Mushroom mania is catching in the Rondout Valley thanks to a very special, very tasty, very fussy and unpredictable gem – the morel (Morchella) mushroom. Not a beauty by any means (unless you consider food that looks like a dirty sponge on a stalk enticing), but with a unique taste that is prized by chefs worldwide.
The weather conditions the last two weeks have been ideal for bumper crops of these treasures. Morels like warm, south facing slopes when the days are in the 60’s and the nights around 40 degrees. The soil temperature should not be below 45 degrees. The day after a warm spring rain (which seems to be every other day) is the perfect time to lace up your hiking boots, apply tick repellant, and head out with your mesh bag in hand and your “mushroom eyes” ready for the hunt. You can practice spotting them by scrolling through images of both gold and black morels on Google so you know what you are looking for. There is a mushroom called a False Morel which is toxic, so it’s best to attend a lecture or join a professionally led mushroom walk to learn how to identify a true morel before consuming any mushrooms you pick.
Elusive by nature, finding morels is like trying to predict when the first buds of spring will open. They will magically appear in one place one year and then there will by no sign of them the next. Virtually impossible to propagate or grow on a commercial level, morels are highly sought after and bring high prices at the market. However, I can almost guarantee you will never find them fresh in a local market, because the fungai fanatics who forage for these treasures rarely share. Nor will they ever divulge their secret hunting grounds! I believe that is one of the three codes all mushroom hunters follow: never tell anyone the location you found your booty; never take all mushrooms from one spot to ensure there will be more for the next year; always carry your harvest in a mesh bag, or basket so the spores will spread as you walk through the woods.
Morels tend to live in and on the edge of forested areas. They prefer loamy soil – well drained, moist with a good mix of clay, decaying matter and calcium. Morels can be found along creeks where elm and sycamore trees grow, or on hillsides and upland where ash and tulip poplar are found.They prefer disturbed ground like logging areas, burn sites, garbage dumps, railroad tracks or old homesteads. Many people swear they grow best in old apple orchards (this can be a very unhealthy environment if the orchard had been treated at any time with the insecticide lead arsenate because the morels could accumulate toxic levels of lead and arsenic).
Best eaten fresh the day of harvesting, morels can also be dried or frozen to store for later use. If you are lucky enough to have found the mother load, do not eat them in the field. Morels contain thermolabile toxins, so they must always be cooked before eating. It has been reported that even cooked morels can cause stomach upset when consumed with alcohol. When eating any fungus for the first time, it is wise to consume a small amount at first, to minimize any allergic reaction. Also due to the natural porosity of their caps, morels can contain soil or insects which cannot be easily washed out without crumbling their delicate caps. Soaking them in a bowl of salty water briefly prior to cooking helps remove debris*.
The best way to enjoy morels is to simply saute them with shallots in butter, and then grind some fresh black pepper and salt. They have a meaty, woodsy, umami flavor which combines well with pasta, eggs, or a light fish. They also naturally pair with two other wild treats – fiddle head ferns and ramps – or wild leeks.
To learn more about morels and other fungus among us, the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association meets on the first tuesday of every month at the Marbletown Community Center. Check out their website midhudsonmyco.org to join as a member. You will have access to informative lectures, workshops and walks led by experienced fungi folk. Check out their Facebook site to see photos from the more than 2000 amature mycologist members in our communtiy sharing images of their successful harvests.
*All mushrooms grow from spores, rather than seeds. When you soak your morels, the caps release these spores, so the water will contain thousands of potential future mushrooms. You should pour out the soaking water in an area that would be suitable for them to grow (as mentioned above).
Globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle. More than half the fresh fruits and one third of the vegetables in our supermarkets are imported from other countries. But anyone with taste-buds knows that just because it looks good, doesn’t mean it tastes good.
We are incredibly lucky to be living in one of the most fertile valleys in the Northeast. The soil in the Rondout Valley is called unadilla silt loam. It is a mineral rich, glacially deposited topsoil ideal for growing fruits, vegetables, and grains. Our region’s farms produce a wide variety of seasonal crops which are bursting with flavor and personality. Here is our Autumnal locavore’s dilemma.
We have so many varieties to choose from; butternut or hubbard? – or should we try kabocha, acorn, buttercup, golden nugget, delicata, pink banana, neck pumpkin, turk’s cap, Long Island cheese, cushaw, cocozelle, Rouge Vif d’Etampes and many, many other squash and pumpkin —which are technically in the same family “cucurbitaceae” varieties—in various colors, shapes and sizes. What does this all mean?
The name “squash” comes from the Narragansett Native American Indian word “askutasquash”. Originally believed to have been from Central America or Mexico, humans have used their hard shells as containers for utensils and have eaten the flesh, flowers, and young shoots raw or cooked for almost 10,000 years. Learning from the Native Americans, European settlers adopted squash as a staple in North America. They baked the squash and then cut and mixed it with animal fat, maple syrup or honey.
Saving Seeds and Pollination
The reason we have so many varieties is because people learned to save seeds from squash with the unique qualities they preferred. Many different varieties developed all over the world. Squash are pollinated by insects, so in order to avoid unwanted hybrids, you must make sure that the plant was pollinated by another member of the same variety. The first generation of fruit gets its characteristics from the mother plant, so you will indeed enjoy the delicata you had planted. But say your delicata squash was pollinated by a sugar pie pumpkin, the genes within the seeds will be altered and the following year, when you grow that seed, you will get a pumpcata, or is it a delikin? You need at least ¼ mile between squash varieties to avoid Frankensquash (unless you like that sort of experiment, who knows? You may come up with a fabulous cross that you can name after yourself … Pink Jenana d’ Etamps perhaps?).
Did you know the seeds are edible of all squash and pumpkins? The seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, zinc and potassium, as well as iron, protein and fiber. So don’t compost them with the stringy guts… Here is what to do with them.
2 cups raw, rinsed and dried squash or pumpkin seeds
1 Tbs. olive oil
½ tsp sea salt
After cutting open the squash, scoop out the “guts”. Pick the seeds out of the stringy fiber and toss them into a colander. Rinse under cold water, then pat dry with a tea towel. Spread the seeds into a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil and sea salt. Mix it around until all the seeds are coated. Place into a preheated 350 degree oven and roast in the oven, stirring occasionally until they are lightly golden. Allow to cool before snacking. Pumpkin seeds are best soon after roasting.
Curried Coconut Squash Soup
1 medium kabocha squash ( about 3 lbs)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onions
2 ribs celery, sliced
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 ¼ teaspoon cumin
1 ½ teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 can coconut milk
3 cups unsalted vegetable stock
2 teaspoons salt (more or less according to taste)
Hopefully the squash you just harvested the seeds from is a kabocha because curried, coconut squash soup is on the menu tonight and the kabocha, with its thick, solid, waxy, orange flesh that is ideal for soup. Take the two sides of your squash, rub with olive oil and place on a baking tray inside a preheated 400 degree oven for 45 minutes (or until completely soft).
Saute the onions, celery & garlic in olive oil in a heavy bottom, 8 quart soup kettle until golden brown. Sprinkle the spices into the kettle and saute until fragrant (about 1-2 minutes). Slowly add the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer.
Once the squash is soft, place the roasted flesh into the pot with the vegetables (I leave the skin on the squash for added vitamins & fiber, but you can remove it if you prefer). Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and partially cover for 8-10 minutes.
Turn the heat off, and add the coconut milk. Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Add salt & pepper to taste. Serve with chopped cilantro & a squeeze of lime juice.
Maple Cinnamon Roasted Neck Pumpkin*
8 cups cubed Neck Pumpkin (*butternut squash can be used as replacement if you can’t locate this graceful giant at your local farmers market. This squash is ideal because it is tender and juicy, yet holds its shape), about 3 lbs of peeled cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp maple syrup
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp cinnamon
2 pinches cayenne
Preheat oven to 425
Line a baking 2 baking trays with aluminum foil (or use a silpat silicone liner so when the sugars caramelize it won’t be too hard to clean) Spread out the cubes evenly on the trays.
Drizzle the squash with 1 tbsp olive oil and maple syrup per sheet.
Sprinkle each sheet evenly with ¼ tsp cinnamon, salt & pinch of cayenne
Toss the squash on the sheets with clean hands to coat evenly
Place the pans in the preheated oven and roast for 30 minutes, switching racks halfway and cooking until all the squash is tender. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and turn on the broiler. Take turns placing each sheet under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to caramelize (be careful it does not burn! The sugars cause it to brown very fast).
This dish is delicious served warm or cold. As a side , or tossed onto a bed of raw spinach and dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice.
No matter what you call it – squash or pumpkin, our valley is flush with these disparate cucurbits this month. Whether you carve a jack-o-lantern or create a delicious meal, get out there and support our local farmers buy purchasing from your local farmstand.