Flash in the Pan 

Frolicking in the fungal jungle

Black Dog’s voice howled into my answering machine: “Chef Boy Ari, come with us to the land of the giants.”

Already committed that day, I was so crestfallen I could barely return the call.

“Morels the size of pint jars,” he said. “We’ll need chainsaws to cut them down.”

With a big wet weather system approaching, whatever didn’t get plucked that day would soon become slime. In my irrational desperation, I groped for some kind of rain check.

“Is the spot…far away?” I asked.

At the other end, I could feel him look at me like I was crazy, and I was embarrassed for asking. This is a man who wears a T-shirt that says, “Anyone foolish enough to ask a morel plucker where he got his morels is foolish enough to believe the answer.” Even if I could have joined the party, I would have probably traveled blindfolded in the trunk again. But after a tense pause, Black Dog surprised me by naming the county to which he was headed. (Later, I learned that he had gone in the opposite direction.)

I missed more than morels that day. On the hunt, Black Dog’s senses are razor-sharp, his mind assembling the clues, the elevation, weather patterns, trees, plants, mushrooms, and geological conditions. He can smell them, almost as well as his fungus-sniffing black German shepherd, Zora, bless her heart. The next day, I went to Black Dog’s den and saw the morels, as big as he had promised. “Stuffers,” he sang, as he dumped and sorted crate after crate. “Fill ’em with herbed cream, crab meat, bread crumbs…” Morels on drying racks, morels in the industrial fridge, morels for selling—maybe you’ve seen him at the Farmer’s Market, dressed like the Cat in the Hat—morels for drying and more for immediate consumption. The phone was ringing, people were dropping by, Black Dog was juggling, living the mushroom life at full throttle.

In a quiet moment, we gathered around a mushroom field guide. Black Dog’s fingers worked the pages with the skilled ease of a trucker working 16 gears, and he had a comment for every page. “That one’s medicine…” he said, reaching for a jar on his spice rack. “Got some dried right here.”

We were staring at the section on boletes, of which Boletus edulis, or porcini, is king. Boletes are easily distinguishable by the spongy underside of the cap, rather than the common gills. I’d heard somewhere that all boletes are edible, and I asked Black Dog if this was true.

He flipped to a photo of a sinister looking blood-red bolete. Boletus satanas. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “Would you eat that?”

Black Dog advises aspiring mushroom hunters to educate themselves—with field guides, classes, and consultations with seasoned mycologists like himself—before tasting their harvest. Even with an allegedly edible species, if you’ve never tried it, start off with a small piece, cooked, to make sure you don’t have a personal reaction.

Beyond personal safety, there are important rules for ethical harvesting, as well as the legal side of gathering forest products—many national forests require recreational pickers to obtain a permit. Black Dog stewards the website of the Western Montana Mycological Association (www.fungaljungal.org), which provides a wealth of information on most things fungal, including many recipes. A membership in WMMA entitles you to additional benefits, including participation in the upcoming Memorial Day Morel Festival.

Me, I took a sack of morels home to the lab and began my experiments.

After preparing the pan with chopped bacon in grapeseed oil, I removed the bacon and added morels—small ones whole, big ones cut into halves and quarters.

Batch after batch, I added different combinations of sherry, vermouth, white wine. I also tried small quantities of aged balsalmic vinegar and cider vinegar from a jar of pickled hot and sweet peppers, as well as mashed garlic, and butter, and seasoned them with salt.

Hot out of the pan, they tasted like a walk through a magic grove. The complex flavor recounted the uneven ground, the melting snow, and the occasional unfamiliar forest whiff that makes you stop and say, “What is that?”

The morels sponged up the acid and fat, a meaty earthtone symphony of flavor in my mouth, like a sip of wine into a mouthful of meat, but more complex; so full and juicy it pushed tears from the corners of my eyes. I didn’t want to adulterate this flavor with anything. No bread, no pasta, no vegetables. Not even mayo.

But the next day, the savory adulterations began. I dressed homemade butternut squash ravioli with a morel nutmeg sherry cream sauce (from Black Dog’s website) and garnished it with crispy sage leaves fried in peanut oil.

The next morning, morels and potatoes for breakfast.

Every time, I lick my plate afterward like the Chef Boy Doggy Dog I am, just to keep tasting that wild Montana taste.

flash@missoulanews.com

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