Morel mushrooms: Truffles for the middle class
I owe my morel education to our good friend Peter, who counts among his many talents an expertise in wild mushroom-hunting. His prey of choice is the coveted and elusive morel, which is prized by many due to its lovely flavor and stubborn refusal to be reliably cultivated. As it turns out, morel-hunting season is really short, and it’s happening right now in the Northeast. Avid mushroomers like Peter are out in droves, visiting their super-secret hunting spots, which here in New York State tend to be near the bases of dead/dying apple trees. The way he describes it, mushroom hunting is a very zen endeavor: one might stare at the base of a given tree for an hour and not see a thing, and then after being out in the forest for a little while longer and becoming more in tune with its rhythm, you’ll go back to that first tree base and find a six-incher staring you right in the face.
But even if you’re not about to go out searching the forest floor on your own, now is the time to take advantage of the fresh morels available in local specialty groceries. (During the rest of the year, they’re sold dry for about $30 per ounce. Thankfully, a little goes a long way.)
Morels are a funny looking mushroom: their spongy textured caps are conical in shape with deep grooves and pits that resemble coral or honeycomb. They’re also hollow inside. Those creviced caps hold onto rich sauces like champions, which may explain why renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichtin pairs them with an obscenely decadent hollandaise sauce to use as a topping for asparagus in his famous “Asparagus with Morels” recipe. (For an only-slightly less sinful version of this classic French dish, see Mark Bittman’s version here).
Although fresh morels aren’t cheap (I’m seeing them for about $30/lb in the Northeast this season), we decided to splurge on a 1/4 lb of them last night to make a tasty, seasonal sauce for a special family dinner. (Rather than compare them to the price of button mushrooms, we chose to compare them to the price of truffles, and all of a sudden, they felt like a bargain!) My sister chose this simple Bobby Flay recipe for Grilled Salmon with Morel Vinaigrette, and we substituted the 2 oz dried morels it calls for with 1/4 lb of fresh ones. It was great on the salmon…and also on the grilled asparagus we made…and as a dressing for our dinner salads. But honestly, morels are also divine simply sauteed in some butter and served as an accompaniment to… well, anything. One piece of important advice when substituting fresh morels for dried ones: be sure to slice them down the middle, clear out any critters, and soak them in some saltwater for a few minutes to clean them of any undesirable forest-floor residue/inhabitants before going ahead and using them.
It hardly makes sense to talk about the nutritional value of morels per se, since it’s cost-prohibitive for most of us to eat a full serving of them. (Besides, the USDA doesn’t track nutrient values for morels specifically, so I’m at a loss). They’re more of an accent than a dietary staple. Still, many recipes pair sparing quantities of wild morels (usually dried) with other types of more affordable mushroom varieties. So in this case, it makes sense to talk about the nutritional value of mushrooms in general.
Many people have a perception that nutritionally, mushrooms are little more than water and fiber. But how wrong they are! Mushrooms are loaded with health-promoting minerals, several B-vitamins and a unique type of fiber that helps lower cholesterol and has been shown to help prevent cancer. The specific nutritional profile will vary by type of mushroom, of course. You may recall we talked briefly about the B-vitamins in the context of our discussion on metabolism, and their role as co-factors in efficiently turning the food we eat into usable energy for the body. Several of these B-vitamins also play a role in maintaining cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart attack. Mushrooms also tend to be good sources of several important minerals, including the antioxidant selenium, immunity-promoting zinc, and even some iron. Mushrooms contain other types of antioxidants, too, and research shows that the highest levels can be concentrated in the stems, so don’t toss them! All mushrooms are super low-calorie, with most varieties clocking in somewhere between 20-30 calories per serving.
Of course, mushrooms’ reputation for being high in fiber is well deserved. In fact, mushrooms contain a specific type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan (also found in oats and barley), which has been widely shown to help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. But there’s more! The beta-glucans found in mushrooms also have been shown to possess an immune-modulating effect, which means they activate the immune cells responsible for killing invading bacteria, viruses and –oh, the irony–fungi. Lastly, these special mushroom-derived beta-glucans have been shown to inhibit cancerous tumors through multiple mechanisms.
And finally, you’ll recall that dried shiitake mushrooms in particular are a good source of Vitamin D– a super-important vitamin that’s almost absent from our food supply. (Refresh your memory about them by clicking here.)
Not too shabby for some humble fungi hiding under decomposing leaf piles on the forest floor, right?