These mushrooms are worth the wait.
By Rebecca Huntington
RYAN COZZENS HUNTS many things—antlers, crystals, arrowheads. So when he moved to Moose, Wyoming, in the spring of 2014 for a job driving shuttles for Barker-Ewing Scenic Float Trips, he already had morels in mind.
Morels, “the best spring mushroom in my opinion,” writes mycologist Paul Stamets, author of Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. Morels, the “aristocrats of the forest.” Morels, which have a great flavor complexity, described as everything from rich to buttery or smoky. Morels, one of the great things to hunt in our forests. And on our menus.
Morels have a flavor that complements many vegetables and meats. The savory depth of these wild gems—people have tried to cultivate them with no success—can be compared to nothing else. Fresh morels are great to cook with, but dried morels can last all year long in the pantry and will rehydrate.
While raking the gravel pad for his tepee, one in an idyllic cluster of temporary employee housing that springs up each summer beneath the cottonwoods along Ditch Creek in the Gros Ventre Mountains, Cozzens found his first morel, right there in his tepee ring. This is the kind of beginner’s luck that maddens morel-hunting wannabes like me.
“They had just sprouted,” Cozzens says. Not even moved in yet, and he had his first harvest: seven pinky-size mushrooms. To be fair, it wasn’t blind luck. “My eyes are always scanning for stuff,” he says.
Cozzens put the seven morels in a cup in his tepee. He sheepishly confesses ants got them before he did. “Those went back to the earth,” he says. Even without tasting them, he was hooked. Every work break, Cozzens ran off into the woods to look for morels, and by the end of June, he had harvested so many, “I stopped counting,” he says. Pressed, Cozzens says he found well over two hundred.
That’s an impressive haul for a season that had even longtime hunters unable to find their typical cache. Snake River Grill executive chef Jeff Drew says that in the spring of 2014 some of his local foragers, who usually bring in fifteen to twenty pounds of morels at a time, showed up with less frequency. Drew’s own family, who hunt morels for fun, found less than a pound. “We may only find a pound, but when you only have that one pound, you really slow down and savor every morsel,” Drew says. “It’s such a special occasion.”
KEVIN HUMPHREYS, EXECUTIVE chef of Spur Restaurant & Bar at Teton Mountain Lodge, also enjoys hunting morels. The reason they are so fleeting, he says, is because they are finicky about their environment. For morels to flourish, the snow needs to be gone, the nights need to be warm, and the days need to be moist, he says. In spring 2014, Jackson Hole got the heat, but then came a thirty-day dry streak. “I only found two, which I didn’t pick,” Humphreys says. That’s a feat of willpower, Drew says admiringly of Humphreys’ restraint.
Both Humphreys and Drew put morels on their respective menus each spring. For chefs, morels are a sign of spring and abundance following the leanness of winter. “The prices are just exorbitant when we first open in May, because everyone wants them, and they are seasonal,” Drew says. Last year, he initially paid about thirty-five dollars a pound. Drew gets his first morel shipments from Oregon and Washington, followed by the Midwest, and then ultimately from local foragers. Humphreys gets his morels from certified foragers in Oregon and Washington.
Drew first started cooking with morels at a restaurant in Michigan, where the mushrooms grow in spades. Michigan morels tend to be small and dark, which Drew prefers over the more golden-colored morels Wyoming foragers most often find. Cozzens estimates that of the two hundred-plus morels he found, just a handful were small and dark. Another prized type of morel? Those that grow in the charred aftermath of forest fires. Drew says these morels have a smoke-infused “campfire” taste.
When it comes to morels, Drew stresses minimalism. “You do want to make the morels the star of the show,” he says. At Snake River Grill, the chef takes the small, dark morels and sautes them whole in sherry and butter—a simple preparation designed to show off the mushroom’s nutty, earthy flavor. When he gets larger morels, he slices them, sautes them in sherry and butter, and then pairs them with roasted spring onions and California goat cheese on a pizza. “Everything is light and airy and earthy,” he says, adding, “That’s really not the place for a lot of cheese.”
Cozzens plans to cook his morels for friends and family. He’s been experimenting with drying and freezing as a way to preserve his precious harvest. Using a needle, he threaded fishing line through the morels and strung them like laundry, next to a hammock, to dry. Drew is not a fan of dried morels. For him, drying brings out a slight taste of ammonia. He favors freezing, which he says may alter the texture a bit but maintains the flavor.
A SNAKE RIVER Grill, morels stay on the menu for six weeks tops, Drew says. Their fleeting appearance is their romantic appeal, he says. For diners who miss that window, both Drew and Humphreys insist there is no substitute. “Isn’t that a wonderful thing that there is no substitute?” Drew asks, unapologetically.
Drew urges diners to savor the moment by enjoying fresh foods in-season. If you miss the morels, he suggests savoring a Wyomato pizza, which celebrates the summer abundance of red-ripe tomatoes. Or if a mushroom is a must, Drew recommends a dish starring porcini mushrooms, which come in season a couple of weeks after morels.
Back at Cozzens’ tepee, I confess that I made a few half-hearted attempts to find morels. He takes pity and offers a few tips. Look near water, in a deciduous forest with downed trees. Morels thrive on decay. And slow down! Don’t just walk slow, Cozzens stresses, “shuffle” through the forest. And once you find one, slow down even more. But most importantly, he urges diplomatically, “I think it’s more about your attitude.”
INDEED, I NEVER really thought I would find a morel. But this summer, I vow to go into the forest believing I will find some. And even if I don’t, beginning in mid-May, I will prowl Jackson Hole’s finest restaurants for morel-infused offerings, and when I find them, I will savor the moment.
For his part, Chef Drew revels in the restraint that nature imposes on humans in this sped-up Digital Age. “In this day of FedEx and everything available year-round and at your fingertips, it’s nice to crave something,” he says. And with morels, once they’re gone, Drew says, “We just crave them the rest of the year.”
Morels on the Menu
MOREL HUNTERS ARE as mum about their hunting grounds as anglers are about favorite fishing holes and skiers about secret powder stashes. While they might be hard to find in the woods, in a good season you might spot morels on menus at local restaurants.
“My favorite way to prepare morels is to make a minted English pea and morel risotto,” says Eric Greenwood, executive chef at Il Villaggio Osteria in Teton Village. “It’s a special treat in my house during morel season. If I’m able to get my hands on enough this season, I will definitely be incorporating this as a special at Osteria.”
Here are a few other places that might have morels on the menu:
Snake River Grill – Chef Jeff Drew
What you might find: Morels sauteed whole in sherry and butter, paired with goat cheese on garlic-rubbed pizza crust; daily from 5:30 p.m.; 84 E. Broadway; 307/733-0557
Spur Restaurant & Bar, Teton Mountain Lodge – Chef Kevin Humphreys
What you might find: Veal-stuffed morels with pea puree and marsala sauce, paired with additional seasonal ingredients from asparagus to halibut; 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; 3385 Cody Ln.; Teton Village; 307/732-6932
Il Villaggio Osteria – Chef Eric Greenwood
What you might find: Minted English pea and morel risotto; 5:30 p.m.; 3335 W. Village Dr.; Teton Village; 307/739-4100
Rendezvous Bistro – Chef Joel Tate
What you might find: Fresh spring pea and morel mushroom pappardelle with caramelized onions and fried sage; 5:30 p.m.; 380 S. Broadway; 307/739-1100