When I hunt mushrooms I am into motherloads. It’s morel season, and in order to really pick a lot the best place to go is the site of an old forest fire. This year I flew across the country to the Tahoe National Forest northeast of Sacramento, where a 9-square mile forest fire burned last summer. My companion was David Campbell, former president of the San Francisco Mycological Society and a serious mushroom picker. He has that hooded eye quality that makes you think he’d leave you in the woods if you pissed him off.
David had been picking the fire on and off for a few weeks and he’d scoped out lots of good “hab,” including a nice spot with this rather intimidating sign. He even found a terrific lodge called the Christmas Tree Vineyard Lodge in Foresthill, that sat right on top of the fire.
The spring after a forest fire, should the conditions be right, a few species of morels will come up in outrageous numbers. Some people are snotty about burn morels, preferring naturals—morels that grow under dying trees–or think they are too ashy to eat, but I think that’s nonsense. Burn morels taste great, and if you pick a really dirty mushroom then it’s your own fault if it tastes gritty. As David says, you only pick crappy mushrooms on your first patch. Then you learn.
I only hunted with David for 2 days, but I came home with a lot of mushrooms. Some people think that picking mushrooms is bad for the environment and that’s nonsense, too. Picking mushrooms doesn’t hurt the fungus—just as picking apples doesn’t hurt the apple tree. Once the mushroom is up it starts to sporulate. Those spores are in the air, and on your clothes, and in your van, zillions of them hoping (if spores hope) to find a new habitat, which is why the morels came up in the fire zone in the first place. The fungus needs to get the hell out of there. When we hit a patch—and we hit some very good ones—I could hardly take pictures. I was just too excited picking. It is totally an adrenaline rush to find them, not to mention the awful beauty of a burned out forest, and its moaning charcoal snags.
I filled the duffel I brought with morels and after a bit of a kerfuffle at the Sacramento airport (I think the security team was a little disappointed my mysterious bag didn’t have some contraband to liven up their day), managed to get all my mushrooms home.
We’ve been eating them ever since. I sautéed some with shallots and dry Marsala and tossed them with a half dozen boiled quail eggs that my friend Neni gave me and served them to Pam Krauss, my former editor and now friend, who was taking a week off from work and for once available for lunch, if not wine. I made spaghettini al olio garnished with morels sautéed with garlic and grated botarga (smoked red mullet roe) and had it for dinner after the Cooper Union all school show (where my husband Kevin is a professor) with Gilles Depardon and Kathy Ogawa. They are terrific architects whose last venture was a skinny scraper on Orchard Street on the lower east side of Manhattan.
I made lamb meatballs (under Neni Panourgia’s direction) and stuffed them in the largest morels and baked them, which was freakin’ awesome; and made a traditional veal Marsala with morels added to the sauce for a dinner party for a client and friend Dan Malloy (Kevin built a house for him in Colorado) and Mickey Simmons, who I have known since, like, 1980. Mickey gave me my first writing job (well, he and then-editor, Ratso Sloman), a humor piece about mothers and daughters for the National Lampoon. He also sang at Kevin’s and my wedding (that was 1988), and goosed my mom and my grandmother’s secretary, Pat.
Remember do not wash morels until right before cooking. Then, place them in a bowl of warm water and swish them around until they are free of forest debris. And always be sure to cook morels. Raw morels can make you sick.
Morel and Egg Salad
You can use chicken eggs or quail eggs in this recipe. Chicken eggs should be quartered, quail eggs halved.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons thinly sliced shallots
8 ounces fresh morels, halved lengthwise
4 tablespoons dry Marsala, white wine, or sherry
12 quail eggs or 6 chicken eggs, hard cooked, peeled and halved or quartered
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced flat leafed parsley
Morels Stuffed with Lamb
You can use any meatball recipe to stuff the morels, but lamb is the most unctuous. You need really big morels for this dish, around 3 inches long, not including the stem. This recipe makes 26 meatballs. You only need 16 for stuffing the morels, but we went ahead and made a tray of just plain lamb meatballs as well. The next day Neni served them warm, on a salad with vinaigrette dressing.
Serves 4 as an appetizer
8 large morels, halved lengthwise
1 lb ground lamb
1/3 cup breadcrumbs (please use homemade—just grind up some stale bread)
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon olive
2 teaspoons dried spearmint
1 teaspoon fried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoons vinegar
¼ teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste