Saturday, May 14, 2011

Life Findings Occasionally Edible...

The local nature reserve in my hometown has always been my favorite places to send my free time. As a kid I went there with my best friend Jon, who lived even closer to it than I did. We'd ride our small sized bmx bikes equipped with the disproportionate pegs for standing on the back; we'd often ride both on the same bike just to be extra cool. Jon and I would adventure into the woods with nothing more than baggy jeans and a loaded imagination. The freedom we felt in the "wild" was classic, and all the cuts, ripped jeans, and mysterious bug bites felt like a right of passage for us 12 year old adventure seekers. Our mental map of the area grew larger with every trek into the unknown, and eventually we found ourselves making some pretty "impressive" discoveries in which I still oddly relate to today.

Our first big discovery were the heaps of metal scrap and old tires that we found on the very east side of the reserve just about 40 feet off the trail. Here we found old washing machines, huge truck tires, and a bathtub sprinkled with mysteriously abundant bullet holes. At some point later we discovered a fully functional metal shovel by the base of a tree in the center of the reserve, and later a broom stick nearby. It seemed that the more time we spent exploring, the more we would discover and the more we would gain. Another notable discovery was a living possum in a downed tree over a river that we were climbing near the entrance. Although the hissing was moderately intimidating, it didn't prevent us from getting a nice up close and personal look at the strange creature. (Shortly after we discovered that possums have pretty nasty looking teeth.) But with each new discovery came a unexpected unique learning experience, and I guess in short I still enjoy that rush today...

The first major search for me in 2011 took place starting in the month of April. The warming spring temps meant many things in the world, but to me it meant the arrival of one of my favorite mushrooms, the Great Morel! This year I could better anticipate the window for their arrival, and I wanted to make sure I was there when they first popped. As many know the Morel's only grow in specific conditions for about three weeks in the early spring. One of their preferred growing conditions is in limestone rich soil near/in the decaying roots of dead trees. So my search began by scouting my location for dead and dying elm and ash trees, a Morel mushroom's favorite. After spotting what seemed like a large amount of dying trees I started noting other living and sprouting plant life. At first there wasn't much of any new growth, and I knew it would be a while before the Morels made an appearance. Eventually as time progressed I saw the first plants breach the soil's surface. Among the short swamp grass was the easily identifiable Mayapple, which sprouts quickly and in patches. Morel's and Mayapples seem to get along and their arrival meant that the Morels would soon to follow...

So after a month of quiet observation and a lot of eager anticipation I ventured into the woods for what I hoped, might be the day the Morel would reveal itself to me once again. After searching for about an hour I was about to call it off and started walking back. Sure enough within the first thirty feet of my retreat I spotted the first Morel of the season. I was refreshed and excited; my search began all over again. Every mushroom hunter knows that where there is one, there are others near. So I stayed put after spotting numero uno, and looked around from my single vantage point and sure enough, I spotted one more, then two more, and that's when I started collecting and enjoying the first successful moments of a long search. I continued to search the terrain for more of the similar dying elms, soil conditions, and topography. After about another 45 minutes I had collected a respectable amount, and I deemed my findings worthy of taking home to be prepped for my next meal!

Once home I washed the Morels in warm water to get rid of any unwanted critters and dirt. At this point they begin to look extra delicious, and the temptation to eat them raw is at an all time high. Although I have friends who have eaten them raw, all of the material I have read clearly states not to eat the mushrooms uncooked, so I always play it safe and sauté them up in a meal. I typically like to have the Morels with some type of rice and fish with extra veggies. At this point in the game it is all subjective and creativity is always an option in how you choose to prepare them. Last year I (tried) breading whole mushrooms to be eaten individually, as well as dehydrating them in the oven for longer life span for use in meals throughout the year. And although this year I haven't found enough to save, I certainly was able to cook the ones I found in a few different ways.

Frying the Morel's in butter is an easy and flavorful method of cooking.

Baked Morel's and pizza, oh yeah!

The spring isn't over yet, but with the strange season and temperature changes I'm not sure I'll be able to find as many Morels as I did last year. It is disappointing to not be able to cook up and share the mushrooms with as many people as previously, but like always the hunt is addictive and captivating. My eye is becoming much more skilled at locating mushrooms of all types, and within the last year I have spotted over a half dozen different mushrooms growing locally, most of which can be eaten. This year I hope to to do a little more research into the other varieties around, and I am looking forward to doing my first spore print to positively identify some of the trickier looking mushrooms. Like the mushrooms themselves my interest in the hunt has come unexpectedly, but their presence has added yet another item to the list of things to love about spring.

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