Screw Morels, Check These Out!
When you go fishing, sometimes you come home to show off a big beautiful trophy fish. Sometimes you just bring home a bunch of bluegill or crappie or other small pan fish--nothing to brag about, but they taste good nonetheless. Sometimes, you come home with nothing at all. Mushroom hunting is the exact same way! Unfortunately, even the most experienced, adept foragers go on all day hunts and come home empty handed. Not only is that a necessary truth, but it’s
also, in my opinion, what makes foraging so much more delightful. If everytime we all went out we came home with giant baskets of morels, they wouldn’t taste quite as good. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. But then, if morels are the trophy fish, what are the pan fish in the spring? Let’s dive in.
My way of reckoning with this unfortunate reality has been to learn some of the other "goods of the woods" that I can take home, in case my morel basket is empty or close to it.
In the Fungi Kingdom, a go-to is Pheasant's Back (polyporous squamosus), so named because the top side of this shelf fungi has a patchy lattice of brown rhombus like shapes reminiscent of the patterns on a pheasant's feathers. Pheasant's back (aka Dryad's Saddle in some parts) is worthwhile to know because they often fruit in both spring and fall with the occasional summer appearance. It's an easy ID. They have pores on the underside that can be quite large. They are tender and damp to the touch (if they are not, they're either not pheasant's back or they are but they're too old to be worth picking). When broken, they reek of cucumber or watermelon rind. These fungi are excellent when picked no larger than the size of your hand, otherwise they become tough and inedible. Sautee them in garlic and butter, right alongside your morels, if you have a few. They'll pick up that more woody nuanced flavor and stretch out a smaller morel harvest. If entertaining, many may not be able to discern the difference!
Another that I strongly recommend is harvesting the unfurled "fiddleheads" of the Ostrich fern (matteuccia struthiopteris). The ostrich fern is renowned for being a delicious spring edible. They also happen to be extremely common and absolutely delicious. It is worthwhile to note that not all fiddleheads are edible. Here's a quick and dirty guide to fiddlehead ID. First, if it's hairy, you aren't going to want to eat it. Secondly, check for a groove down the center the stem that runs down to the base of the plant. If it has a groove on the inside of the stem (much like celery) then it is an Ostrich fern, a delectable edible. Typically, if you follow this stem to the base, it is growing from a cluster of five, ten or even fifteen other Ostriches. Only pick a few from each of these clumps. A good rule of thumb would be about ten to twenty percent (so if there's five stems, pick one, if ten stems you could get away with two). There's another fern, called the Bracken fern, common up in northern Minnesota where I lived for a good bit, that is also considered to be a delicious wild edible. It's true, it's very good. I've eaten it. Tastes quite a bit like a hearty asparagus but not that much different from an Ostrich fern. With all that said, it has been identified as containing small amounts of carcinogens. Some say it's too small to worry about, given that you only eat it once a year, others say it's significant enough to give good cause to pass this plant over. I'll let you do your own research and make your own judgments on that, but it's good to know.
So I mentioned a fungi and a fern that are tasty alternatives to morels while you're on a hunt. Here's a couple quick others: eat some stinging nettle. It's actually edible, oddly enough, with a flavor akin to spinach. If you soak it in water, it renders the spines obsolete and it cooks down nicely. Some folks who enjoy nettle like to make it into a tea. Also Garlic mustard is a good one to eat, though it's usually not as obvious until later in the morel season. It's a great one to harvest because it's invasive to the US and makes a nice garlicy alternative base to basil for a pesto. Last, I can't not mention oyster mushrooms. They are a ubiquitous mushroom and can grow almost any time of year. Though they really start to pop in June in Minnesota, I've found them in May and have heard of April finds too given the right conditions. Good luck out there folks!