'Tis the season for mushrooms - or at least the season for morels, the popular fungus with dozens of Web sites dedicated to its existence, and mycological groupies who wait all year for its momentous appearance. Morels, which are in season in locally for around four weeks beginning in May, can also be found in the wild as early as April and as late as mid-June. However, they're a valuable commodity both during and prior to their "official" season: Sosio's Fruit and Produce Stand in Pike Place Market had them a few weeks ago for almost $50 a pound! Now, they're about half the price, available at most farmers markets in town and ripe for the pickin', so to speak.
So what's so special about morels? First, of course, there's the rich and earthy flavor, combined with a meaty texture that sets them apart from many other edible mushrooms. Second, and perhaps most fetchingly, there's the hunt. Message boards throughout the country and, most relevantly, in Washington state explode this time of year with information regarding morel finds: from the best hunting locations (wooded areas with dead trees or burned-out forests are good) to weather enhancers (rain is good; freezing and warmer temperatures are not).
I'm fortunate to have a brother who enjoys foraging in his spare time. After a recent morel hunt with his girlfriend and our father, I was presented with half a pound of their bounty. That may not sound like much, but because of the warm, intense flavor of morels, a little can go a long way. Morels - whether found or purchased - are truly wild and must be well cleaned before eating. On the day you plan to eat the mushrooms, cut them in half lengthwise and soak them in saltwater for an hour to draw out the dirt and critters (yes, I said critters), then rinse in cold water and pat them dry. The recipe below is a great way to make a meal out of a small batch, but morels are almost unbeatable when simply sautéed with butter, shallots and a splash of vermouth.
STUFFED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH MOREL SAUCE Serves 4
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 clove minced garlic
4 oz goat cheese
1 tablespoon of finely chopped rosemary
About 1/2 cup of flour, placed in a bowl and seasoned with salt and fresh pepper
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped shallots
8 ounces morel mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3/4 cup white vermouth
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon butter
Preheat oven to 375° f.
Make a horizontal slit into the side of each chicken breast to form a pocket - being very careful not to puncture the top or bottom of breast.
Combine garlic, cheese and rosemary. Stuff each breast with cheese mixture and use toothpicks to seal pockets.
In a sauté pan large enough to fit all breasts, melt butter with oil over medium heat.
Meanwhile, dredge each breast in flour, coating evenly.
Place breasts into pan and cook until browned, 4-5 minutes each side.
Remove breasts, place into ovenproof pan and put in oven for 10 minutes.
Add another tablespoon of olive oil to pan if necessary and sauté shallots for about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and stir.
Add vermouth, stirring to scrape up brown bits from bottom of pan, until all but 1 tablespoon has cooked away.
Add broth, tomato paste and lemon juice, stirring to combine. Simmer 5 minutes.
Fold in parsley and last tablespoon butter until melted. Return chicken to pan, turning to coat.
Serve each breast with mushroom mixture.