Ever since I was a little girl, I've associated Easter with mushroom foraging. On the way to my Grandmother's house on Easter Sunday, my Dad always opted for the scenic route through the woods, where he'd pull over on the side of the road and disappear into the trees. Like someone might make a pit stop on a road trip for snacks or a soda, he'd suddenly reappear with a handful of these strange and delicious fungi. I don't remember being especially enthused about mushrooms in those days, but the giddy and childlike thrill that gripped my Dad for the few weeks of mushroom season must have settled deep in my bones, and now that I'm older, it's bloomed into an all-consuming obsession. Their appearance is short-lived and elusive, and when you find one, you get the fever. You're hooked.
This year I spent hours daydreaming, mapping out where and how I'd discover the mother load, one to rival our big haul from 2009. But as April comes closer to an end, my plans keep slipping through my fingers, foiled by week-long torrential thunderstorms and Kurt's fluctuating work schedule. On Sunday, I pouted and whined as reports rolled in from all over Kentucky of the record breaking morel bounty. We were spending the holiday at Kurt's Mom's, and the prospect of foraging seemed unlikely. Another week of morel season lost. I moped.
Kurt must have sensed my mounting morel anxiety. He's really good in that way, freakishly in tune with the whirlwind of thoughts, schemes and worries swirling around in my head at any given time. Like for instance, he always knows just when I want a hamburger. He knows to look for the disdainful scowl on my face whenever someone puts ketchup on their eggs. If I'm stewing on the couch, still dwelling on some dumb argument, he knows to squeeze my foot and look over smiling, a code of surrender that says, "Don't sweat it. Let's watch The Office." So in his intuitive way, he suggested that we poke around his Mom's yard just in case we find something.
We combed the brush piles and the tree line on her property. Whenever I came near, Kurt would say, "Go! Get outta here! Find you're own spot." I thought he was humoring me with some competitive banter so I obliged, but I was already convinced that our search was in vain. I half-heartedly pushed back dead leaves with a stick, growing crankier by the minute. I spun around to turn back to the house, and there was Kurt, grinning, holding the biggest blond morel up to my face. I couldn't believe it! I screamed. I think I jumped. You know when you're really surprised, ecstatic, and you're totally unaware of yourself? That was me - unhinged. My voice cracked. Just as he gestured toward where he found it, I was already on my knees in the dirt, lunging toward another one. We found another, and another! Morels were there all along, right under our noses.
Kurt found that morel because he wanted to. He wanted me to stay away because he knew a surprise like that would make my day. It happened just like he'd imagined, and although he'd never seen a morel out there, he had high hopes. That's why the Appalachian people call them Merkles (mountain speak for "miracles"). If you look hard enough and hope hard enough, it's like they find you! They're out there, and sometimes you don't have to go down in the holler to find them. I've seen morels in surprising places: landscaped lawns, mulch beds and trailer parks. You're bound to find them if you keep your eyes open and stay positive.
Creamy Parmesan Polenta with Kale,
Mushroom Ragout and Fried Morels.
2 cups whole milk
2 cups water
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup yellow cornmeal1 tsp kosher salt3/4 tsp black pepper3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese1 lb kale, washed and de-stemmed8 oz. carton of wild mushrooms, chopped2 shallots, diced2 tbsp oil1 cup white wine1 sprig fresh rosemary2 cloves garlic1/4 cup heavy cream1/2 lb fresh morels, sliced lengthwise down the center1/4 cup all purpose flourParmesan shavings
Creamy Polenta:In a medium pot, bring water, milk and salt to a boil. Gradually add cornmeal and stir. Bring heat down to low and cover, stirring occasionally until polenta thickens into a smooth porridge consistency, about 10 minutes. Add 4 tbsp butter, Parmesan and pepper. Stir until butter is melted and the cheese is incorporated. Remove from heat, season to taste, cover and set aside.
Mushroom Ragout:Heat 1 tbsp oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 shallot and cook until caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add rosemary and mushrooms and cook a few more minutes until they are just tender. Pour in wine and bring mixture to a simmer. Swirl in 1 tbsp butter and heavy cream. Stir and remove from heat.
Sauteed Kale and Morels:Dredge morels in flour and set aside. In a large frying pan over medium heat, add 1 tbsp oil. Add remaining shallot and fry until translucent. Add kale, and cook, constantly stirring, until Kale is wilted and the leaves have turned bright green. Season to taste. Transfer to a dish and set aside. Add 1tbsp butter to the pan. When the butter has melted, toss in morels. Fry for 2-3 minutes, turning over morels halfway through. Season with salt and pepper.
Assemble your dish in a large, shallow bowl. To serve, spoon ragout and kale over polenta and top with fried morels and Parmesan shavings.