One of the many benefits of living on the Westside of this fantastic City of Angels is the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market at the Third Street Promenade on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Wednesday has the larger spread, with more vendors and a wider variety of stuff, but my schedule brings me more often to the Saturday market. But on both Wednesdays and Saturdays you’ll find the mushroom guy, David West, from Clearwater Farms. They not only grow their own shiitakes and maitakes, but they source fantastic seasonal ‘shrooms (both cultivated and wild) from purveyors, pickers, and mycologists from all over California and Oregon. Depending not the time of year you’ll find rare black trumpets, hedgehog mushrooms, chantarelles, blue foots, and lobster mushrooms.
It’s late spring right now so the you can get fantastic, big-as-all-hell porcini mushrooms (recipe for those later) and absolutely delicious morels (Morchella augusticeps). I picked up about three quarters of a pound of these (pricey) morels and took them home with the intention of frying them.
I love morels. They have a delicious, intense flavor that can be described as nutty, meaty, or woodsy. But not just the flavor makes them interesting; they have a remarkable and stunning structure, with deep pores like honeycomb in their rather phallic, brain-like caps. These pores make morels great for absorbing flavorful sauces, such as a nice buttery cream sauce that might accompany, perhaps, a perfectly roasted chicken. These holes also make the morel great for frying in that more surface area is available for crispification (my word).
The pores also make these wild mushrooms a pain to clean, for insects and forest detritus can easily get lodged in the comb structure. You can’t really brush them off or shake any dirt off very well. It’s not normally recommended that you wash or soak mushrooms in water as it can make them rubbery and leach away flavor, but I’m afraid that is unavoidable when it come to the morels, at least when frying. That is, unless you want to eat dirt and bug larvae. I’m omnivorous, it’s true, but I like my food to start clean.
Check out all the mushrooms first. Discard any soft or moist or crumbly mushrooms. They should be dry and plumb and have a firm texture. Now, to clean the morels, fill a large bowl with warm water and whisk in about a quarter cup of fine salt (for about three or four cups of water); the salt will flush out any tiny insects that may be chillin’ out in the (remember, they’re wild) mushrooms. Cut any large mushrooms in half and then drop them all in the salted water. Move them around a bit to loosen any dirt. Soak for about one minute and scoop the mushrooms out, holding them briefly in a strainer. Dump the dirty water and fill the bowl again, this time with water that is cold and unsalted. Stir and soak the mushrooms one more, again about one minute. Drain the morels well and pat them dry with paper towels.
You want to wash the morels within a few minutes of frying, so be sure to set up a fryer (or a pot with oil) and get it up to 350º F before plunging them in water.
Also, you can set up a little seasoned flour in a large bowl. I like a mixture of 2/3 flour and 1/3 potato starch (the potato starch gives it more cronch (again, my word). For this batch I used 2/3 cup bread flour and 1/3 cup starch, to which I added a bunch of cracked black pepper and about a teaspoon of kosher salt. Corn starch is a decent substitute if potato starch is too challenging to find.
I also whipped up a simple, loose aioli as a accompanying sauce. It’s pretty simple — take an egg yolk and put it in a stainless steel bowl with one small clove of garlic, smashed and minced. To that add a teaspoon of lemon juice, a half teaspoon of dijon mustard, some salt, and some pepper. Whisk in extra virgin olive oil until the aioli emulsifies and resembles a loose, yellow mayo. Maybe about 1/4 cup of oil.
Dredge the morels gently in the seasoned flour. They should still be (slightly) damp from their earlier swim and the flour will adhere easily. Be sure to coat uniformly and shake off any excess flour and starch.
Fry the morels at 350º until drip and well-browned. Drain on a wire rack if possible. Eat immediately with a drizzle of the aioli. If you want you can add a little chopped chives or minced parsley. I also scattered a little Maldon sea salt, a gorgeous “big-flake” finishing salt from Essex (that’s the UK), all over the top.
If you happen upon some good-looking morels at the market, shell out all your cash and snap them up. They are infrequently available and should be celebrated. I think frying them is a killer way to go!
Quaff these with a good lager. I had a glass of Stella Artois with this batch and the result was tres bon.
A note: Don’t eat the morels raw. They contain a mild hydrazine toxin that is eliminated in the cooking process. Eaten raw they can upset your stomach.
Also, don’t do anything stupid like go hunting for morels in the wild. You don’t know the difference between the edible and inedible (perhaps poisonous) ones, I assure you. I leave the mushroom hunting to pros, and so should you.