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Magical Morels–the Sequel

May 31, 2012

            On Friday, May 18th, Mike and I put our golden retrievers in the car and hit the road for Muscoda, WI. The annual Morel Mushroom Festival was scheduled to begin at 5 pm that evening and we didn’t want to miss our chance of buying some more delicious morels before the season ended. We drove west on Highway 14 until it became Highway 60. Then we followed a rather winding, curvy Highway 60 along the Wisconsin River. We had never been to Muscoda before and had never been on the beautiful stretch of road. Our dogs, Ipo and Imi, being ‘water dogs’ begged with us to ‘please let us go for a swim.’ The river looked high and dangerous—we ignored our dogs’ pleas and headed for Muscoda.

We drove across a rather large bridge and noticed the Muscoda population sign—we had arrived at the Morel Mushroom Capital! Wisconsin Avenue was quiet, but the town was clearly preparing for the weekend’s festivities. There were ‘no parking’ signs posted in preparation for the evening’s Morel Mushroom Festival scheduled to begin at 5 pm. Several booths were lined up on one side of the street. Mike got out and asked one of the men in the American Legion booth where we could purchase morels. He told him there was a group in the library that was selling the mushrooms, so we parked the car and headed inside. In the back of the library, there were 7 or 8 American Legionnaires sitting at tables full of information about the morels, Muscoda, and the American Legion. I asked if we could buy some morels and one of the men asked me how many I wanted. I told him a pound, and he promptly sent another man outside to pick out the morels.

Mike went back to the car—we didn’t want to leave Ipo and Imi in a hot car without the air conditioning turned on. While I waited, the Legionnaires asked me where I was from, and I told them Madison and that I was buying the morels so I could try several recipes and pair them with some sparkling wines—that I was writing a blog about them. They seemed pleased and told me about morels, the festival, and Muscoda. I found them to be some of the friendliest people I had encountered in a long, long time.

The man who had left to get the mushrooms returned with a bag and handed it to me. These were the least expensive morels I had found–$30 a pound. I opened the bag and the pungent, woodsy aroma met my nose. I smiled, thanked the Legionnaires and walked back to the car. We drove back to Madison, and for dinner that night I prepared a morel side dish that was simply outstanding.

Authentic Mucoda Morels

Our son’s brother-in-law is from Muscoda. When I told him that I was going to his hometown to get morels he told me that the best way to prepare them was to dredge them lightly in flour and sauté them in butter (with a little oil added to prevent burning). I took the morels and gently washed them. I placed them on a cutting board, and rather than dredging them, I lightly sprinkled whole-wheat flour over them. I was concerned that too much flour, or too much butter would mask the flavor of the morels. I then placed 3 tablespoons of butter into a frying pan along with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. I heated the pan until the butter melted and sautéed the morels for about 5 minutes, until they were golden brown.

I decided to pair the morel dishes with sparkling wines from California rather than traditional French champagne to contrast the different sparkling wines with the morels. For this preparation, I served the warm morels with Natural’ from Korbel winery in Sonoma. The ‘méthode champenoise sparkling wine is made from 65% Pinot Noir grapes and 35% Chardonnay grown in the Russian River Valley. Natural’ is a fruit forward sparkling wine with crisp citrus flavors. It paired perfectly with the sautéed morels and enhanced the woody flavors of the mushrooms making them taste richer and nuttier. The morels themselves were crisp and crunchy on the outside, but soft and delicate on the inside. The light dusting of flour provided just enough contrast to the morels and the sparkling wine and allowed each to be a bit more pronounced than they were alone.

The next dish I prepared was morels and wild rice. I served them with roasted chicken and a Piper Sonoma Blanc de Blanc Select Cuvée from Sonoma County. The sparkling wine was made in the méthode champoenoise similar to the Korbel Natural’ and consists of 95% Chardonnay grapes, and 5% “other” grapes. Consequently, the creaminess of the Chardonnay grapes is apparent. Like the other sparkling wines and champagnes used with the morels, the Piper Sonoma was very crisp and tart. The flavors of green apples and grapefruit were the most dominating, and the effervescence was crisp and refreshing. The sparkling wine was far better than the wild rice and morels.

The nutty flavors of the wild rice were too powerful for the delicate flavors of the morels. I prepared the wild rice according to package directions, sautéed the morels with shallots in butter and added them to the rice. The dish, as a whole, was delicious, but the morels did not stand out with their unique flavor but rather blended with the rice. Together, with the Piper Sonoma, the flavors were elegant and delicious, but I would not prepare the dish again using morels—they are far too delicious for their flavors to be lost.

The last recipe I tried was a mushroom strudel appetizer. The morels were sautéed in butter with onion, sherry, a spring of thyme and a bit of flour. This mixture was then placed in phyllo dough and rolled into triangles and baked for 15 minutes, until the crust was golden brown. I brought the appetizers and J Cuvée Brut sparkling wine to a dinner party to share with friends. The appetizers were served warm and the J Cuveé was served chilled. The wine opened with a hint of lemon peel and honeysuckle, yielding to a mix of apple, grapefruit with overtones of toast, caramel and almond tailing off to a lingering finish.

Together, they were sublime.

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