Friday, May 22, 2009

Morel Risotto

Wild morel mushrooms grow all over north America in the spring months, but most prevalently around the Great Lakes region. They are truly one of our great regional delicacies. Although most people are familiar with bagged, wickedly expensive dried morels, freshly foraged morels can be purchased at gourmet stores, farmer's markets, and Co-ops while they are in season, and some lucky people can find whole patches of morels in the woods near their own home.

I bought a half pound of gorgeous fresh morels from Pam, one of our "neighbor vendors" at the Mill City Farmer's Market. Each week at the market, she arrives loaded down with crates and cases of fresh produce from her own farm, and from her neighbors' farms in southeast Minnesota. Since Pam is one of the managers of the Southeastern Minnesota Food Network (SMFM), a group of farms that came together in order to ship and distribute their goods collectively, she often has Minnesota seasonal vegetables a little earlier than the farms closer to the Twin Cities. Lately, Pam's been selling out of fresh asparagus, watercress, and ramps at the market. She also sells bread and cheeses made on her own farm, named Prairie Hollow.

After I brought the morels home, I laid them all out to admire their different shapes and sizes. Morels are hollow inside, and sometimes they contain dirt or insects, so I split each mushroom open to inspect it. As you can see, these mushrooms turned out to be very clean. After splitting the morels I sliced them very thinly, width-wise, separated the stems, and saved them.

To make a good risotto, start with a good stock. I made a stock out of a meaty sage-roasted chicken carcass, and added the morel stems, onions, and sea salt for flavor. For a vegetarian risotto, use a mushroom-based stock. Stock is easy to prepare while doing other kitchen tasks; it only takes a few moments of attention. I vastly prefer homemade stock to store-bought stock for all cooking, and it is much more economical.

For the Morel Risotto:

1/2 lb morel mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup shallot
1 garlic clove, minced

7 cups stock, homemade if possible (you may not use all of the stock)
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
Parmesan, or other good grating cheese
sea salt and fresh cracked pepper

Begin by cooking the morels in a wide chef's pan with a thick bottom: heat the butter and oil over medium heat, add the shallot and cook until the shallot is transparent but not browned, stirring frequently. Increase the heat and add the morels, saute until the mushrooms are just beginning to brown around the edges. Add the garlic and a generous pinch of sea salt and cook 1 minute. remove the mushroom mixture from the pan and reserve. Meanwhile, bring the 7 cups stock to a simmer and keep hot while you make the risotto.

For the rice: in the same pan, melt the 2 tablespoons butter. Add the rice and stir to coat all the grains. Cook the rice, stirring, one or two minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it's completely absorbed by the rice. Add 2 cups of the hot stock, cover the pan, and simmer until it's completely absorbed.

Now add the stock 1/2 cup at a time and continue to stir the risotto until each addition is completely absorbed. After 3 additions of stock, add the reserved morel mushrooms to the risotto. Continue to add the stock 1/2 cup at a time and stir until completely absorbed. The risotto rice is cooked when it yields to the bite but is not mushy, and there is no excess liquid in the pan. Season to taste with salt and fresh pepper, stir in grated Parmesan, and serve immediately in heated bowls. Serves 4.

A morel risotto is nice when served with a springtime green salad or roasted or grilled asparagus, and a glass of the same wine used in the risotto.

For more information about foraging and cooking with morel mushrooms, check out a fun site: The Great Morel Homepage

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