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.

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