have to think of what to do.

“Give me some of those morels.”

***

I got home and looked at the piece of salmon. It was wee. It was small. I looked at it again, and didn’t really think it was so bad. About 3/4 of a pound maybe, skin off, pinbones out, maybe three inches across.

I opened the fridge. Got some garlic out, some shallot, a little bit of that tube of hot pepper paste that I need to use. I squirted a little on my finger. It was spicy. Squirted a whole bunch out into a bowl, a silver dollar’s worth. Chopped the garlic, added some oil, crushed some dried out thyme in there, sprinkled some salt and threw a couple pieces of salmon to marinate for a half hour.

I got my pan started, put a little oil in, and started trimming the morels. I was quicker and more efficient, knowing what to look for. My cuts were perfectly uniform, straight down the center with not a hair of a thick stemmed halfhearted nonchalance about it. I actually cared how these looked. Halved, they went in the pan, along with a turn of the pepper mill. A little shake, and then let them go for a few minutes.

My kitchen filled up with that fantastic aroma that lets everyone in the neighborhood know that you’re making a better dinner than they’re having tonight. I went to the fridge, and pulled out the ramp leaves, and threw them in whole. They wilted instantly, and added to the smell a garlic bouquet. I threw in a nice chunk of butter. Usually, with morels, I’d go to the fridge and grab whatever’s left of the stick that we use for toast, etc. We hadn’t had much toast lately. I used a fair amount of butter.

After it had absorbed, I took the morels and ramps out with a slotted spoon, and added a splash of white wine and vegetable broth to deglaze the pan. I turned it on high, and started scraping the bits off the bottom.

When it started bubbling, I added that splash of cream, and when that reduced down, it was ready.

I took out the salmon and decided I was going to make medallions with it. I wrapped them up, tied a green onion around them, and stabbed them with a rosemary sprig. In cooking, if you don’t have the right stuff, you improvise. No string? No toothpick? No problem.

Seared it on both sides, and spooned out the morels on the plate. The salmon went right on top, and that beautiful sauce was drizzled on the side.

I don’t cook in restaurants anymore, but what I gained from my experience was that restaurant quality food can be made at home, and with a little effort, it can taste, and almost look, like the real thing.

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