Growing up on an 88-acre West Virginia farm, Sterling Smith, the chef-owner of The Sterling Inn in New Rochelle, N.Y., stumbled upon morel mushrooms in an old apple orchard. Little seven-year-old Sterling had no idea how special, illusive and expensive these sponge-like spores were, even as he fried them up, with green tomatoes and eggs.
“I didn’t learn until later that this was so sought-after,” says Smith, who serves them any number of ways at his eponymous restaurant.
Across the country, morel hunters have been heading for the woods since the dawn of spring in search of any of the 13 species of meaty mushrooms whose taste evokes earth and forest. Dedicated foragers gather for festivals where hunts are shrouded in secret and fresh booty is sold for upwards of $40 a pound. (Dried morels cost four times that.)
Morels appear and flourish over a four-week season, ranging from early March until late June, depending on latitude.
“It’s the best-tasting mushroom on the market—like oak,” says Carl Graves, a Grosse Ile, Michigan, forager. “You want to find morels—don’t look on the ground; look up in the trees.”
Deciduous trees, sun-facing, after the first warm, wet nights, to be exact. Your chances are even better if you look for dead or really old fruit trees.
Before he opened The Sterling Inn, Smith worked at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. There, “farmers would come out of the woods with a burlap sack over their shoulder. They’d drop down 25 pounds of morels, and we paid cash right there. I don’t have that connection here yet. I’m looking for an actual forager to go out and bring them to us.”
Haidar Karoum, the chef-owner of Proof, a wine-centric restaurant opening this month in Washington, D.C., says morels are “the best tasting mushroom.”
“All mushrooms go really well with wine but…morels…because of how earthy [and] meaty they are…work well with wine. They’re highly cherished,” says Karoum.
Morels prove to be very versatile when pairings them with a wine. Reds and whites can both work well. As always, let the other ingredients and the intensity of the dish be your guide. A good match for lighter morel dishes is a Hermitage Blanc, while Brunello di Montalcino works for more intense fare.
Pan Roasted Chicken Breast Featuring Foie Gras Stuffed Morels
Courtesy Sterling Smith, The Sterling Inn, New Rochelle, NY (www.thesterlinginnny.com). Morels can be found in gourmet stores, and dried morels can be substituted. Foie gras can be found in specialty markets or on the internet. The chicken salad is great with tomatoes, tarragon, celery etc
2 3 ½ lb. chickens (Bell & Evans)
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons shallots
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
6 ounces foie gras
3 ounces heavy cream
4 ounces Cognac
6 ounces fresh Morel mushrooms
3 ounces chicken stock
Remove the breast from the chickens. Lightly brush with olive oil, approximately 1 tablespoon, and cover with the fresh herbs. Set aside and let marinate for 1 hour.
Remove the legs and thighs of the chicken. This will be used for a chicken salad to accompany the dish. Season with salt and pepper, and bake in a 350º oven for 1 hour. Let cool. (Place rest of bones in freezer for chicken stock.)
Remove the meat from legs and thighs. Break apart the meat in to bite size pieces. In a mixing bowl add the leg and thigh meat with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, shallots and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place the foie gras in a food processor. Add heavy cream and half the Cognac. Season to taste with salt and pepper and purée until smooth (2-3 minutes).
Remove the stems from the Morels and spoon the foie gras mixture into the cavities in each Morel.
Place Morels in a sauté pan with chicken stock and cook for 8 minutes.
Season the marinated chicken breast with salt and pepper. Place in a hot skillet skin side down with remaining 2 ounces of olive oil. Let the skin turn a nice golden color. Once golden brown, place the chicken breast in a 350º oven for 15 minutes.
Pour the remaining Cognac in the pan that was used to cook the chicken. Deglaze and add a splash of cream. Cook until thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4.
To serve: Slice each chicken breast in two equal pieces. Place in lower half of a round plate. Place chicken salad above the breast in the center of the plate. Arrange the morels in a half circle around top of the plate. Pour Cognac sauce over the chicken breast.
Wine recomemndations: This dish is versatile, and will go well with a white or a red. Try it with a Jordan Chardonnay or a Bethel Heights Pinot Noir.