Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pan-Fried Fish with Morels

This is one of my all-time favorite ways to prepare morels. A number of years ago, we would spend a week around Memorial Day, fishing for walleyes in various Minnesota lakes. Morel season was typically done by Memorial Day, but I'd save enough morels from the foraging a week or so earlier so that I could prepare pan-fried walleye with morel sauce. This year, morel season was very late due to the unusually cool spring, so we are still finding them at the end of May. I took the opportunity to prepare a dinner of pan-fried fish with morels from one of our recent morel hauls. Here's how you can prepare this very simple--but extremely delicious--dish, which really lets the flavor of the morels shine.

First, a quick bit of instruction for those who may not be comfortable picking morels. The photo above shows several colors; it's good to know that morels can be gray, yellow, whitish or even black. But one thing that never, ever changes--ever--is that a true morel is always completely hollow inside. As you can see in the photo, if you cut the morel in half from top to bottom, the inside is empty, and it also flows smoothly from the cap to the stem with no notching. This is an important distinction, because some morel lookalikes have a distinct edge on the bottom of the cap; when cut in half, they look rather like an arrowhead. Those are either half-free morels (Morchella semilibera) or so-called Verpa (Verpa bohemica). Half-frees are edible, but most people consider the Verpas inedible and I don't recommend eating them. Note that if there is any pithy material in the middle, you've got a false morel of some sort; you should never eat these.

OK, back to the recipe! First, wash as many morels as you feel like using; the batch shown here was 6 or 7 ounces, probably. Cut them in half from top to bottom, both to confirm their identity and to dislodge any creepy-crawlies that may be hiding inside the hollow mushroom (it does happen). Cut the halves into smaller pieces.

Make a seasoned flour mixture by shaking together some flour, salt, white pepper, paprika, and maybe some onion powder in a plastic bag. Then add some boneless, skinless fish fillets; they should be damp but not wet. Walleyes are superb if they're fresh; otherwise, you can use any nice white-fleshed fish such as crappies, sunfish, smallmouth bass, de-boned northern, or tilapia (if you catch your fish in the grocer's freezer case). Shake to coat with the flour. Melt a nice knob of butter in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet, then shake off the fish and add it to the pan (save the flour for the next step). Pan-fry over medium to medium-high heat until well browned on both sides and just cooked through, then transfer to a plate and keep warm in a 225°F oven. (If you're cooking thicker fillets, you can brown them very well, and then let them finish cooking in the oven while you make the sauce; increase the oven temp to 300°F to help cook the fish.)

If the skillet has burned flour in it (which is likely if your fillets are thick, like the ones shown above), wipe it out with a paper towel; otherwise, the butter mixture can be used for the morels.

Add more butter; if you've wiped the skillet out you'll need a scant tablespoon, and if you didn't wipe it out, you will need less. Tip: Don't skimp on the butter; this is not a diet dish! Now add your cut-up morels, and sauté them over medium heat, stirring frequently. Within a few minutes, they will release a bunch of liquid, as shown in the second photo at right.

Continue cooking until the liquid cooks away and is absorbed by the morels, as shown in the third photo at right. For extra flavor, you can now add two or three tablespoons of dry sherry, and cook a minute or two longer until that has cooked away also; you can skip this if you like, but it does add a nice flavor.

Now add a generous pour of whole milk or half-and-half; you'll probably need 3/4 cup, but use your judgment. Cook that until it has started to thicken. (You could also use a mixture of cream and a bit of chicken broth; I find that cream, by itself, is a bit too rich.)

Mix a tablespoon or so of the flour mixture (the one you used to coat the fish) with a few tablespoons of water or chicken broth, then add some of that to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until it thickens a bit. You can add a bit more of the flour-water mixture as you need to, but you don't want the sauce to become gloppy.

Snip some fresh chives over the sauce, and stir well. Taste the sauce for seasoning, and add salt and white pepper if it needs it. Generally, this is all the seasoning I use, but you could doll the sauce up with dry mustard powder, snipped fresh parsley or other fresh herbs, or whatever sounds good to you. Keep in mind that morels have a fairly delicate flavor, though, and don't over-do it.

Serve the fish with the sauce, and some rice or pasta to catch the sauce; a loaf of good French bread is also nice for mopping up every last drop of the sauce. A bright green vegetable is a nice complement.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Morels and Oyster Mushrooms with Dumplings

On Saturday, May 25, we went out with the Minnesota Mycological Society for a morel foray (location Top Secret, so don't ask!). It is a very late year for morels but they are out there; usually by now they are all done, but this year, due to the late spring, they are still in their infancy.

Some club members found just a few, while others did pretty well. Bruce and I did OK; we found a nice bunch of morels over the course of the day (see above for an example), and also found a beautiful oyster mushroom (below) in prime shape. So on Saturday night, I decided to use the oyster mushroom and some of the morels to make Mushrooms and Dumplings, a variation of a recipe in my book Abundantly Wild.

I cleaned the mushrooms (the oyster was particularly in need of attention; I use a very soft, small mushroom brush and a gentle stream of cold water) and cut them into bite-sized pieces. I had about 5 ounces of oyster mushrooms and 5 ounces of morels.

I also cut up some carrots and onions. I sauteed the carrots and onions for a bit in some olive oil (see recipe below), then added the mushrooms and sauteed them for a few minutes before adding some chicken broth and thyme. While that simmered for a few minutes, I mixed up a batch of dumplings, which I shaped gently into golfball-sized balls that I dropped onto the simmering stock. 

That got cooked for about 10 minutes, then I covered the pot and simmered them for another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, I sauteed some diced bacon (Neuske's from Wittenburg, Wisconsin) with a bit of finely chopped onion, lashed that with rice vinegar and a bit of chicken broth and freshly ground black pepper, and tossed with leaf lettuce just before the stew was ready. What a nice way to finish off a great day in the field!

Morels, Oyster Mushrooms and Dumplings (adapted from Abundantly Wild by Teresa Marrone)

3 medium carrots, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 small onion, diced
2 teaspoons olive oil
10 to 12 ounces mixed oyster mushrooms and morels
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
3 to 4 cups chicken broth*
Salt and pepper to taste

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon rubbed dried sage
2/3 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted

In medium soup pot or Dutch oven,* saute carrots and onions in oil over medium heat for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, cut mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. Add mushrooms and thyme to soup out when carrots and onions have sauteed for 5 minutes; saute for about 5 minutes longer.

While mushrooms are sauteeing, blend together all dumpling ingredients, stirring until flour is just moistened. Shape into golfball-sized dumplings. Drop onto simmering mushroom misture. Cook for 10 minutes. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in wide soup plates.

*For a stew-like mixture, use 3 cups of broth; for a more soup-like mixture, use 4 cups broth. Low sodium or regular broth both work fine, depending on your taste. If you're using a small-diameter soup pot rather than a Dutch oven, cut the dumpling ingredients to 2/3.