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On Seeing Morelsby Gary Allen

In late winter, we search intently for any sign that spring is coming. We peer into the woods, searching for a slight swelling of a bud—anything at all. Then, when it actually does arrive, it's everywhere at the same time. What had been a slight change in birdsong becomes a predawn cacophony, with every bird on the planet singing his fool head off. What had been an oh-so-subtle greening becomes an explosion of flowering trees and wildflowers. Then, before we know what's happening, we notice that the apple trees are in bloom.

The scent in the orchards is intoxicating, but knowing that when the apple trees bloom, the morels are about to appear, makes us delirious. We grab our mushroom bag, pocket-knife and camera and bolt into the woods.

Of course, finding the first morel is never easy, so we look for other signs that the season is right. From long experience, we know that columbines bloom in the kind of places that morels like, and prefer to do so at the same time as the mushrooms poke their heads through the forest leaf-litter. We are relieved and encouraged when we see the flowers nodding in the dappled sunlight.

It doesn't seem reasonable that something as empty-headed as a morel could not only recognize potential predators, but organize strategies for out-witting them—but it's easy to imagine that they do just that.

It sometimes seems like these fungi have the ability to disguise themselves—as if guided by some pre-vegetal intelligence. Their color and texture certainly aid in their deception—but their tendency to emerge from beneath the edge of a rock, or in the shadow of a decayed stick, or at the base of some thorny shrub, suggests the sort of protective strategies that can only arise from self-awareness. Logic compels us to believe that this is not the case, but the search for morels—especially an unproductive search for morels—can lead a mushroom hunter to some unusual suppositions. Occasionally, morels can be found in the open—foolishly sticking their heads into the spring sunshine—but far more often they are hiding—as if they know that there is an omelet in their future.

We've always known how important it is to go back over the same area where we've just looked for morels. Sometimes the slant of the light, or angle of view, will reveal the mushrooms' formerly unnoticed hiding places. But another odd phenomenon is less obvious—and it has more to do with the hunter than the hunted.

One can only look intently at a patch of ground for a minute or so before the mind begins to wander. The eyes seem to lose focus—and, just then, a morel appears. It's usually in plain sight, but just at the edge of the area we've just been scanning. It's almost as if the unconscious mind continues the hunt—but more effectively—while the conscious mind drifts.

Risotto with Fresh Morels Ingredients: 2 tbsp olive oil (not extra virgin)
2 tbsp butter
1 large shallot, minced
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup fresh morels, cut in 1/4" slices
3 (or more) cups chicken stock, hot but not boiling
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Italian parsley, minced for garnish

Heat oil and half of the butter in heavy pot. Add minced shallot and cook, stirring frequently, until transparent but not browned. Add rice and stir to coat evenly with oil/butter mixture. Cook until rice is opaque. Add sliced morels, stir gently to mix.

Add hot stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly. Do not add more stock until previous addition is absorbed. When 3 cups of stock have been absorbed, the rice should have a creamy texture and have a little bit of firmness—it should not be mushy. If it's still too firm, add a little more stock. Risotto should be slightly soupy.

Remove from heat, stir in cheese and remaining butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and garnish with minced parsley

You can find more of Gary Allen’s speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) stick in his mouth—his own foot being a prime example of the latter—at his website

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