Monday, May 23, 2011

Morel Compass

Ah, spring. Lilacs and apple blossoms perfuming the air. Green things growing over all of the brown and gray background that had been exposed for the last several months. And, if you know where to find them in this part of the world, morel mushrooms.

It seems, unfortunately, that I lost all my woods-woman skills (I did have some) when I went off to college. Luckily for me, more talented folks forage for morels and bring them into town where I can find them without a GPS device. It seems that one would need inside information to even know in which direction to proceed, and, since I’m a transplant to this area, I ain’t got it. Even the local co-op, which always indicates the place of origin of their produce items, simply printed “from around here” on the sign for the morel mushrooms.

I might not be able to find my way through the woods to a stash of wild mushrooms, but I know my way around the kitchen and my recipe stash pretty well. The problem was that I had actually collected very few (like, two) recipes for dishes containing morels over the years, apparently not being optimistic enough to think I’d ever get my hands on enough of them to cook with. (Also, they are quite expensive, and I’ve only recently felt I could justify their cost.) Other than making this tart again this year, which might still happen, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the morels I brought home.

I could always toss them with pasta, which is often a good way to make a main dish out of a featured, flavorful ingredient. But with what flavors? Alfredo sauce? Hmmm. Close, and maybe do-able, but not quite right. I rolled the nutty, woodsy, buttery taste of the morel around my mind’s palate a little more and it finally came to me: brown butter. It’s nutty and buttery and wouldn’t take over the flavor of the dish. Great. Now, how do I make brown butter?

Well, rather than taking the time to find some good instructions for making proper brown butter, I simply went from my memories of all those instructions that I’d read before. Just because I hadn’t actually applied that knowledge yet didn’t necessarily mean it had gone stale. I hoped. Anyway, there may be a better way to make brown butter than what I did, but what I did was simple and delicious. I simply melted unsalted butter and let it cook until it turned brown, but stopped cooking before it turned black. I poured off the melted butter, leaving behind the sort of blackened solids, and skimmed off the foam that was floating at the top. Viola! Brown butter. I think.

This stuff was all I hoped it would be with the morels and pasta. I sautéed the mushrooms and some garlic in some of the brown butter, added a splash of white wine and some fresh thyme and tossed it all with some more brown butter. This is quite a buttery dish, so if you’re counting calories, you might want to make some adjustments. For me, the rich and nutty flavor is worth the extra naughty fat calories every once in a while, say, just when fresh morels are in season “around here.”

Pasta with Morels and Brown Butter

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 ounces linguine
½ pound morel mushrooms, cleaned very well, trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 medium-size cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon (loosely packed) fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup dry white wine (I used an inexpensive chardonnay)
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan with a light-colored bottom (so you can tell when it has turned brown). Continue to cook a few minutes more until the butter turns golden brown. Remove the foam from the top of the butter. Pour the butter into another container, leaving as much of the blackened solids behind as possible. Set aside.

2. Cook the linguine in boiling salted water until tender or to taste. Drain and set aside.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the browned butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds. Move on to the next step if the garlic begins to brown before that time.

4. Add the morel mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently for about 3 minutes or until the mushrooms appear limp and have given off some of their liquid.

5. Add the thyme and wine and cook about 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the liquid has reduced to about half. Add the cooked linguine, salt, pepper and remaining browned butter. Toss to coat the pasta and heat through.

Makes 2 large main-dish or about 4 side-dish servings.

One year ago: Morel Mushroom Galette with Cream Cheese Pastry

Two years ago: Baguette

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