This past autumn, my husband and I went mushroom hunting in the woods in Nyack, New York, about 30 miles north of our Brooklyn home.
Being utter novices — the wildest place I had foraged for mushrooms previously was the produce section of Whole Foods — I didn't trust our ability to safely harvest edible species. So we invited Paul Sadowski, secretary of the New York Mycological Society, to guide us.
Paul (who got turned onto mushrooming two decades ago by his former employer, the late composer and mycophile John Cage) was a more than reliable leader, and we rode home giddy with our day's haul of oyster and brick top mushrooms.
While Sadowski spoke like a walking encyclopedia of Northeastern mushrooms, he admitted to us that he is not the most enthusiastic cook. For that part of the equation, he pointed me towards his friend and fellow NYMS member, Eugenia Bone — a food writer, Saveur contributor, and author of Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms (Rodale, 2011). "Her cooking is sublime," Sadowski told me.
Flash forward a few months from our foraging trip, and we are currently in the midst of mushrooming's off-season. Many beloved varieties — such as chanterelles and shiitakes — prefer warm and wet weather, making mid-summer and early autumn the best time for picking wild mushrooms. But, as I learned from Bone, for those who cannot wait, there are morels — the craggy, dome-shaped fungi that appear in early spring and add delicate, savory flavor to countless dishes.
In some parts of the country, like Oregon, morel season starts as early as March. In New York the season begins in May — "when the new oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear," Bone said — and lasts for about a month. Fleeting, in other words.
Luckily, morels' earthy flavor grows even more concentrated when dried, making them delicious and accessible year-round. (Other varieties of mushrooms, like porcini and black trumpet, can be found dried during the off-season too.) When cooking with dried mushrooms, Bone favors long-simmering dishes like hearty braises where the mushrooms soften during the cooking process.
But these days I have pasta on the brain (as I nearly always do), and a hankering to make something that tastes like spring. I've found my answer in morel and asparagus spaghetti: I rehydrate the morels in boiling water, which is the typical method, but save the fragrant soaking liquid and use it to cook the pasta.
All of that delicious mushroomy flavor gets recycled and infuses the noodles as they boil, lending depth to the finished dish. Tossed with the plumped morels, bright green asparagus, and fresh, grassy heavy cream, the dish tastes like a promise of good things (and great mushrooms) to come.
See the recipe for Morel and Asparagus Spaghetti »
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Leah Koenig is a freelance writer and author of The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen.
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