You probably don’t associate the much-derided state of Iowa with rarefied culinary delights. This is because most people don’t know about the Midwest’s highly developed and slightly voodoo-like mushroom hunting culture. It all starts in the spring, when the temperature begins to climb and the landscape explodes into verdant green, complete with the twin annoyances of pollen and oodles of bitey wolf spiders.
This is the time of year when morel mushrooms begin to sprout in the Midwest, and it’s also a time when the region’s more crunchy residents begin to get a hungry, fungi-inspired glimmer in their eye. Now is the time when you don Carhartt shirts (in many colors, all of them plaid), work pants, and a hat, and make your way into the woods – surprisingly thick in this part of Southern Iowa, where I’m staying at the moment – in hunt of fungi. Since mushrooms have a delightful habit of staying put, this is much cheaper and less likely to result in a gunshot wound than hunting for birds or deer. If you’ve never foraged for your own food before, it’s a peculiar kind of rush – I’d liken it to leafing through a “Where’s Waldo” book, except you’re tromping through the woods, and you find food instead of a cartoon man in a ridiculous striped outfit. There are many edible mushrooms in Iowa, but the morel is the crown jewel of the hunt for a lot of people. This is for a couple reasons.
For one, the morel is a picky bastard and exceptionally hard to grow in captivity. You either find them in the woods, or you buy them for something like $119 a pound at your local Whole Foods. Finding them in the woods yourself is a more pleasant experience by far. Further, morels are extremely easy to identify and distinctive in apperance, which greatly decreases the risk of accidentally picking a mushroom that will horribly kill you.
The morels you find in Iowa are yellow in color, rather large, of a spongy texture, and have a ridged, rather slender top. Morel hunters tend to jealously guard their secrets of the hunt, but there’s a few good places to look. They like the roots of elm trees. They like sun, but not too much, and moisture, but not too much.
They like to sprout by creek beds, and favor rich leaf-litter. Finding them requires you to adjust your eyes, something like those Magic Eye puzzles many of us gazed into in elementary school. It’s a good idea to squat down and survey the leafy undergrowth contemplatively. Mushroom hunting involves a lot of squatting down and surveying the landscape contemplatively.
So what do you do with them when you find them? There are many possibilities, although I’m only willing to entertain a couple, at the advice of the Midwestern mighty mushroom hunters I’ve met. If you’ve got plenty – and you probably won’t – you should saute them in plenty of butter. A very light dredging in seasoned flour doesn’t hurt. Eat them with some toast points sauteed in more butter. It’s delicious, and there’s the added pyschological satisfication of eating something you found in your woods, just like your mighty wooly-mammoth hunting ancestors.
You can also make morel salt out of them, which is a damn fine spice, and rather expensive if you’re unable to DYI. Thankfully, I can. My friend Dayton says that the trick is drying them under a fan. Lay the mushrooms out on a piece of newspaper, preferably over a grid of some time. Let them dry under the fan overnight. Don’t toss the newspaper – it’s rumored that if you bury the newspaper in a likely spot, you might have morels in your backyard (or the park, or wherever) in few years.
Once you’ve got your dried morels, grind them up - a spice grinder works or a mortar-and-pestle. Then, mix them up with some high quality sea salt. Keep it in a bag and sprinkle them on standard button, portobello, or any kind of store-bought mushrooms with a delightful hit of umami. More on the Great Midwestern Morel hunt later. It’s a rather interesting phenom, and not what you think of when you think Iowa.
For example, not everyone in Iowa lives in the middle of a field of undulating, slightly creepy corn.
I was shocked too.