One woman’s quest to tempt us into loosening our standard morel recipes.
Die-hard Northern Michigan morelers who are considering cracking open Ruth Mossok Johnston’s cookbook The Art of Cooking Morels should note several facts beforehand to ease potential shock.
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. See the morel recipes below for proof.
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 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.
*Northern Michigan foragers may know ramps as leeks.
Johnston’s Favorite Morel Recipes
Smoked Salmon, Morel and Scallion Pâté
- Olive oil cooking spray
- 1 ounce dried morels, brushed, reconstituted and drained (liquid reserved)
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons reserved morel liquid, divided
- 6 ounces wild smoked salmon (preferably sockeye)
- 1 log chèvre cheese (11 ounces), cut into chunks
- ½ cup scallions (white and green parts) cut into slices
- 1 tablespoon chopped chives (for garnish if desired)
Note: Make great toast shapes by rolling out slices of bread with a rolling pin and cutting desired shapes with cookie cutters. Bake shapes on a baking sheet until crisp and serve with the pâté.
Directions: In a large sauté pan coated with cooking spray, cook morels over medium heat for about 9 minutes, adding ¼ cup of reserved morel liquid during the cooking process. The morel liquid will be absorbed at the end of the cooking time. Allow to cool. In a food processor, process the cooked morels, smoked salmon, chèvre cheese, scallions, and the 2 tablespoons of additional morel liquid—just enough to fully combine and chop all ingredients. Place finished appetizer spread in a bowl to serve. Garnish with chopped chives or additional scallions if desired.
Purée of Asparagus Soup with Morels
Yields 8-10 (depending on serving size)
Ingredients for the Soup:
- 1½ tablespoons olive oil
- 2 sweet yellow onions, peeled and sliced
- 2¼ pounds fresh asparagus, removing bottom 1½ inches, rinsed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 8 cups low-sodium chicken stock (homemade or prepared)
- 3 large fresh mint leaves
- 1 teaspoon salt (optional depending on saltiness of stock)
Ingredients for the Morel Topping:
- 1½ tablespoons low-calorie butter substitute or olive oil
- 8 medium-sized fresh morels per person (should equal ½ cup sliced morels per serving), brushed, lightly rinsed and drained
Special Equipment: Immersion blender, Vita Mix or food processor
Directions: In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat and sauté onions 12–14 minutes or until lightly browned, reduce heat to medium and add asparagus pieces. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add chicken stock and let soup come to a boil (12–15 minutes). Reduce heat to low and continue to simmer for 30 minutes. At about 45 minutes add mint leaves and process with an immersion blender, Vita Mix or food processor. Process the soup ingredients until smooth. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.
In a large sauté pan over medium heat; add butter substitute or olive oil. When hot, add morels and cook for 6–8 minutes. When cool enough to handle, slice morels into rounds. Reheat soup if necessary. Place hot soup in individual serving bowls, top each bowl with ½ cup of morel topping and serve.
Rib-Eye Steaks with Red Zin-Morel Sauce
Yield 4 Servings
- 1½-2 ounces dried morels, brushed, reconstituted and drained (at least 1 cup liquid reserved, divided)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 boneless rib-eye steaks (1/2-inch thick) preferably piedmontese beef or bison, rinsed in cool water and patted dry with paper toweling
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- 1½ cups red zinfandel (Note: the better the wine, the better the sauce)
- ½ cup reserved morel liquid
- 2½ teaspoons ponzu (or citrus-flavored soy sauce)
- 4 tablespoons butter substitute
- 4 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
Directions: In a large nonstick sauté pan, add reconstituted morels and ½ cup of reserved liquid; cook over medium-high heat for 6-8 minutes (adding more liquid if necessary during cooking process); stirring frequently. When morels have absorbed all liquid, remove from heat and cool slightly; place in a bowl. Cut the morels in half lengthwise (or if very small, keep them whole); set aside.
In a 12-inch nonstick sauté pan or heavy skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until oil appears to shimmer; sauté the rib eyes (don’t crowd pan; do in shifts as necessary) about 3 ½ minutes each side for medium-rare (or cook to desired doneness—if cooking bison, keep it medium-rare). Note: Turn steaks only once.
Repeat with remaining steaks. Transfer to a platter and cover with aluminum foil to hold temperature.There should not be much oil left; if more than a teaspoon or two, remove excess oil but not the brown pan bits. In the same pan, sauté garlic over medium heat until light brown, about 1 minute. Add wine and bring to a boil, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan until liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add morel liquid, ponzu and any other juice collected from the steak platter; reboil until reduced slightly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and whisk in the butter substitute and rosemary; add morels. Divide the wine sauce and morels equally and spoon over each steak.
Brie en Croûte with Artichoke, Ramps and Morels
- Olive oil cooking spray
- 8 ounces fresh morels, lightly brushed and rinsed
- ¼ cup spiced rum
- ½ cup sliced ramps (white and light purple parts only)
- 1 package (12 ounces) frozen artichoke quarters
- 2 (9-inch) pie crusts (homemade or prepared), rolled out and chilled in the refrigerator
- 1 (16 ounce) Brie wheel, unwrapped
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 fluted 9-inch quiche dish or pie plate
- Food Processor
- Pastry brush
Directions: Preheat oven to 350°. Place oven rack to middle position. Coat a 9-inch quiche dish with cooking spray and set aside. Coat a medium-sized sauté pan with cooking spray and sauté morels over medium heat for 6 minutes. Add rum and stir about 2 minutes or until rum is absorbed. Add ramps and cook for an additional 4 minutes or until ramps are lightly brown. Set aside to cool. In a microwave or on the stove, steam the frozen artichokes until defrosted and lightly warmed. Set aside to cool. While morels, ramps and artichoke hearts cool, lay one circle of pastry in the bottom of the prepared quiche dish. Place Brie wheel in center of bottom pastry. The wheel should be smaller than the quiche dish, allowing for at least 1½ inches to fill with your mixture.
In a food processor, process the morels, ramps, and artichokes on pulse, only to rough chop (or chop with a knife). Place chopped mixture around the outside of the Brie in the pastry (this should fill in the space between the Brie and the sides of the dish). Place the remaining pastry circle over the entire top of the dish. Trim away any excess pastry and reserve for a design. Gently pinch together edges all around the circle and lightly crimp to form a nice decorated edge. Make sure pastry is flat on top and contains no air bubbles. Brush top and sides of pastry with beaten egg and add a cutout decoration to top if desired. Bake the pastry-covered Brie in the preheated oven for 60 minutes, or until pastry is nicely browned.