Treasures that Spring from Scorched Earth
Story and Photos by Anthony Tassinnello
The gunshots rarely alarm me anymore, nor do the falling timber, speeding 4-wheelers, brown bears, giant masticating machines, icy creeks, relentless sun, or rattlesnakes, though I tend to take them all seriously. Ironically, I’ll need to stay close to these things to bring home Friday night dinner. However, it’s the altitude that always does me in: Lack of oxygen does funny things to the mind and the ability to reason. And finding morel mushrooms requires the ability to reason.
When the high Sierra snowpack begins to melt, it kicks into gear a complex course of nature that many gastronomes relish. West of the Continental Divide we have our foodie treasure equivalent to ramps, the elusive eastern wild leeks of spring. Here we have the black morel. These delicacies are commonly hunted in the California springtime by voracious pleasure-seekers and obsessed, eternally optimistic driving enthusiasts alike. The longer days of sunshine, milder temperatures and unmistakable hand of man can all add up to a workout at 6500 feet. The difference between filling your basket with smoky, piney, fresh “merkles” or just an empty-handed zigzagging drive through the high country can be a matter of timing, luck, and perseverance.
Through the dry months of summer and early fall, nature runs its course and cleanses Western forests with natural wildfires caused by lightning strikes. With a little luck, a thick blanket of snow and the inevitable spring thaw produces an annual morel crop that finds its way to Bay Area diner tables.
The science behind the process is not completely understood, but one thing is a fact: morels love burnt pine forests, and therefore I love to find burnt pine forests. In years that see few forest fires, the wild crop is helped along by a most curious combination of nature and man: logging. Yes, that dreaded seven-letter word that makes self-respecting eco-warriors tremble in their Birkenstocks. Without getting too political, I will say that there is evidence that selective cutting of certain trees can help forests both in the short and long term. A by-product of that stimulation can sometimes result in dinner. Morels love disturbed ground; it seems to level the playing field in a biological sense, and when loggers do what they do, you wind up with a canvas primed for a black morel explosion.
So off I go into the wild green yonder, up and up in elevation to seek out patches of churned and burned earth. What could be more fun than passing by glorious vistas and serene alpine lakes in search of bulldozers and logging trucks? Okay, so it doesn’t sound so enchanting, but along the way I do measure the progress of nature to see if I have a shot at finding something delicious. There are natural signs all around me that years of hunting have trained me to detect. Are the dogwood trees in bloom yet? Have the neon-red ice plants begun to push aside their pine needle blankets? Occasionally, when I am met with repeated dead ends, I’ll seek some advice from the Forest Service. Always an adventure in its own right, a little interaction with these sultans of the Sierra can lead to confusion, wild-goose chases or surgical precision as to where morels might be found. I’ve taken to calling one excellent woman in particular “Miss Information” for her determined willingness to help. All I can say is the double entendre is not lost on her and I take what I get with a grain of fleur-de-sel every time.
More often than not, I’ll stumble upon the right terrain and begin my search in earnest. Among the noisy, aggressive calls of the black and blue Steller’s jay, the choking perfume of mountain misery (aka tarweed) and the high whine of chainsaw to tree trunk I scan the ground and try to discern morels from pinecones. Nature is funny like that; the shape and size of black morels easily mimics the shape and size of fallen pinecones.
There are times I am relatively certain that morels don’t want to be found, and the challenge of discovering dinner takes on an added degree of difficulty. Frustration creeps in, I begin to doubt every step I take; I can’t do those inane Magic Eye posters, so what makes me think I can find a pinecone-shaped mushroom in a sea of pinecones? The altitude drains the oxygen from my lungs; the sun is more intense a mile above sea level and the mosquitoes obviously enjoy dining on an Italian-American chef.
Wait, what was that? I start hearing an occasional twig snap and rehearse just what I’d do if I encountered a hungry bear or coiled rattlesnake. I could be dipping my overheated feet into a melted glacier or dropping a fishing line into a raging creek—even feeding dollars into a not-so-distant slot machine . . . Just as I mimic the sound of cascading coins out loud, I look up a dozer trail and behold a most appetizing sight. Black morels! Not just one or two but now dozens come into focus, sprouting this way and that as far as my ‘magic eyes’ can see. I crouch and cut my way up the bulldozer’s path, filling my creel basket with what is arguably spring incarnate. Suddenly, there is a bounce in my step, the feet don’t feel so bad and who is afraid of a little hard work and sweat? A large logging truck labors past where I parked my 4-wheel-drive truck and covers me in a billowing cloud of pollen and dust. I give the driver a salute as he passes and he shoots back a puzzled, fleeting look, oblivious to my Friday night dinner plans.
Morels should always be cooked, whether fresh or dried, and they pair particularly nicely with butter or heavy cream, which translates their inherent forest-fresh flavor. Cleaning morels is imperative; slicing them crosswise into rings or vertically into quarters and then submerging them into a bowl of cold water to remove grit is effective. Repeat the rinsing process until no dirt or bugs appear. Dry on a kitchen towel and sauté over medium heat partially covered, adding fresh herbs like thyme or chives, with a splash of cream or sweet butter to finish. Preparations and combinations are endless. •
Anthony Tassinello is currently a private chef in the Bay area and has cooked intermittently at Chez Panisse since 1996. He has contributed to several cookbooks including Chez Panisse Fruits, Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, Campfire Cuisine, and most recently was featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. He and his wife, Angela, operate High Mountain Products Inc. a small business dedicated to local, seasonal wild mushrooms.
Black Morel Quesadillas
One of my all-time favorites was prepared by my friend Jonno for me when I was completely wiped out from a day of hunting. The simplicity is the appeal here. Serves two tired, hungry foragers.
— Anthony Tassinnello
- 4 soft flour tortillas
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ pound fresh morel mushrooms, sliced, cleaned and dried of excess moisture
- Fresh thyme, chopped (optional)
- 8 ounces scamorza or cacciocavallo or any aged smoky soft cheese, grated
- Kosher salt
Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add the prepared morels to the hot pan and sprinkle with a large pinch of salt, partially cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. The mushrooms will give off a small amount of liquid, and as it begins to evaporate add 1 tablespoon of the butter and stir to combine. Continue cooking until the mushrooms have decreased in volume and the butter-mushroom liquor is combined and clings to the ingredients (about 3 or 4 more minutes). They should be neither soupy nor dry; check for seasoning. Remove to a plate and keep warm.
Wipe out the pan, return it to the heat and melt the remaining tablespoon of butter. Add a tortilla to the pan and spread a quarter of the grated cheese over half, top the cheese with some of the sautéed mushrooms and fold over the undressed portion of the tortilla creating a half-moon shape. Gently press the tortilla with the back of a spatula, flip the quesadilla over at least once and cook until the cheese melts, the tortilla slightly browns and the butter becomes nutty. Remove to a paper towel–lined tray, sprinkle with more kosher salt, and keep in a warm spot while you prepare the rest. Or if you can’t resist, just eat them as fast as you can make them.