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Asparagus and Morels

Morel mushrooms thrive in forests following a big burn.
Christine Weaver-Cimala
Morel mushrooms thrive in forests following a big burn.

Last week we talked all about Spring-time’s signature vegetable, the asparagus. As it turns out we barely scratched the surface. Spring is also the season for the king of mushrooms, the noble morel. And Chef Jerry Pellegrino will tell you that asparagus and morels are natural partners. Whereas both are earthy, one has a sweetness to it and the other a nuttiness of flavor.

It is nearly impossible to cultivate morels. Just about all the ones you find in the market were foraged in the wild. They pop up in very early spring, preferring the edge of the woods. They also love dead and rotting trees, especially apple trees. Look around the base of the tree to find them.

Morels are unique among mushrooms. Not only is their taste unique, but their structure is also too. They are conical and hollow, which makes them ideal for stuffing. But the surface is like a waffle, with all sorts of nooks and crannies. This makes it a lot more difficult to clean.

Here’s what you should do. First, simply shake the morels vigorously. This will dislodge a lot of the sand and soil they were grown in. Next, fill a large bowl with cold water and dump the morels in. Agitate them, and watch the dirt come pouring out. You want to do this quickly, because all mushrooms will get waterlogged if kept immersed too long. If your water is quite dirty, empty it and repeat the process. Once you are satisfied
that they are clean, dry the morels off between layers of paper towels.

About preparing morels: NEVER eat them raw. Uncooked morels have toxin that will give you a serious bellyache. This toxin disappears while cooking. But generally, it is no more difficult than cutting up your clean morels and gently sautéing them in butter. Of course, you can get more inventive, which is where Jerry’s recipes come in.

Sautéed Asparagus and Morels
¼ pound fresh morel mushrooms
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 to 2 green garlic stalks, sliced (white and purple bulb, and light green stalk), can sub shallots
1 teaspoon herbs de Provence (can use dry thyme or a combination of thyme and dry tarragon)
1 pound of asparagus, trimmed (choose asparagus on the thin side)
Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the morels:
Slice the morel mushrooms in half lengthwise. Place it in a bowl and cover with water. Agitate the water to release grit or dirt from the mushrooms. Drain. Repeat. Then fill with water and let sit while you prep the other ingredients.

 Fill the bottom of a large skillet with about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch of water. Add a quarter teaspoon of salt. Add one slice of the prepped green garlic. Bring to a boil.

Add the asparagus in an even layer. Cook until barely cooked (still firm, but can easily poke with a fork), about 3 minutes. Remove to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.

Drain and rinse the morels one more time. Then slice them crosswise into 1/4-inch slices.

Heat olive oil and melt butter in a large skillet (I use a 10-inch cast iron pan) on medium high heat. Add the sliced green garlic and the sliced morels.

Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence.

Cook on medium high heat until the mushrooms start releasing their water, about 3 to 5 minutes. While the mushrooms are cooking, cut the asparagus in 1-inch diagonal segments. Add the asparagus to the mushroom green garlic mixture. Cook until hot the season with black pepper, toss to combine.

 Crab Stuffed Morels
Fresh morels about 15-20 medium to large size, cleaned
Crab Filling
8 oz lump crab meat
4 tablespoons breadcrumbs such as panko
¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup high quality grated parmesan cheese
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro, or a combination of parsley, chives and tarragon
½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
¼ cup finely chopped scallions
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 medium clove garlic grated on a microplane grater
Fresh grated lemon zest

For Baking
5 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon grated high quality parmesan cheese

Cutting the mushrooms
Using a scissors, cut open one side of each morel. Large morels that will be easy to stuff can be left whole, but I prefer to cut them to make stuffing easier. Reserve the cut morels.

Crab stuffing.
For the crab filling, combine all the filling ingredients gently, trying to keep some of the crab pieces intact, then taste a spoonful. Adjust the seasoning as needed for salt, lemon zest and herbs until it tastes good to you. Lemon zest is important here as this is a heavy dish--the citrus will add some brightness to the dish. Mix the breadcrumbs and parmesan.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Take a tablespoon or so of the filling and stuff each morel, then fold them closed. Put the morels, cut side down in a baking dish that will fit them snugly, then press them down a bit to flatten the surface. Note that if the morels aren't fitted snugly in a dish, the breadcrumbs may fall off.

Sprinkle the mushrooms with the breadcrumbs and parmesan, drizzle over the butter and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden and puffed, then serve over sautéed asparagus.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.