It's become tradition for my son Nathan and I to head to Eastern Washington in the Mother's Day timeframe. This is about the time the Morel Mushrooms begin showing their lovely little heads, typically in areas that have been ravaged by forest fires the prior summer.
This year we started early in May in some minor burn areas north of Leavenworth. We've had good luck in the past in the general vicinity. But we found nary a mushroom, so we did what we should have done earlier and paid the local (Wenatchee) Ranger Station a call. (The rangers are always VERY helpful!)
They hadn't heard any reports of mushrooms in the area we were hunting, either, but they did suggest we try a large burn area that had been designated a commercial hunting zone, north of the town of Cle Elum, and gave us a lovely map. After ensuring we had the appropriate permit (which in the case of hobby hunters in the Wenatchee National Forest is only an "incidental use mushroom information sheet" which has to be kept on your person while hunting). Since this burn area was actually a half hour closer to our home in the Puget Sound, we were happy to give it a shot.
We started by following Jungle Creek west upstream of where it empties into the North Fork of the Teanaway River. The burn area looked promising, but after a few hours of thorough searching we had found no true morels.
We did, however, find a Snowbank Morel (left), a false Morel which is toxic if not prepared properly. (Some say if you cook the hydrazine out of it thoroughly enough, they taste just like true morels and have no ill effect. I've never felt in the mood to chance it.)
What we do know about Snowbank Morels, however, is that they are frequently harbingers of true Morels (shown at right), arriving just slightly earlier. So, and week and a half later, we were back.
Let's just say, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. I guess you could say, that's the morel of the story.
In a 4-hour foray on our return, with two of us hunting, we found 222 beautiful Fire Morels! We found them primarily on steep slopes that had been burned, beneath pine trees, popping up typically under a collection of both short and long pine needles, often with grass or other fresh vegetation nearby.
The morels we found upon our return (222 of them in total, in four hours of hunting) were nearly always near the base of burned pine trees, and often in groups. (I found one group of 18 morels, all within 5 feet of one another. See the bottom of this post for a shot of that fun spot.)
These Fire Morels were more typically found in shade than in full sun, and more often in damp soil (but not too muddy).
We had three wonderful meals featuring morel mushrooms with tri-tip or sirloin steak, sauteed with snow peas and asparagus! This is a personal favorite.
The morels are just fine dry sauteed with some butter, but if you are so inclined you can grind in a little salt and pepper to taste, and finish with a dash of sweet red wine, like a port, sherry, or marsala. (At the point where all the natural liquid has sizzled out of the morel during the sauteing process, they will begin to suck up any juices around them and adopt the character of the wine, which is a really wonderful combination, the natural morel flavor and the red wine.)
As you can see from the photo at right, two of our meals were actually breakfasts. I discovered that morels are amazing in an omelette with sirloin or tri-tip steak (rare and sliced thin) and your favorite cheese. Dry saute them first in the pan and add something like Worchestershire Sauce for a bit of flavor.
After the meals we prepared, we still had some (mostly smaller) morels left, and they don't stay fresh very long, so into the dehydrator they went. Morels dehydrate very well and their flavor on rehydration, later, is still exceptional. Several cups of morels yielded a half quart-baggie of dehydrated product.
A few days later, having run out of morels, I returned to the spot, on my own, to explore more territory. A brief exploration of the first site we had hunted at yielded very little, but I was there in failing light and without much time to hunt. The next morning I tried a new spot, further into the mountains, with better light, and had more luck.
I have a feeling that even further in (at least 3 miles up the trail, which is where many of the hunters we passed were heading) would have worked much better.
I'd love to get out at least one more time before the season ends, but it is quite a drive for me (at least two and a half hours each way) and I'm not sure how long they will last. But the allure of the Fire Morel is a powerful one, and even though it is difficult to find and spot (blending in as it does with its surroundings), the rewards in the finding are great!
Our forays yielded some very impressive clusters of morels, including this grouping of 18 found in the shade under a stand of burned-out pines!
So, did you do any Fire Morel hunting this year? If so, drop us a line or comment below and let us know how you did!