It's springtime in northeast Kansas, and for the past few weeks, the Journal-World newsroom has been abuzz with talk of a very special fungus: the morel mushroom.
Journal-World photographer and resident mushroom hunter Richard Gwin is particularly enthused, and every few days he'll show off iPhone snapshots of his most recent morel haul. You may remember this gem of a video from 2011, in which he illustrates how to track down and cook morels.
A number of restaurants in town share Richard's appreciation for the elusive (but richly flavored) mushroom, serving up a variety of morel-centric dishes while they're still plentiful along Lawrence-area river banks and hillsides.
At Merchants Pub and Plate, chef/owner T.K. Peterson has been foraging for morels for about a week now, though he estimates it'll be another week before the mushrooms start popping up on the Merchants menu. The plan is to rotate morel specials for the duration of the season, Peterson says.
Right now, he's got a few ideas: a simple pasta with shallots, wine wine, butter, garlic and maybe a bit of cream; perhaps a flatbread with fresh herbs and cheese. He's also made a jam from the mushrooms and served it with grilled meats in the past.
Rick Martin, chef-owner of Limestone Pizza, plans to offer a morel pizza topped with Gruyere cheese and cream. It was a big hit last year with customers, he says.
Last Tuesday, Genovese offered a lunch special of house-made spinach ricotta gnocchi with locally foraged morels and beef short ribs. I also saw a Facebook post from 715 on Monday advertising a dish of shiitakes and morels. Hank Charcuterie introduced a morel special of its own: sherry agave cream, poached egg, charred carrot and roasted pepitas via Facebook last Friday.
Have you tried any of these specials yet? Any I missed out on? We've still got at least a few weeks until morel season ends — when temperatures hit 80 degrees, from what Richard tells me — so I'll keep an eye on social media to see what dishes pop up at local restaurants.
It’s the time of year when morels are popping up in Kansas woods and in the news feeds of those foraging-types you’re friends with on Facebook — not that that does us non-foraging-types any good.
Luckily, a few Lawrence restaurants have secured sources for the elusive mushrooms and are plating up the pungent (in a good way!) fungi in various forms.
I got my fix today at Genovese, where the lunch specials included a Pizza Bianca with morels, Maggie's Farm purple asparagus, fresh spinach, Crescenza cheese and truffle oil. In the past week I’ve also seen morel specials advertised at 715 — where they’ve offered the mushrooms at dinnertime, sauteed with pancetta and served over grilled WheatFields bread and Maytag polenta — and at Pachamama’s — where they showed them Friday on Facebook atop pan roasted walleye, along with roasted cauliflower and dill and onion bubble and squeak.
To buy morels to cook yourself, Pendleton’s Kaw Valley Country Market also has advertised morels in their newsletter, although in limited amounts. For availability call 843-1409.
Watch social media feeds and keep an eye on downtown sandwich boards to catch any remaining morel specials before what's left of the season is gone. And maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try and make more of those foraging types more than just Facebook friends — they're probably more likely to share than to give away their secret hunting spots.