By Clay Riness  

 In all its delicious splendor, the morel mushroom arguably owns the epic title of Wisconsin’s most popular and coveted wild edible. During the short-lived spring morel season, thousands of eager mushroom hunters deploy to the countryside in hopes of gathering copious quantities of these delectable little fruits of fungi gold. Indeed, all who trek into morel territory pray for the motherlode. 

Morels, of the genus Morchella, can be hard to spot; experience helps enthusiasts develop an eye for finding them. Here, our most common morels are the yellow and the gray. Like many fungi, morels have a symbiotic relationship with certain trees. Thus, learning to identify trees is a plus. Dying or dead elms, sycamore, hickory and ash are all good choices. Cottonwoods, aspen and poplar can also yield results. Morels also like fruit trees, so apple orchards can be promising. (However, beware of old orchards that were treated with lead arsenate insecticide, as the mushrooms may accumulate levels of toxic lead and arsenic.) The black morel, less common here, favors fir and pine.

In our region, hunters begin to search as early as May 1, but the real window of opportunity, according to many morel-hunting veterans, is between May 10 and 20. Of course, some mushrooms can be had on both sides of that window. And then, there’s the old adage: “Oak leaves the size of a mouse’s ear? Time to check if morels are here!” 

In fact, soil temperatures need to be in the 50s for morels to begin fruiting. A week of 50-degree nights with a little rain, and the magic begins. Well-drained areas with generous rainfall are optimal, but morels also favor southward and westward slopes, especially in the early season, because they will have the warmest early-season soil. Although hunters certainly find them in grassy places, the higher humidity of a forest aids in better growth.

Some hunters gather their harvest in mesh bags so the spores can scatter as they tramp through the woods. Whether or not this helps with “reseeding” the fungi is debatable, but plausible.

And finally, a few points of concern. Morchella species contain small amounts of hydrazine toxins that are destroyed through cooking. Therefore, morels should never be eaten raw. Even cooked morels can sometimes cause upset stomach when consumed with alcohol, so be cautious. Also, morel season also means tick season. Given the plague and pestilence of our much-loathed deer tick infestation, be sure you treat yourself accordingly, and check yourself and your clothing for ticks once you get home. Hunting morels should hold the promise of culinary nirvana, not the onset of Lyme’s disease.

Muscoda Morel Mushroom Festival 

The village of Muscoda, located mostly in Grant County, bills itself as “Wisconsin’s Morel Mushroom Capital.” It’s located in the heart of the lower Wisconsin State Riverway. Each year, the town is home to its annual Morel Mushroom Festival. The 36th annual festival will take place May 19 and 20, 2018.

This family-friendly festival has much to offer. This year’s festivities include an arts and crafts fair, a flea market, bounce houses, Bartels’ Chainsaw Carving Show, Lower Wisconsin Riverway Walking Tours, Effigy Mound tours, winery tours, the Muscoda Volunteer Fire Department Annual Steak Feed, a tractor pull and local food vendors. 

“Mushroom Headquarters” is where over a thousand pounds of morels are bought and sold. Folks can sample fried morel mushrooms (while they last) and enjoy a signature morel mushroom brat. Fireworks are featured Saturday evening and the weekend events wrap up with a parade at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Highlights of this year’s festival feature guest speakers, including Inga Witscher of PBS’ “Around the Farm Table,” and an indoor art show. The Tasting Room features local food producers. It is shared with a microbrew tasting in Mushroom Headquarters. 

But the real star of the show … is the beloved morel mushroom.

For more information, visit www.muscoda.com/festivals.

Culinary Gold

While most folks love to simply pan fry morels in butter as a side dish with a good steak or an egg breakfast, there is ample opportunity for some fancier fare with the “king of spring.” 

Crab-Stuffed Morels

  • 12 medium-to-large morels, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 1 cup crabmeat
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 2 tbsp. dry breadcrumbs
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine crabmeat, mayonnaise, beaten egg, garlic, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper to create the filling. Mix well.

Melt the butter and spread it on the bottom of a baking dish. Stuff each morel with the filling and place in baking dish, filling side up. Bake at 375 degrees until the mushrooms are golden brown, around 10 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Asparagus, Morel and Brie Bisque

  • 1 lb. morels, sautéed in butter then roughly chopped
  • 1 bunch fresh asparagus
  • ½ cup butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup whipping cream or half-and-half
  • ¼ cup white wine (Marsala) 
  • 6 oz. room temperature Brie cheese, cubed small
  • Scallion greens
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Prepare morels, set aside. 

Preheat soup pot and melt butter. Cut asparagus into 2-inch pieces and sauté until tender. Remove 1/4 cup of the spear heads and set aside for garnish later. Remove the remaining asparagus and set aside. 

Add flour to pot and make a light roux with leftover butter, stirring constantly until golden brown. Gradually add broth, cream and wine. Add cooked asparagus. Season to taste. Bring to gentle boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Puree with a stick blender (or food processor and then return to pan). Add morels to mixture.

Place four to six Brie cubes in each serving bowl. Pour hot bisque over cubes, garnish with a few asparagus spears and a sprinkle of finely chopped scallion greens. Serve immediately.