May is for morels

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"If I told you, I'd have to kill you!" is a common tongue-in-cheek answer that a successful morel mushroom forager will give you if you ask where they found their harvest of these delicious, elusive fungi in the Berkshire woods. Or, as the expression goes, "Morels are everywhere and impossible to find."

May is morel season in the Berkshires and I'm a very amateur morel forager. I've found the activity of foraging not unlike fishing; it allows me to let go of any cares or stress I may be holding, while forcing me to be present in the beauty of outdoors. Of course, it's much better if you're successful in either activity; fishing becomes catching and foraging becomes gathering. For years, except for an occasional morel or two, I hadn't moved beyond foraging to gathering.     

My luck changed a couple of years ago, when the wife of a very good friend, with whom I hike and forage, called me excitedly and said they'd discovered a patch of morels on their neighbor's front yard. I raced over to my friends' home and was astonished at their discovery. As I said, I'd spent years in the woods foraging for morels, mostly casually, but sometimes intently, with little success. Here were dozens sprouting up on a section of their neighbor's front yard! But, how to ethically gather them from someone else's land? As always, lust helps provide answers to ethical quandaries.

Their neighbor's house is used exclusively as a rental property by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the Tanglewood season beginning in June. The grass was relatively high on the lawn and we knew that the morels would be shredded as soon as the lawn service came. Besides, they couldn't possibly know of such riches on a corner of their lawn, which was all but on my friends' land, if not for an arbitrary line drawn by an unknown surveyor decades previously. We decided among ourselves it would be unconscionable to allow those precious gems to be mowed down. It was our moral (morel?) duty to harvest as many as we could.

We were like kids allowed to grab candy in a candy store for free. It took us minutes to gleefully clear that section of lawn of morels. As it happened, hours after we cut the main harvest from that spot, their neighbor's lawn service did come to mow. So, not only were we able to gather dozens of the delicious fungi, our triumph was amplified by narrowly averting disaster. Because of this victory, I've added another heroic tale to recount and embellish for the next generations, some of whom actually care. I'd reveal the names of my friends, but that could reveal where our morels might be found this year and we're not prepared to continually guard the spot for the season.

My foraging friend and I have since found another spot rich with morels in a wooded area, where they are more commonly found, which more than doubled our bounty last year. Since my knowledge of morel foraging is pretty much limited to being able to identify a true morel and the ash trees under which they typically sprout in the Berkshires, I'll leave the education of morel foraging to a thorough Google and YouTube search or to someone who is truly knowledgeable, such as John Wheeler at the Berkshire Mycological Society.

Just as it is with fishing, as much as I enjoy the activity of foraging, the part I like best is the eating part. Morels have a unique earthy, meaty flavor that is as hard to describe as the flavor of truffles. Their season is weeks long and they have not been successfully cultivated as a cash crop in the U.S., which makes them a pricey treat in the markets. Fresh morels in season can often be found at Guido's Fresh Marketplace if you're unwilling to potentially face years of foraging failure as I did. Rehydrated dried morels don't have the meaty texture and are not quite as nuanced, but are stronger flavored and can, of course, be bought year-round. I can tell you with certainty they taste better when you've gathered them yourself.

My cooking style often tends to the Italian, using excellent ingredients in season consciously and simply. This recipe is an example.

MORELS WITH TAGLIATELLE, CREME FRAICHE AND CHIVES

When using an ingredient as precious as fresh morels for pasta, I make homemade pasta. I've been a big fan of Marcella Hazan since I attended her cooking demonstration of homemade pasta at Boston University in the late 1980s. I suggest watching her son, Giuliano, in a series of YouTube videos on homemade pasta before making it. I find them excellent for beginner or advanced homemade pasta makers alike. Think of Giuliano as an easy-going Moses presenting the commandments of homemade pasta from our lord, Marcella, who spread so much joy in her life, but did not suffer fools well.

A pretty obvious unwritten commandment is thou shalt not freeze fresh pasta. I witnessed some poor woman, who is probably still scarred 30 years later, ask that oxymoronic question of Marcella, who looked at her as if she were a cockroach that had somehow found its way into her immaculate kitchen and verbally disposed of her as if she were such.

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Using a high-quality dried fettuccine is not a sin, so it is written.

Yield: 4 primi or 2 secondi portions

INGREDIENTS:

1/4 pound homemade tagliatelle (2-egg pasta recipe)

2 ounces butter

1 large shallot sliced (1/2 cup)

3/4 cup dry white wine

Morel mushrooms, sliced (2 cups fresh, 1 cup reconstituted dried)

One 8-ounce container creme fraiche

1 cup sliced chives (reserve a few for garnish)

DIRECTIONS:

Put 2 quarts of salted water on to boil. In a 12-inch skillet, saute the shallots in the butter over medium heat until soft. Add white wine and reduce to almost a glaze. If using dried morels, add water in which they have been reconstituted, avoiding any grit that may be at the bottom, to the wine. Add morels and creme fraiche and cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring while maintaining a medium heat. Cook tagliatelle in boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes, depending on thickness. Cook pasta slightly less than al dente as the pasta will cook further in the sauce. Drain pasta, reserving a cup of pasta water, if needed to adjust the sauce to a proper consistency. Add pasta and sliced chives to the sauce and cook approximately 30 seconds to 1 minute longer. Add reserved pasta water, if needed. Almost all the sauce should be absorbed by the pasta. Finish with salt (I love Maldon salt!) and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve in shallow bowls garnished with reserved chives.


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