Friday, May 8, 2009

Spring sprung from the earth

I've written how I've come to view fava beans, with their short growing season, as the herald of spring. And they almost are exclusively a home cook's dish, since their preparation time precludes most restaurants from offering them.

Another lovely springtime offering, which also is best fresh, is morels. Even in season, they are very pricey, but the good news is that you don't need but a few ounces to make an impact in a dish. The photograph is of a black morel, courtesy of The Great Morel Picture Page.

If you go hunting for morels yourself, the good news is that the only similar poisonous mushroom is the false morel, and even that one can be tolerated by most people if cooked (but even in Finland, where the false morel is a cherished delicacy, there are deaths from eating them). Here's a bit more information on identifying the difference:
The early false morels can be told apart from the true morels by careful study of how the cap is attached to the stalk. The edge of true morels' (morchella) caps are intergrown with the stalk, but early morels' (verpas) caps hang over like a thimble, for which they are sometimes referred to as "thimble morel." Early false morels are the first morels to fruit in the spring, shortly after leaves begin to form on deciduous trees. Narrow-head morels (morchella angusticeps) fruit next, around May. The last morels to fruit are the yellow or white morels (Morchella esculenta), then crassipes.
Cap: the cap of false morels is wrinkled and irregular, bell shaped or cone shaped, attached only at apex (top) of cap not like true morels which have caps that are attached at the bottom, the color yellow brown to olive yellow or tan, darkens with age.
Stalk: 6-16 cm high, white to creamy or tan, hollow, often stuffed with white cottony pith. Spores when seen under a microscope are elliptical and have large oil droplets; true morels have no oil droplets.

Here's how we used a few fresh morels (purchased from Foods of All Nations) last night.

Twice-as-nice-a-roni with fava beans and morels
Serves 4 as a side dish

1 pound fava beans
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided use
1/2 cup angel hair pasta, broken into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup basmati or other long grain rice
2 cups non-fat chicken or turkey broth
1 teaspoon butter
4 ounces fresh morels, sliced
Fresh ground pepper

Prepare fava beans: Remove the beans from the spongy pods (the pods and the bean casings make great additions to your compost pile). Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the raw beans in their casings. Fill a bowl with water and ice. When the beans have returned to a boil, remove them from the boiling water and put in the bowl of ice water. When cool, remove the beans from their casings. Set aside.

In a saucepan that has a tight fitting lid, saute the pasta bits and the rice in a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat until the rice turns white and the pasta browns. Add the broth and bring to a true boil (the liquid will look like it's boiling when you add it to the hot grains, but will then subside), then cover and turn down the heat to simmer. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute the mushrooms in the butter and teaspoon of olive oil. Add a generous grinding of pepper. When they are almost softened, add the fava beans, and heat until they are just warm.

When the rice/pasta is done, add the morels/favas and stir gently to mix. Serve hot.

Note: If you want more vegetables, a half-pound of crisp-tender asparagus cut in 1/2 slices would be a good addition.

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