My dad, a native Hoosier from Vincennes, and my brother, born and raised in Richmond, are avid outdoorsmen. This time of year, this can only mean one thing. Mushrooms.
Around the second or third week in April when the weather alternates between rain and 70-degree sunny days, they start getting the itch. All it takes is one rumor of sightings to make their eyes light up in anticipation. The next thing you know, they’re spending every spare second tromping through the woods in hot pursuit of these fickle beauties.
Indiana wild mushrooms are only available for a very short window each spring, a few weeks between late April and mid-May, depending on the weather. That’s what makes them so coveted; you have to wait all year to enjoy them. By the time they finally arrive, you’ve whetted your appetite for 11 months. Of course they’re going to taste good!
Each mushroom aficionado has his or her own sacred hunting territory, and good luck getting any hint as to the location of these favored secret spots. Some folks are even lucky enough to find the elusive little fungi boldly popping up in their own back yards, although I think those stories are nothing more than urban legend.
My dad likes to tell a tale about taking me along on a mushroom hunting expedition when I was about four years old. After an hours-long romp through the woods turned up nothing, I was tired and whiny. As dad slung me up into his arms and turned to carry me back to the car, he glimpsed a mushroom. Then another. And another. Jackpot. Forced to choose between an exhausted little girl bucking to go home and a veritable grove of mushroom bounty right in front of him, ripe for the picking. I’m sure he had tears in his eyes as he reluctantly toted me out of there.
If you like mushrooms, you NEED to taste an Indiana morel. Fresh, their flavor isn’t like any kind you find in the grocery store; it’s wilder, gamier and meatier. It’s a shroom you can really sink your teeth into, not like those bland little white button deals or those overhyped exotic varieties. I enjoy those as well, but I find you really have to season the heck out of them to give them any sort of personality.
And speaking of the supermarket, don’t you dare spend $20 or $30 a pound for the pathetic measly dried morels you find there. Befriend a mushroom hunter and start sucking up pronto. Lots of people have a mushroom source, just ask around and you might be surprised to find out that your unassuming office mate is actually a mushroom superman in disguise. These folks are more popular than crack dealers this time of year; bribes might be in order if you hope to find yourself on the receiving end of a batch of mushrooms.
Besides the pretty, spongy, yellow morels — the most prized of the bunch — you can also eat a kind of mushrooms my dad calls spikes (I’ve also heard these referred to as “peckerheads,” which I find much funnier). Make sure you’re getting your mushrooms from a trusted source so you know you’re eating the safe variety. Don’t go picking any old toadstool you find in your yard and tossing it into a deep fryer. You do NOT want to mess around here — nearly everything but morels and spikes is poisonous and can cause serious and potentially fatal health consequences if ingested.
When you can get your hands on the right mushrooms, however, it’s culinary bliss. Just as everyone has a spot for hunting, everyone has a favorite method when it comes to preparation. Morels are usually best battered and fried, although I’ve also seen them simply sautéed and sometimes making appearances in sauces at upscale restaurants. I prefer them fried. I’m an Indiana girl, after all…
Many people rely on a simple egg/flour dip before tossing the shrooms in a frying pan, but my dad swears by a seasoning mix called Drake’s. That’s what I used last night when I tried my hand at frying them for the first time. My dad and brother are the resident experts when it comes to fixing mushrooms at our house, so I’ve always just enjoyed up to this point without ever having to do anything to earn the honor. My dad came over for Easter weekend and brought with him a big batch of spikes that he left to me to take care of. Around suppertime, I got out all my frying accoutrement, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
As the vegetable oil heated up on my trusty old Chambers gas cooktop, I measured out the Drake’s and mixed it in a solution of half water and half beer (Thr3e Wise Men Snow Bunny Blonde, to be exact). I set aside a small stack of mushrooms for my test batch. A quick dip in the batter and then into the oil they went. I made the rookie mistake of trying to fry too many mushrooms at once and my first effort fused into a big doughy mass that I had to flip over like a giant pancake. Still, I was able to break them up once I took them out of the pan without affecting the taste. Grease splattered everywhere. When it was all said and done, the stovetop looked like a war zone and I was covered head to toe with a thin film of oil that still hasn’t come out even after a thorough hair washing.
Tentatively, I took a first bite. Greasy, salty, meaty goodness! Hallelujah – I am my father’s daughter! Mushrooms are deliciously addictive straight up and outrageously good in an omelet, but I piled a stack of the crunchy little morsels onto a piece of Miracle Whip-slathered bread for a heavenly sandwich. And, I was thrilled when my stepson and son tied into the platter like they hadn’t seen food all day. (I guess they hadn’t really, stuffing themselves instead on the contents of their Easter baskets.)
Feeling much more confident, I fried up the remaining mushrooms and took them down to our neighbors, where they were equally well received and eaten on sandwiches with mustard (note to self — must try). My husband refused to even taste a single mushroom. He did, however, clean up the massive mess I’d made of the kitchen while I was down the street visiting. Thanks for having my back, babe.
France can keep its snobby truffles. I’ll take my Indiana morels any day.