Polish legend has it that the devil, in a particularly foul mood, tore an old woman into bits, scattering her through the woods. Where her pieces fell, morels (muh-REHLS) sprouted, bearing her wrinkled appearance. Science has extinguished the legend, but to this day, gourmands around the globe expend considerable sacrifice in pursuit of the wrinkly morel.
If truffles are the most prized specimens in the fungus world, morels are close behind. Technically called a “morchella,” morels are widely distributed in the United States. They have a distinctive, upright appearance resembling a spongy honeycomb. Their taste is distinctive, too: earthy, intense and utterly addictive. Morels tolerate a range of conditions in the wild, but efforts to cultivate them have been largely unsuccessful — hence, the sticker shock that accompanies their appearance in supermarket.
Those who don’t mind a springtime walk might consider foraging for themselves. A little research can teach you how to distinguish a true morel from the poisonous false morel. Where to look is another matter. Morels can grow in woods and fields. They love dying elm trees. They also have a reputation for growing on the site of recent fires: Reportedly, 18th-century German peasants had to be restrained from setting fires to encourage morels to grow. Depending on where you live, morel season can run from March through May.
Fresh morels should not be eaten raw. Choose simple preparations that allow their flavor to shine through. Dried morels are available year round, have a slightly smoky flavor, and lend themselves to many preparations.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.