Eater contributor Catherine De Orio is a blogger, writer, entrepreneur, Check, Please! host, and TV and radio personality. In her weekly Tasting Trends piece, she scours the city for what's trending on the dining scene and where you can taste the trend. Follow her culinary adventures on Twitter @CatCalls. This week's trend: Morel Mushrooms.
Sixteen [Photo: Trump Hotel]
The spring brings an abundance of beloved ingredients, but one seasonal delicacy stands above the others: the morel mushroom. "It is the king of the spring mushrooms," declares executive chef Thomas Lents of Sixteen at Trump International Hotel & Tower, "They are like our own truffles." Their distinctive cone-shaped cap and spongy, honeycomb-like appearance make them immediately identifiable. Although often found in many French dishes, it is actually a plentiful American mushroom.
Growing up in the Midwest, Lents picked morels and has worked all over country using the various local varieties—but the ones from the Midwest, 'true morels,' are his favorite.
The Midwest is a mecca for morels. Although they are accessible in many areas of the country, each region's growing cycle begins at a different time. "You can chase this ingredient across the country, through the season and see how the environment in which it grows affects the taste of the mushroom," says Lents.
He explains that a decent amount of moisture content in the air and ground, as well as a bit of heat, is required for morels to grow. "Rainy days followed by a couple sunny days and you'll see morels springing up," he says.
Starting in spring, morel season can last into mid-summer. The first ones are usually spotted in northwest California, Washington and Oregon, followed by Virginia, West Virgina, the Midwest and Colorado. Morels can be found in Illinois and Indiana, but due to the wet climate, Michigan and Wisconsin produce the most.
Weather is the main factor in how early the season starts. "Last year we had them before St. Patrick's Day because it was so warm early in the season," he says, "This year they came about four weeks later." Morels can go into July, but one starts to see a slow down in mid-June.
"As the other regions dry up," Lents explains, "the entire country begins to source from the Midwest, so the end of the season can come quite quickly."
Also growing during this season is a type of mushrooms called 'false morels' as their appearance resembles that of a true morel. Lents explains they look similar, however, they tend to be more bulbous and not as pointy in shape, often have a reddish tint to them and texturally they can be "floppy" and fall apart easily.
"I don't use them?but they are not a horrible mushroom. And you have to be very careful with them as some are actually poisonous," he says.
So what does a true morel taste like? There are slight nuances in size, flavor and color depending from where the mushroom is foraged. Lents describes them generally as "clean and earthy" and the liquid they release is "nutty." Texturally, they have "a great, firm texture—somewhere between a firm mushroom like a porcini and a softer mushroom." Morels come in a range of shades from blonde to black and the flavor can be mild to very intense. Lents prefers the deep brown-black Midwest morels for their 'aggressive flavor.'
When it comes to enjoying these delicacies, Lents says, "Simple is the best. It is one of the best ingredients of spring and you don't want to mess around with it." He recommends preparations that bring out the true flavor noting they do well with direct heat and a touch of acidity. Lents is partial to using wine, particularly slightly oxidized vin jaune from the Jura region as its sherry characteristics meld well with the earthiness of the morel.
Morels pair well with ingredients of the spring season: poussin, green garlic, spring onions, veal, eggs, asparagus, fish and shellfish. "They are versatile," he says, "They won't make anything worse." And when the season winds down, he says they buy more to freeze or dry and turn into a powder for use later in the season 'to lend an earthiness to a dish.' This season is winding down, so head out to try them fresh.
Want to try the seasonal delicacy? Head to these places to taste the trend:
Sixteen | Trump International Hotel & Tower | 401 North Wabash Avenue | 312.588.8000
Executive chef Lents' "jewels of spring" dish highlights crawfish, morels and fava beans. Crawfish stock glazes the morels and are served with crawfish in a vin jaune sauce. Fava beans and hay smoked ricotta accompany the dish. In A Gift of the Haystack & Barnyard he hay roasts a veal chop and pairs it with morels and fiddlehead ferns. The menu changes from spring to summer on June 20. Lents also invites diners to choose their ingredients from a farmer's market cart before he takes it back to the kitchen to prepare your meal.
Purple Pig | 500 North Michigan Avenue | 312.464.1744
Executive chef Jimmy Bannos, Jr. just added morcilla paired with morel mushrooms and fava beans to the menu of his incredibly popular small plates restaurant on Michigan Avenue.
Atwood Café | 1 West Washington Street | 312.368.1900
Executive chef, Derek Simcik, prepares a Rabbit Scallopini with fiddleheads, foraged morels, fava beans, olives and a quail egg. Through the season he offers a variety of innovative specials utilizing morels like his tuna with peas, asparagus, morels and kafir-lime-algae froth dish.
Spiaggia | 980 North Michigan Avenue | 312.280.3300
Two dishes on the current menu show how well ingredients from the sea pair with earthy morels. The Wood-roasted Ora King salmon is paired with morel mushrooms, sunchokes, spinach in a balsamic black garlic sauce. And morel mushrooms, crispy dewlap, Parmigiano Reggiano, roasted polenta and Acetaia San Giacomo traditional 18 year balsamic accompany wood-roasted diver scallops.
Paris Club | 59 West Hubbard | 312.595.0800
Executive chef Alex Ageneau utilizes morels in the Monday Plat Du Jour at this River North French Brasserie. The lapin à la crème pairs a white wine braised rabbit leg with grilled, house-made rabbit-pork sausage in a light white-wine cream sauce with peas and morels.
Sepia | 123 North Jefferson Street | 312.441.1920
Executive chef Andrew Zimmerman combines morels with other spring staples for a decadent starter at this Michelin-starred West Loop restaurant. Simply sautéed ramps, asparagus and morels serve as a bed for a crispy soft cooked egg and that bathes the dish in creamy yolk.
Two | 1132 West Grand Avenue | 312.624.8363
Executive chef Tom Van Lente sautés morels with grilled wild baby green onions (foraged by chef's father), Nichols Farm asparagus and crispy fried shallots. The whole dish is then lightly coated in a brown butter, white wine sauce.
Filini Bar & Restaurant | 221 North Colombus Drive | 312.477.0234
The risotto currently on the menu is an ode to spring with pea puree, asparagus, morels, and blue crab. And for those who can't get enough of these shrooms, there is talk of offering a morel tasting menu as well!
mk | 868 North Franklin Avenue | 312.482.9179
Morels are all over Chef Erick Williams's spring menu. A starter of pan-seared strauss veal sweetbreads paired with crushed english peas & shoots, morel mushrooms and ramp leaves ushers in the season. A pasta course tosses morel & hen of the wood mushrooms, pecorino sardo, marrow butter and thyme with house-made pasta. And for a heartier option, a wagyu ribeye is grilled over hardwood charcoal and served with new potato puree, morels, ramps
black truffle butter and a red wine sauce.
Catherine De Orio dishes on all things cuisine, cocktail and cosmopolitan for editorial and broadcast outlets locally and nationally. Follow her on Twitter @CatCalls