Northern Michigan morels are revered by chefs around the world, woven into Northern Michigan restaurant offerings and sought after by Northern Michigan morel hunters combing the woods. Ruth Mossok Johnston, author of the cookbook The Art of Cooking Morels, is a morel-lover with the best. She does share some facts that might derail a few Northern Michigan morel myths which you’ll find below, right before her own morel story and some outstanding morel recipes.
Fact 1: No, the god of fungus does not raise these forest delicacies solely from Northern Michigan loam—and no, France is not the only other place on the planet where they grow. Morels, in all of their honeycombed shapes and shades, sprout from Asia to Appalachia, Israel to Indiana, the Himalayas to California.
Fact 2: Given their geographical spread, these nuggets of earthy delight are native to cuisines around the globe—a fact that leads directly into …
Fact 3: There are magnificently delicious ways to cook morels beyond the Northern Michigan ubiquitous sautéed in butter; or sautéed in butter and drenched in cream and wine; or dredged in flour and sautéed in butter.
Fact 4: Ruth Mossok Johnston is the first to agree that there really is no better way to eat them than in butter. But given that she understands no one should eat as much butter as they should morels, Johnston has devoted The Art of Cooking Morels to simultaneously revealing the ways morels can be cooked in more healthful ways and how they can amplify virtually any cuisine.
As a child Johnston recalls being transfixed by the tiny Asian grocery store (stocked with dried mushrooms) near her Detroit home. The foodie child grew up to become a food writer and editor, trained cook and cooking instructor who has lived and worked across the country. It was in Northern Michigan, however, that her passing fancy for morels turned to bona fide ardor.
The conversion occurred after passionate moreler Joe Breidenstein invited her to be guest chef at his Morels & More event—weekends of hunting, cooking and eating morels at his Walloon Lake resort, Springbrook Hills. After Johnston presented guests with a morel soufflé (made from the fruits of their hunt), her relationship with the event, and the mushroom it celebrates, was forged. “Their woodsy, earthy flavor is unique,” Johnston explains. “Other mushrooms have those qualities but their intensity in morels is unsurpassed. They are pretty miraculous.”
Johnston went on to cook at Breidenstein’s weekends until his passing a couple of years ago. But she still comes North every spring to help judge the annual Boyne City Morel Festival’s mushroom hunting contest. Meanwhile, she became editorial director for Glencoe/McGraw-Hill’s Family and Consumer Sciences division. When the company downsized, Johnston found herself out of work (she has since become Director of Prepared Foods for Hiller’s Markets). It was all the excuse she needed to burrow into her downstate farmhouse kitchen to discover where pairing morels with the great cuisines of the world might lead. Two years, many happy-guinea-pig-friends and countless pounds of morels later, Johnston had refined the 80-plus recipes for the The Art of Cooking Morels. With recipes such as Shrimp and Morel Mushroom Red Curry, Morel and Potato Kugel and Crawfish Étouffé Loaded with Morels, the pages are a veritable travelogue of flavors.
Besides its wide range of cultural influences, the book is marked by Johnston’s emphasis on healthy cooking, her casual but precise directions and her tips including one on how to make your own hoisin sauce: “What are you going to do if you live in a little town in Iowa and you can’t get it?” she says.
The Art of Cooking Morels also features the paintings of Johnston’s husband, David McCall Johnston, whose colorful, emotive renditions of the landscape of food move this book from the kitchen to the coffee table at dinner’s end.