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Zen-like hunt for the elusive morel takes to the woods

Thursday, April 25, 2002

By Virginia Phillips

We've driven an hour east of the city, past Blairsville, Indiana County, for a mushroom foray.

The object is morels, the spongy coneheads with the slightly goofy military bearing. Mushroom maven Amy Farges says they look like a brainy ace of spades.

Ann Jacobson, right, of Vinco, Cambria County, was delighted with her "find" of a yellow morel during Saturday's mushroom hunt at Pine Ridge County Park in Blairsville. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

They are all silk and woodsy flavor, yet are so elusive they can almost match mystique with truffles.

For desirability they rank among the Big Mushrooms on Campus, along with their cousins the truffles, chanterelles and boletes.

We know that the black morels, first to appear, usually mid-April, are up. Our informant is master forager John Plischke, Greensburg, a founding member of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club. Plischke has been spotting the earthy treasures from age 4, from astride his grandfather's shoulders.

Sixty morel-seekers now squeeze in a darkened room at the Pine Ridge Lodge. We are a motley group, but united in our quest.

All eyes are on the Plischke Show. This is the back and forth between John Plischke, 52, and his son John Plischke, 32. They take turns talking as John the Younger's pin-up-quality closeups of morels suffuse the room with wonder if not lust.

An image of a basket overflowing with them fills the screen.

"Where did you get those, John?" booms out a back-bencher.

Somebody answers for him: "In the woods."

The Johns grin.

Yellow morels follow black ones on the screen and in nature's timetable. "But this season is compressed," Plischke Sr. says. "The yellows and the half-frees-morels with a detached 'skirt' or conical hat -- are already up." The giant morels that can grow a foot tall come later.

  Three events loom for the mushroom lover:

Morel foray: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at Mingo Creek Park, Washington County. Call 724-228-6867 to make reservations and get directions. Meet at Shelter 4. $3 fee.

Dinner: Mushrooms to the Max, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bruschetta's, 19th and Carson streets, South Side, sponsored by Slow Food Pittsburgh. Call 412-343-7354 or e-mail neemes@aol.com to reserve. Slide introduction to edible mushrooms, hors d'oeuvres, five courses, wine, tax and gratuity, $65 nonmembers.

"Mushroom Mania": The Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club's largest foray is set for Sept. 14., and features Gary Lincoff, editor of the "National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms." Lincoff grew up in Squirrel Hill; and now lives in New York City.

Dozens of varieties of mushrooms, edible and not, will be found and displayed. The day ends with a mushroom pig-out. For information visit the Web site www.wpmc4.homestead
, e-mail the club at wpamushroomclub
, or call 412-486-7504.

Members of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, among the largest and most active clubs nationwide, attend regional forays and meet at the Beechwood Farms Nature Center for educational programs. You need not be a member to participate.
-- Virginia Phillips


John Jr. tells of once finding 60 yellows by reaching under wild roses surrounding an apple tree not far from his Greensburg home. And of finding 165 blacks under a dying elm.

"Where WAS that?" erupts from the audience.

"In Dark Hollow," deadpans John senior.

"Good luck," another voice contributes. "I've been in Dark Hollow."

We study the poisonous lookalikes and note the difference: The false morels are not hollow inside like true morels, but filled with a cottony substance.

Despite their seeming secrecy, the Plishkes are in fact legendary for their generosity, leading hundreds to their favorite hunting grounds, sharing two generations of expertise and convincing people that being careless about identification can kill them.

Repeating the mantra, "Under tulip poplars, old or dying elms or overgrown apple orchards," we divide to conquer.

John the Elder takes a car caravan away.

John the Younger leads our group on foot. "You can tell the tulip poplar; it has the very tall, very straight trunk and it has tiny leaves this time of year. The tulip poplar is where I find most of my morels."

We are surrounded by tulip poplars. The weather is damp and drippy, perfect for sprouting mushrooms.

Five minutes out there's a cry.

Ann Jacobson, a silver-haired mushroom lover from Vinco, near Johnstown, Cambria County, brandishes a black morel.

Where was it? "Behind a tree," she says, not kidding.

Moments later, another stir.

Jenna Kutz, 29, finds a yellow. "It was right there," Kutz says, "I almost stepped on it."

Kutz, a Web site developer, is here with her mother, Lois Malmgren, and her father, Tom, who is toting Kutz's son Jamison, 14 months.

"Where there's one morel, there are more," John counsels.

We bend down, noses in the mulch, searching, straining to X-ray nature's camouflage.

An hour later we are morel-less. Valerie Baker, another co-founder of the Mushroom Club, tells of a woman who came to a foray and told the group she had all kinds of morels under her tulip poplar in the yard. She didn't know what they were so she just ran them over with her lawnmower.

Valerie's husband, Jack, finds an infant morel, not as big as the eraser on a pencil. It will reach its adult height in two days and have a life span of two weeks.

A morel mushroom. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

My thoughts drift to last April's foray and the joy of crouching in the damp, almost parallel to the ground, spying that improbable shape, then another and another, cutting each stalk cleanly above ground with my knife and feeling the cool mushroom plop softly into my hand.

Today it's not to be. "Mushrooms are hit and miss," John Sr. comforts.

It was zip for the other hunters.

My husband, Jack, and I will try again at the morel foray Saturday in Mingo Creek Park, Washington County.

Ten minutes from Pine Ridge on Route 119 toward Pittsburgh, we pull into Clem's CafZe, a barbecue shack that was pumping memorable fumes on our way east. We share a rack washed down with Boylan's Root Beer. The sweet pork fills a Dark Hollow.

Join the addicted

If we don't find, we can buy. Morels are a splurge, comparable to buying a special bottle of Champagne. For those with morels on the mind and no time to hang around the woods, it's sometimes worth it.

Fresh morels mail-ordered are about $45 to $50 a pound shipped by air. Whew. You can get them for $18 to $25 closer to home by arranging with a local specialty market to order them. You will probably have to buy from 1 to 3 pounds. Morel prices drop as the season goes on and supply increases.

Figure a quarter-pound per person. Make sure the mushrooms have been collected in the wild. Wild mushrooms have more intense flavor than cultivated ones.

Another option is to buy dried. Morels' flavor concentrates powerfully when dried and they reconstitute better than almost any mushroom. The flavor is rich and woodsy and the texture close to that of fresh. They can be mail-ordered for about $12 an ounce, for 4 ounces. They are available in local specialty stores in 1/3 ounce- and 1-ounce packets at about $13 an ounce. Even 1/3 ounce will flavor a risotto. Dried morels keep indefinitely, frozen.

Sources for fresh or dried morels:

Marche aux Delices, 888-547-5471, www.auxdelices.com, staff@auxdelices.com

Earthy Delights, 800-367-4709, e-mail, ed@earthy.com

Earthy's president Ed Baker, who grew up in Penn Hills, maintains, "Dried morels reconstitute to at 6 to 8 times their dry weight, so 4 ounces becomes the equivalent of 1 1/2 pounds or more." Baker, a Michigan State University grad, is a mail-order supplier of mushrooms and wild foods in DeWitt, Mich. Amy Farges of Marche aux Delices sticks to a more conservative 4:1.

Reconstituting is simple: Place them in a small deep bowl. Add hot water to cover. Soak until the mushrooms have softened, usually about 20 minutes. Cut them in half lengthwise and give them a quick rinse. Keep the soaking liquid, straining it through cheesecloth, a paper towel or a coffee filter. This mushroom tea, "Morel Gold," imparts haunting flavor to risotto, pilaf, soup or sauce.

Cooking with Amy

Amy McAllister Farges, born in Pleasant Hills, is a food writer and author of "The Mushroom Lover's Mushroom Cookbook and Primer." The author received her mushroom immersion in France with her Dordogne-born husband, Thierry, and his mushroom-loving family. They own Marche aux Delices, the wild mushroom business in Manhattan.

Practical as can be, she remembers her first mushroom fumbles -- gritty morels, for instance. She knows wild foods are costly in time and/or money. She won't let you make a misstep, any more than she'll let things get too serious.

Well designed and illustrated, her book provides:

Un-fussy pairings of mushrooms with foods that set them off best.

Substitutions when you can't get the mushroom suggested.

Clear instructions on storing, cleaning, drying and reconstituting.

Comments on the blurring lines between cultivated and wild mushrooms.

Most fun are this gifted storyteller's tales of meeting Thierry's family, shenanigans at the truffle market, the making of a French salad, and the French child who cried when offered a pizza for lunch and had bouillabaisse with the adults. Published by Workman, it is $16.95 in paperback.

For Farges, baptismal rites for the morel novice must involve cream and apple brandy.

You can even skip the Calvados. In fact, Farges made the abstemious version of Morels With Calvados for Claire, her 3-year-old, for the little girl's baptism party last week. It was Claire's request. That's half-French toddlers for you.

If you want a foolproof showcase for dried morels, Farges adds, try a risotto. Use the strained soaking juice as part of the cooking liquid, saute the rinsed morels in butter for a few minutes and add them toward the end.

Morels With Calvados

For the first morels of a lifetime -- or the first of the season -- pair them with apple brandy and cream. "Try to ignore the cholesterol factor," Amy Farges says, "for the cream adds a vital, velvety note. You can also serve this as a side dish for chops or a steak, or turn it into a hearty meal tumbled over fresh fettuccine."

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound morels, trimmed, cleaned (see note) and sliced in half lengthwise
Fresh lemon juice
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup Calvados
1/2 cup heavy (or whipping) cream
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
6 slices buttered, toasted French bread for serving

Melt the butter in a large, heavy saute pan over medium heat. Add the morels and cook, stirring, until the morels give up their liquid, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle with lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. When just a few drops of liquid remain, remove the pan from the heat. Immediately pour in the Calvados and let it bubble until mostly evaporated. Then add the cream and return to the stove. Boil over medium-high heat until the sauce is of coating consistency, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tarragon and spoon onto individual plates, each garnished with a slice of buttered and toasted French bread.

Note: How to clean and store -- Brush off visible dirt in the field before laying them in your collecting basket. At home, lay morels, unwashed, in a shallow basket. Top with paper towels slightly moistened, and refrigerate, giving the paper towel a light sprinkle periodically, for up to a week. Never wrap in plastic. The trapped moisture speeds spoilage. Just before cooking, cut morels lengthwise, give a quick rinse and blot dry.

Virginia Phillips is a free-lance writer and translator based in Mt. Lebanon.

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