Illinois morel season promising
While rain has caused flooding and headaches for many Illinois residents this winter and spring, there may be a silver lining to all those dark clouds.
James Veselenak, a mycologist with the University of Illinois at Springfield says all the precipitation this winter bodes well for a good mushroom crop.
“It’s shaping up to be a good year,” he said. “The critical factor is soil moisture generally, and we’re not going to have any problem with that.”
Soil temperature is the other main factor in morel success.
And that success also depends on properly identifying morels in the field. Some mushroom hunters still are fooled by the false morel, a mushroom that can make a person sick.
“The false morel is probably the most common look alike that comes out at the same time as morels do,” Veselenak said. They appear by the end of March or early April, as do the morels.
“It is not recommended that you one eat them,” he said. “About 10 percent of the people react pretty violently to them.” False morels contain a chemical used in rocket propellant that can make some people sick.
“I’ve been with people all eating the same thing, and some get sick (and start vomiting) and some don’t,” he says. “It’s not recommended that people take the chance.”
The best way to tell the difference is to understand that a false morel has a wrinkled cap. The true morel has pits. Veselenak says another way to identify false morels is to cut them lengthwise. The false morel has a skirt hanging down around the stem while a true morel does not have a skirt.
“That ruffled skirt is a giveaway,” he said. “To the novice, it’s easy to make the mistake. A good book will easily instruct you or just have someone show it to you.”
Once a mushroom hunter learns the difference, it’s easy to tell the two apart. Mushroom hunters should follow the old rule of carrying the day’s bounty in a mesh bag so the spores can be spread.
“While you are carrying morels around, they will disperse their spores,” he says. “You are actually facilitating the dissemination of the organism throughout the woods.”
The spores usually are carried on air currents but will gladly take a lift from willing mushroom hunters. Veselenak says plastic should never be used as a collection bag or for storage in the refrigerator. Plastic can absorb heat, causing the mushrooms to decay faster. Use a paper bag in the refrigerator.
If mushroom hunters take care to properly harvest and care for their morels, good things should await in the kitchen back home.
One doesn’t have to be a gourmet cook to prepare a heavenly mess of morel mushrooms. Chef Michael Higgins of Maldaner’s Restaurant in Springfield makes a
fancy morel mushroom pie in the spring that calls for lots of morels and caramelized onions.
“They have a nice rich nutty earth flavor,” Higgins said. “And they lend themselves to cooking with a lot of things.”
But he says the spongy fungi don’t demand fancy treatment.
“In general, a lot of people like them fried in cracker or bread crumbs,” he says. “I don’t think there is any secret to that. You can’t go wrong with butter and morels.”
Higgins says morels naturally pair with other foods that become available at about the same time each year. Try pairing morels with fresh peas, walleye or fresh spinach.
“Morels and asparagus go well together,” he says. “They usually happen around the same time as morels.”
Higgins says his morel pie usually hits the menu around April 15 — sometimes a few days before or after.
“Sometimes it never happens,” he said. “They are not cultivated, but are a product of nature.”