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MORAN: Mad for morels

July 13, 2016 - 12:00 PM



If you haven't already heard, morels are a wild mushroom that will only grow the first year after a forest fire. They may be abundant, and they may be scarce. Because of their incredible flavour, they are sought after by chefs and home-cooks alike.

I make a living selling all types of wild produce, but morels are something I grew up picking, my first wild harvest.

They are also the most physically demanding product that I collect. I love them! After walking around last year's burned forests I look like a coal miner or a chimney sweeper. After a long day of hiking on dusty ground, fighting off mosquitoes and flies, carrying pounds of mushrooms (hopefully) over an expanse of fallen logs or dead, scratchy burned forests, everything becomes more enjoyable. Food is better, drinks are better, showers/rivers are better, sleep is better.

Morels are wild mushrooms that will only grow a year after a forest fire.
Morels are wild mushrooms that will only grow a year after a forest fire.

Although it's very physical work, it is peaceful to wake up in the morning and have one goal: Pick as many mushrooms that day as you can. The crop is temporary, it could get picked by other people, it could rain too much the next day. The old saying 'make hay while the sun shines' definitely applies.

The large fires across B.C. that are accessible will attract enough people that there will be one or more mushroom picking camps. The camps centre around the mushroom buyers. The buyers are paid a small price per pound to buy and ship morels daily to major cities where they are then redistributed to chefs in the Lower Mainland, and also shipped to other cities in B.C. and North America. This a very large industry that most people have no clue even exists. It is difficult to keep track of, but six months a year there are wild mushrooms pouring out of the forests of British Columbia. At peak season there would easily be more than 100,000 pounds picked, sold, and transported fresh daily across the province.

Morel picking is big business.
Morel picking is big business.

I spent two summers during high school at morel camps. There are several other mushroom pickers I became acquainted with in those years, and I continue to see them in different parts of the province every few years. They are a migratory crowd. Some are organized, some are not. Many of them will hitchhike across the province, going by word-of-mouth, often recruiting people along the way and making a little crew.

The pros will not be seen too often at camp. Usually they find their own site (being self-sufficient and all) and be out all day picking. Some people set up camps deep in the forest, and dehydrate all their mushrooms. It is much easier to transport them out from the wild with 90 per cent of their weight evaporated! A serious harvest can include boats, quads, rafts, and helicopters. Especially in the past few years, heli-picking is becoming quite the thing.

Morels are decadent. They are a food to be celebrated. Morels should either replace steak, or be served on top of it. Serve morels on top of any starch or protein. Pasta, potatoes, toast, chicken, beef, salmon. All fine choices.

The simplest way (and best) is to sautee large pieces in a hot pan with butter and oil. When they are brown on the edges they are ready to serve, or you can add white wine and cream to the pan and reduce until thick. If you really want to go all-out with your morels, here is a recipe:

Try to find morels that are large, round, and similar in size and three to five per person depending on size. Since morels are hollow they can be easily stuffed. Use your fingers, a chopstick, or a pipette (a plastic bag with a hole cut in the corner) to stuff the morels. The stem can be trimmed to make a wider opening at the the base of the mushroom. Be careful not to break the mushroom as you are stuffing it.

My favourite stuffing is ground buffalo with morel powder and finely chopped sauteed morels.

For one pound of ground meat:

Two tablespoons of morel powder. To make the powder put dried morels in a blender.
Chop two ounces of morels fine (two to six mushrooms depending on size) and quickly sautee in butter.
Add the cooked morels and morel powder to the ground meat with a splash of red wine. Stir well and let it rest for ten minutes. The powder will soak up the liquid like bread crumbs might, and the mix will be dry and ready for stuffing.

Morels can also be stuffed with cheese and vegetables, seafood and cheese (maybe cream cheese). I have been thinking of doing a stuffing with potatoes, a perogy influence. Recently I did bechamel, cheese, and leftover chicken chopped up as a stuffing.

When your morels are stuffed they can be seared on two sides in a hot pan and finished off in the oven. Sometimes I will simmer them in tomato sauce, same as I would for meatballs.

— Scott Moran is a local forager discovering his own path to food freedom

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