Morels…be careful where you step!

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Morels, although not an Unangan medicinal plant, are a very heavenly, edible fungus.  I can remember finding them when I was a child along the beach road and the Town Creek bank.  Now, nearly 45 years later, they are a rare and precious commodity.  I don’t know if morels are native to the area.  I have always heard that they aren’t; that they came to the Aleutians as spores on the wood used to construct the facilities for WW II.  I do not know the Unangam tunuu word for this species, or if there even is one.  Anyone know?  I can’t find one.  Whatever the case, I have enjoyed them immensely, and half the enjoyment now, is in the finding.

When I returned to Unalaska with my children, I was reminded our first spring back, that the morels would be out for about two weeks.  When?, I asked.  When spring is here, was the answer.  When is spring here?, I inquired.  Sometime between April and mid-June, was the answer.  So those serious about tasting the heavenly morel in Unalaska, must be on serious alert for a very long time.  God help you if you get busy.  You’ll miss them for another year.

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Families are strictly close-mouthed about their secret spots where morels can still be found.  New comers have actually taken to sneakily following locals in the hopes of catching them in the act of picking morels.  A chef from a local hotel, many years ago – not Rich – was actually poking through piles of horse manure in the hopes that that is where they grew.  I drilled into my kids the importance of the utmost secrecy surrounding our morel spots.  I can remember one day the girls bursting into the house with about nine morels, extremely excited about the new patch they had found.  I asked them if they had picked them correctly and they answered that they had thumped them with their index fingers prior to picking them.  This insures that any spore left in the mushroom will be shaken loose into the tundra, thus giving us more morels the next season.

All of my preaching worked good and well throughout the years.  One day when Alena was about 14 and Laresa was 12, they once again came bursting into the house with four morels.  They excitedly told me about a new patch in a most unusual spot.  A spot that I would never believe!  I grabbed my coat and started out the door.  They didn’t follow.  I turned back, with a question in my eyes.  They both smiled and told me that this was their patch.  They would be checking it every year – by themselves.  At least until they went to college; then I could take over for them.

Caleb – the spouse – whom I have known since 1972 but didn’t marry until 1997, would occasionally accompany me on my morel forays.  He was very unlucky at morel hunting.  He just couldn’t get the knack.  Morels are hard to find, like agates on the beach, and you have to train your eye to pick them out of the tundra.  That’s very hard to do  if you’ve never found one.  I have been known to spot them while driving down the road and it drives Caleb absolutely crazy.

One day we were taking a drive out to Morris Cove and on the way Caleb stopped the car in an area where he knew I would usually find morels.  He grabbed a bag and took off.  I yelled after him, asking him what he was doing.  He answered that he was going to find a morel if it killed him; where should he start looking?  I told him the morels were all over and he gave me a shrug and turned away, studiously looking at the ground before him as he walked.  I sat there, totally perplexed by his behavior.  After about twenty minutes, Caleb circled back and told me he wasn’t having much luck – again.  I laughed and told him that it was September.  He just looked at me.  I told him that morels came out in the spring and that the season was long over, not that morels were all over the place.

Caleb’s bad luck at finding morels lasted about eleven years.  He began to secretly think that I purchased morels at the store and then threw them on the ground in front of me, claiming a great find.  In the year of our Lord – 2000-  he actually found one and the way he carried on was worth the long hunt.  At least now he knows what to look for.  Not just the physical appearance of the morel, but where they might be located and how your eye can catch the color, the shape, the terrain they might be in and how they just seem to jump out of the tundra like they are yelling, “Here I am!  Eat me!”

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Morels are best, in my judgment, simply sauteed in butter, with a dash of Worcestershire sauce.  By themselves, or served on top of a juicy, rib-eye steak.   Use them fresh, or dried.  If using them immediately, slice them open to check for slugs (yes, we have little slugs) and rinse them with water.  Drain and dry them thoroughly.  If serving within a day or two, soak them in a bowl of water, covered,  in the refrigerator.  Drain and dry them before use.  To dry them for future use, simply lay them on wire racks, or use a needle and thread and string them up to dry.  They should only take 3-4 days to dry.  Store them in a covered container.  To reconstitute, soak them in water for about 15 minutes.

Dried morels.
Dried morels.

Morels can be used in any recipe you have calling for mushrooms.  But be careful not to overwhelm the deliciousness of the morels with strong flavors, or too numerous ingredients.

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And when you are walking out there in the spring, take care not to step on morels.  It is very sad to come upon a morel that has either been smooshed by a human hiking boot, or nibbled on by a squirrel.

7 thoughts on “Morels…be careful where you step!

  1. Fantastic post . . . . I will keep my eyes open but I fear I may be taking over for Caleb as the unlucky one. I’m really good at spotting some things – others, not so much! Thanks for your subsistence pages, they are a treasure.

  2. Love this post! I am just now catching up on some of my reading. I am sure once I tell Rich about it, we will be out searching ourselves! 🙂 I don’t know if he is even aware that there are morels here.

  3. not sure if there are any over here or not… I’ve never really heard of anyone over here in Akutan picking any kind of mushrooms….. interesting though.. i don’t eat mushrooms, but interesting… if I ever find any I’ll let you know 😉

    1. Are you home? Did you sneak through? Sounds like you had fun on your trip. If you get a chance, ask some of the Elders if they ever picked any morels over there. That would be interesting to know. It was great having lunch with you and your hubby when you were on your way out. I’m so glad Kristine and I got to go to Akutan and meet up with you. You take care and say hi to your mom and dad.

  4. I realize that this post was over a year and a half ago, but it is a very good one and very informative. I grew up in rual Eastern Iowa and morel hunting in the Spring was a special treat for everyone of all ages. When I was a young boy I always thought that morels were just a local edible fancy. Then later in life I met people from northern Michigan who said the same about their area. I began to understand that they are available in the cooler Spring months of most of the northern states and Canada. Now, on many cable TV food shows one can hear about chefs who plan menus featuring morels when they are available. They are more popular now then back in the 60s and 70s.

    I laughed when I read that you had your “secret” places to hunt for your morels. The same went for our secret stash when I was a kid. When someone came across a huge “find” they would sometimes take a picture of themselves sitting among the hundreds of morels and send it into the local newspaper for publishing. They would never tell of course where the secret stash was located.

    I was taught by a local farmer’s wife that her way of preparing the morel for consumtion consisted of soaking the fungi in a large bowel of salt water. The large amount of salt was to kill any small bugs or bacteria that might be hiding in the plant. Then be sure not to pour the water down the drain. Instead, you should always scatter the water in an area that you may think the fungi might grow. Why? There may be a lot of tiny spores in the water and there is the possibility that you may be spreading the seed for next years crop.

    I truly enjoy the full richness of the morel flavor. We used to put them on or in everything. My family is from a German and Dutch background and we cooked them up with any meat dish from atop a steak, porkchop, or even with meatloaf. Our neighbors were Czech, and we used to joke that they would eat any type of dish (or road kill). But it was these inventive people that introduced me to a real Czech pizza topped with plenty of morels. And, of course as a kid we couldn’t miss out on anything deep fried. Morels are so great dipped in batter and fried with a crispy outer layer. They are also great stuffed with cream cheese prior to battering and deep frying.

    To sum this up . . . I was totally shocked to read that you have morels on Unalaska island. Maybe they did get transplanted there on some old timber from WWII. You never really will know for sure. The good thing is that they are there for your enjoyment. I can honestly tell you (a secret from my childhood) that we would always look for the morels anywhere there was a dead elm tree that had fell. So, your theory of morels being shipped in on the timber or wood is not a bad one at all!

    Enjoy them while you can. You never know when they may become extinct in your area, or more difficult to find in the years to come.

    1. Yes, the post is old, but one never gets tired of morels!! Very interesting hearing about your experiences with morels! I must apologize…I have been so busy, I have neglected my blog and I really apologize for not replying sooner. It seems that the older I get, the faster time flies. Next spring, I am going to try stuffing my morels and frying them…that just sounds really good.

      Our island is a little off the beaten path and a little spendy to get to, but well worth the visit. I wonder if they have Morel Vacations that you can book?!!! I’m hoping to bring my son back home for a visit this summer with his family. Preferably when the red salmon are running. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Gee, I thought I had proofread my note before posting. That was morels soaked in a bowl of salt water not a bowel…….LOL!

    PS. I really enjoy your Blog. You also have some great pictures. You really make me want to travel up to your area and take in the sites. Now, I will have to make sure it is in the Springtime so I can look for morels while out for a hike!

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