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Morel Mushroom Hunt and Taste Off

Blind tasting of Morel Mushrooms reveal different flavors

Bags of morel mushrooms are awaiting our very scientific blind tasting. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Bags of morel mushrooms are awaiting our very scientific blind tasting. Which mushrooms will we choose as the best – fire or natural morels. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Who doesn’t love mushrooms – those woodsy, musty and earthy caps that mysteriously and miraculously spring from the ground.  I was lucky to be invited to a taste off of morel mushrooms. My friend who is a mycologist and excellent cook – Matt Ironside – had recently plucked morels from the slopes of low-lying hills and mountains in secret locations within two hours of Seattle.

The morels were gigantic and fresh. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The morels were gigantic and fresh. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Knowing I had a crush on mushrooms, he asked me to join him and others to blindly taste natural morel mushrooms and fire morels. Fire morels grow after a forest fire. He wanted to know which we favored and why.

Matt is always on the hunt – for mushrooms that is. Like other mycologists he has his favorite secret spots that I’m sworn to secrecy. He came to the dinner, juggling several bags of morels. They were clean, large and begging to be in my mouth.

Matt prepared them the same way, sautéing sliced morels in butter and a touch of salt. He presented two plates, with the mushrooms looking almost identical. With chopsticks in hand, five of us voted on which plate we liked the best. And the winner by way of finger-pointing to the favorite mushrooms were the fire morels.

The winner of the blind tasting was the fire morels that were sauteed in light butter and a touch of salt. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The winner of the blind tasting was the fire morels that were sauteed in light butter and a touch of salt. I swear there was a hint of smokiness. Photo by Christine Willmsen

They were rich, earthy, nutty and creamy with a carmelized finish. And I swear there was hint of smokiness. Another judge said the fire morels were so meaty and flavorful they could replace a steak for dinner. The natural morels tasted great too, but the clear winner was the fire morels.

For more information on mushrooms connect with the Puget Sound Mycological Society. They have field trips for hunting mushrooms. I suggest if it’s your first few hunts for mushrooms that you go with an experienced mushroom hunter. 

Please keep Hildegard Hendrickson in your thoughts and prayers, she’s an expert mushroom hunter who has been missing since a morel hunt June 8. A search for her has been suspended.

Mycologist Matt Ironside stirs up a creamy morel mushroom risotto for dinner after our blind tasting. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Mycologist Matt Ironside stirs up a creamy morel mushroom risotto for dinner after our blind tasting. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Morels will be in season for the next couple weeks in Washington state.

So hunt them, buy them or order them on a restaurant’s menu, because these are the jewels of the earth worth savoring, especially if they were born after a blazing fire.

Cheers

Christine

How to harvest, prepare and cook fresh mussels

What’s not to love about mussels – they’re succulent, tender, salty and a bit sweet. Many of us have gone to the fish market or local grocery store and grabbed a bag of mussels sitting on ice and cooked a great bowl of mussels. But this time I wanted to go to the source. I wanted to be my own fishmonger. I wanted to grab my own dinner literally from the earth.

Hunting mussels can be a solitary adventure for the day or a great bonding experience with friends.  In my case, a group of friends went on the expedition and later each of us prepared the mussels in a different way.

A ferry and a short drive were the only things that stood between my posse and those black pearly mussels.

At Double Bluff State Park on Whidbey Island we walked along the beach at low tide and, at first, saw no mussels. But as we hiked closer to a large rocky bed we hit the jackpot. Soon I realized we were literally on a blanket of mussels. Thousands of them clutched to each other and small rocks. Plucking the mussels only the size of my thumb or bigger, I found my bucket full within a couple hours.

It was literally that easy. Back in the kitchen we had a mussel feast fit for the sea gods. The bivalves were so fresh and flavorful.

Mussels are a great choice of food for one person to prepare for many reasons. Within minutes you can steam the mussels in white wine and shallots or garlic and finish with fresh herbs. Just grab some french bread for dipping and a glass or two of Pinot Gris wine for sipping and you are set to relax after a hard day of work.

Also if you are entertaining friends, a quick mussel dish won’t keep you hostage in the kitchen while the rest of your soiree is kicking into high gear.

Below you’ll find tips on harvesting mussels, hints on preparing them in the kitchen and a great recipe. Don’t be intimidated by them and feel free to find your favorite way to enjoy them.

Harvesting Mussels:

  • Simply grab the mussel, twist and pull off.
  • Fill the bucket with cold water right from the harvest area and let them rest for a minimum of several hours. They will literally spit out sand and debris. This ensures you don’t have gritty mussels. Avoid soaking mussels in tap water.

Back at Home:

  • It’s time to crack open a beer or open up a bottle of white wine because you still have some work to do and you should reward yourself for such a catch. Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc are great wines to pair with mussels.
  • Clean the mussels by rubbing off any debris from their shells.
  • Throw away any mussels that are cracked or remain open after tapping them on a surface.
  • Remove the beard, a small hairy spot where the two parts of the shell connect. Sometimes you can just pull it away, but scissors also work. Do this just before cooking.
  • Mussels you don’t plan on cooking right away should be removed from the cold water and placed in the coldest part of your refrigerator on a bed of ice with a damp cloth on top of them. Mussels will keep for up to three days.

Hot in the Kitchen: Venetian-Style Mussels

I adapted a recipe from Chef Walter Pisano of Tulio restaurant printed in Celebrated Chefs, Vol. 2. Feel free to play with the ingredients and put your own take on it.

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 clove of garlic sliced

3 pounds of mussels

5 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced

¼ cup brandy

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

½ cup slivered fresh basil

3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (more if you like spicy)

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden brown. Add mussels and stir constantly for 2 minutes. Cover and cook for 2 more minutes. Then add tomatoes, brandy and lemon zest to the pan. Cook an additional 3-4 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Remove lid and gently stir in basil, parsley and pepper flakes. Serve immediately in shallow bowls.

Cheers Christine

Special thanks to friends Michelle, Chris and Tony