Sunday, May 31, 2009

Morel Mushrooms - Now and Then

This is what I wrote for my food writing class. If anybody is reading this, please criticize. The assignment was to write a personal essay about food from ones childhood.
Another Mushroom Good to Eat

Every Moscow family must have a summer house in the country. The dusty, dirty city of eight millions becomes unbearable in the summer heat, and working parents send their kids to the country with a grandmother or a nanny, and come to visit every weekend, just to escape the crowds and the pollution.

Ours was 45 kilometers North-East from Moscow, in a village surrounded by wheat fields and dark, damp woods. Every year, starting in the late April, my family would take a Saturday morning train, get off at a small station, and walk five kilometers to the house for the spring clean-up and to plant the vegetable garden. When the summer came, grandma took me and my brother there for three long months. We would weed the vegetable beds, dig up new potatoes and pick up dill and parsley for dinner, build rafts and tree houses with neighbor kids, play dangerous war games in the sand quarry, hide in the hay barn to play cards and smoke a cigarette stolen by a friend from his older brother’s pack. But the true highlight of the season was wild mushroom hunting.

Mushroom hunting is a way to bring variety to the table, a meditative ritual, and a competitive sport. The mushroom knowledge was passed from the older generation. We recognized at least twenty kinds of mushrooms, both good and poisonous, by look, smell, and texture, had ways to cook each good type, and we knew very well to avoid any unfamiliar ones. Each family had its secret grounds for each kind of mushroom. The idea was to get out undetected early in the morning, then walk proudly back in the afternoon in the view of your neighbors, with your basket uncovered and full, your best finds carefully arranged on top.

The mushroom season started in mid-July with the first wave of honey mushrooms, and after that we knew that each rain would bring something else from the forest floor. There were sunny chanterelles in late July, charcoal burners in the end of July and through August; August and September were for the glorious boletus: brown boletus grew in the damp shady places around the marsh, orange boletus was hiding in the drying yellow leaves under birch trees, and the king of them all, the cepe, would sometimes show its velvety tanned top from the grass in the oak grove on the hill. Then the slippery jacks, and another wave of the honey mushrooms, to pickle by a barrel for the winter, ended the season.

I must have been eight or nine on that cool sunny morning in May. We were walking with my parents from the station by the edge of the forest. I wandered behind a clump of trees, a pile of dirty late-spring snow still on the shady side of it, the first flowers opening on the sunny side, and there I saw a thing that I recognized from a children’s book about nature that I was reading just a few days ago. It was not the mushroom season, not a right place, and I never saw a morel before, but I was sure that these weird shaped pine cones were the edible mushrooms from my book. I picked up as many as I could carry in my hat and brought them to my parents.

They hadn’t seen a morel before either. Or, if they saw it, they didn’t recognize what it was. Mom was terrified: This must be poisonous! Toss this stuff immediately, and don’t touch your face until we get home and wash you! I started to get ready to cry. Then Dad said: Wait, let’s bring them home and see this book. They don’t smell bad at all.

So the morels came home with us, and they looked exactly like the picture in my book, and Dad got on his bike and rode to the next village to borrow a serious mushroom book from a friend, and the friend was puzzled why Dad would want a mushroom book two month before the season starts, and the morels got identified, and we cooked them and ate them with mashed potatoes.

Every Sunday in May when I rush to the farmers market to see if they still have the tiny baskets of morels, way too expensive, but highly praised for their rich earthy flavor and unique texture,
I think about Dad, and about how love makes one trust a little girl with a book.

Morels with Mashed New Potatoes
Serve 4

To clean the morels, cut them in half lengthwise with a sharp knife, exposing the hollow centers, place in a bowl of cold water, and gently stir, allowing the sand that may have accumulated in the center hollow and the wrinkles of the mushrooms to sink to the bottom. Dry on paper towels.

1.5 lb new potatoes in their skins

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
8 oz morel mushrooms, cut in half
1 large shallot, minced
2 Tbsp dry Sherry wine
Salt, pepper

1 Tbsp butter (additional), at room temperature
2 Tbsp heavy cream
2 Tbsp mixed herbs (any combination of parsley, chives, tarragon), finely chopped

Place potatoes in a large pot, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat so that the water boils slowly, cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 20 minutes.

Heat the oil and 1 Tbsp butter in a large pan, add the morels, and cook over medium heat, shaking the pan a few times to turn the mushrooms, about 10 minutes, until soft. Add shallot and Sherry, stir, reduce the heat, and simmer another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Drain the potatoes and mash them coarsely with a fork, skins and all. Add remaining 1 Tbsp butter and the cream, season with salt and pepper, mix well.

Serve the morels over mashed potatoes, sprinkle the herbs on top.

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