Stuffed Morels with Shiitake Pate, More of a Good Thing
This year, during the lonely and worrisome Spring of the pandemic, I was invited by a friend to go morel mushroom hunting, and it felt like the perfect antidote to my work-from-home existence. I’ve cooked and eaten plenty of morels, but never successfully stalked the elusive fungi. The two of us masked up and drove to a wooded area, where she gave me tips on what to look for as we walked in the shady, peaceful scrub. We spent a day with our eyes trained on the ground, poking about with sticks, pulling aside leaves so we could get a look at what might be on the ground under a certain dead tree with some bark still on it, or near a Jack in the Pulpit.
I’ll spare you the suspense. She found one morel, I found zero. She’s since been back and spent a day to find 10. It’s not a big year for this particular patch. So, I bought some morels. All that time on the hunt had given me time to think about what I’d make with them, and now I wanted it.
Stuffed Morels- Umami Bombs
Of course, when most people find these rare gems, they want to stretch them a bit, and spread a few mushrooms across a whole dish. I wanted to give the option of an over-the top, pure mushroom experience, which you can either eat on its own as an appetizer, or balance a single stuffed morel on top of a tasty pasta, for more of a meal.
I’ve always been intrigued by the hollow shape of the morel, and decided that I wanted to make stuffed morels, if I did find any. I toyed with ideas for fillings, and settled on one that is so simple that it makes perfect sense. A saute of shiitakes, another intense mushroom in their own right, would make a dense, woodsy puree that I could stuff into that cavity. Then, each mushroom would explode with over-the-top mushroomy-ness when you took a bite.
Vegetarians would do well to learn how to harness the magic of mushrooms. The peculiar chemistry of the fungus makes it both deliciously meaty tasting, and in many cases, potently medicinal. The mushroom is blessed with a number of free amino acids, including the glutamic acid used to make MSG. Shiitake mushrooms also contain guanosine monophosphate, another meaty-tasting chemical. These chemicals work to give the mushroom “umami,” a flavor or sensation of meaty, satisfying fullness that is prized by the Japanese. Drying mushrooms concentrates this umami even more.
The mushrooms we eat are actually the fruiting bodies of much larger networks of microscopic fibers, called hyphae. Each specific mushroom grows this network next to the food it is capable of digesting, so a matsutake will only be found near a wild red pine, and a straw mushroom will only grow on rotting rice straw. Some other varieties are less picky, living on decomposing leaves or animal dung. The “mycorrhizal” symbionts, like truffles and chanterelles, live in happy balance with their host tree, synthesizing sugars from the environment and sharing them even as they borrow other nutrients. A few parasitic mushrooms eventually kill their host plants.
The “saphrophytic” mushrooms that eat decomposing matter have proven to be the easiest for humans to grow. Most of the mushrooms we buy are cultivated, using decaying matter as a growing medium. Yes, those black crumbs at the base of your button mushroom are manure, but it’s heat-sterilized manure, if that makes you feel better. Shiitake mushrooms thrive on decaying oak, and were cultivated by the Chinese as early as the 13th century. The happy confluence of harvesting rice and the predilection of the straw mushroom to grow on the leftover stalks made the straw mushroom as ubiquitous in rice growing countries as the button is here.
Symbiotic mushrooms are the hardest to tame, and are still stalked in the wild. Morels, chanterelles, porcinis, hedgehogs, and the famously expensive truffle are among this elusive group. That is why you only see them once a year in their fresh forms, if even then. Morels are the only wild mushroom that I feel confident about picking, because they are so visually distinctive. I wouldn’t risk trying to eat anything that I might have misidentified.
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Cleaning Morels, the Slightly Icky Part
Out in the woods, we are not the only beings who might like a taste of the wild morel. It’s not hard to deal with making sure that you have a clean mushroom. I learned a trick years ago that makes it easier. Put your morels in a heavy zip-top bag, zip the top almost all the way, and using your mouth or a straw inserted in the open bit, suck out all the air. Once you take a few tries, you’ll get it all out. Then, let the mushrooms stand at room temperature for 3-4 hours. If there are any tiny worms in the mushrooms, they will have moved out of the cavities, seeking air, and you can easily wash or brush them off. Peek inside to see if there is anything in there, and then, proceed.
Eating Stuffed Morels, the Best Part
The walk in the woods was great, but eating the mushrooms I might have found would have been better. These morels came to me from Oregon, and were as savory and woodsy as could be. I’m sure they would have tasted just a tiny bit better if I’d found them myself.
Next time, we’ll see!
Stuffed Morels on Garlic Chive Pesto Pasta
- 1/2 pound morels cleaned
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion chopped
- 4 cloves garlic sliced
- 4 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms stems removed, chopped
- 1/4 cup walnuts
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 8 ounces whole wheat spaghetti
- 1 cup garlic chives
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup grape tomatoes chopped
- Place a large saute pan over medium-high heat for a minute, and then drizzle the olive oil in the pan. Add the onions and saute, lowering the heat as they start to sizzle. When soft, add mushrooms and saute until they start to soften, then lower the heat, add the garlic and salt, and cook until the mushrooms are shrunken and soft, about 5 minutes. Puree in a food processor with the walnuts. Scrape into a zip top bag or piping bag. (to use a zip top bag, squeeze the pate into one corner, then snip off the corner, so you can squeeze the pate out through the hole.)
- Preheat the oven to 375. Trim the bottoms of the morels, and pipe the mushroom pate into each one. Place in a small casserole dish with a lid.4. Rub the morels with a bit of oil, and salt and pepper, then cover and bake at 400 for about 20 minutes.
- Put on a pot of salted water to boil. In a food processor, place the garlic chives and parsley, then process until smooth. Add salt and olive oil and process until pureed. Cook the pasta according to package directions, about 4 minutes. Drain and put back in the pot, then add the pesto a toss to coat.
- Serve pasta topped with a mushroom and chopped tomatoes.