Justin Rashid discovered morels before they went Hollywood. Rashid was in his 20s, a bit ahead of his time, running a little store in Petoskey in 1979 that he called "Whole Foods" (not THAT Whole Foods) and carrying fresh wild local produce. A friend of his had gone to work as a waitress at a restaurant in New York City, where the chef was using fresh morels.
She connected the two. Rashid, who had been picking morels since he was a little boy, began shipping him fresh northern Michigan morels daily via air from Pellston.
"I was way ahead of the local foods movement," Rashid said.
That chef, the renowned Larry Forgione, eventually came to visit and was enthralled with the region's orchards and wild bounty. At the time, he was buying jam from France, and asked Rashid if he could make it instead. Rashid did, using northern Michigan fruit, and a partnership was born. Their company, American Spoon Foods, went on to sell dried morels, along with jams, jellies, salsas, dressings, honey, syrup and other locally made products.
In the nearly three decades since, morels have earned a place at the gourmet table and a star on the culinary walk of fame. Already the theme of two wildly popular festivals in northern Lower Michigan — the Mesick Mushroom Festival and National Morel Mushroom Festival in Boyne City — they were embraced by the Rowe Inn and (now closed) Tapawingo in Ellsworth early on. Today, they show up on menus year-round and flavor everything from sauces to soups.
Not that you'd be able to get Chef Hermann Suhs' morel soup recipe.
Oh, he sells the soup — both from the menu in his Chef Hermann's European Café in Cadillac and in a concentrate for patrons to mix up at home. But the recipe? Not for sale. Or for free. He worked too hard to create it.
"It took me 11 tries," he said.
Suhs is quite proud of his recipe, though. Some morel soups are too pungent, he said. They can actually contain too many mushrooms. His is mild.
He also feels it's important to include a mix of other mushrooms, which his does — not that he'll say which ones.
Like Rashid, Suhs discovered morels well before it became trendy to do anything more than fry them up in butter in a skillet as mushroom hunters have been doing for decades.
"We cooked with them in Europe," said Suhs, who started offering his morel soup 25 years ago. "That's where it comes from."
Gerald Gramzay, corporate chef for Stafford's Hospitality, said he's guaranteed a steady supply of fresh morels by buying from a source that produces them in a controlled environment. The company's Weathervane in Charlevoix, The Pier in Harbor Springs and Perry Hotel and Bay View Inn in Petoskey go through "pounds and pounds and pounds" of morels, he said.
There's Morel Bisque, offered seasonally and made with sherry and port. They do a morel cream sauce for chicken or walleye. Sautéed morels go in salsas. Mixed with artichokes and tomatoes, they make a sweet garlic relish.
Gramzay said his restaurants have gotten away from buying fresh morels "through the back door" from mushroom hunters with bounty to sell.
"There's a gentleman, a scientist, who has figured out how to raise them, like farm-raising fish, he farm raises mushrooms in a very controlled environment with mushroom spores and certain types of mulch," Gramzay said. "They're not as big and meaty as the fresh ones, but they're available year-round and at a fraction of the cost of the dried ones."
Terry Left, owner of Terry's Place in Charlevoix, serves morels on whitefish and, in the summer, puts them on the menu with veal.
And he suggests an alternative to dried morels. He buys as many as he can in-season, cooks and then and stores them in the freezer.
"I sauté and freeze them in packages," he said. "Then I have them in the size container I use."
While Justin Rashid still loves morels, his company no longer dries and sells them.
"It wasn't that there was a decline in demand, but a decline in supply," said Rashid. Loss of habitat — Dutch elm disease and loss of stands of popple and aspen — has had a huge effect, he said.
Cooking with morels
Veteran morel hunters — those whose affinity for the mushrooms goes back decades — unanimously cite sautéeing in butter as their favorite way to serve morels. Just like their mothers and fathers before them, they sauté cleaned morels in butter, serve them over their favorite piece of meat — and eat. Others like to dip them in egg, roll them in corn meal, flour or crushed crackers, then fry and serve them up that way — a delectable snack.
Fettuccine Morello a la Chef Hermann
2 oz. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ lb. cooked fettuccine
½ c. heavy cream
2 oz. salted butter
1 oz olive oil
1 t. chopped shallot
½ t. chopped Italian red garlic
2 oz. fresh morels or 2-3 oz. reconstituted dried morels
Salt to taste
Dash of dried thyme leaves
½ t. chopped parsley
Dash of coarse ground black pepper
Sauté morels with shallots and garlic until soft, about three minutes over medium heat. Add the al dente cooked fettuccine, sauté one minute and then add heavy cream. Let it cook down over medium heat for about three minutes. Add half the grated cheese, blend and take it off the flame. Add seasonings and let stand for a couple of minutes. Serve with the extra grated cheese.
— Chef Hermann Suhs, Cadillac
Tapawingo's Morel Mushroom Tart
1 10- or 11-inch pie crust
4 oz. sliced bacon
1 oz. dried morels (10 oz. fresh)
2 T. butter
1 t. lemon juice
6 oz. Swiss cheese, diced
¼ c. Parmesan cheese, grated
2 c. heavy cream
3 whole eggs and 2 yolks
¼ t. freshly grated nutmeg
2 T. dry bread crumbs
Salt and fresh ground pepper
If using dried morels, rehydrate in warm water for about an hour until plump.
Drain and set aside on paper towel. Roll pastry to a 1/8-inch thickness and line a 10- or 11-inch tart pan. Prick the bottom with a fork. Line pastry with parchment paper, fill with pie weights. Bake in preheated 425° oven for about 15 minutes.
Remove weights and paper and bake an additional 4 minutes. Take out of oven and reduce temperature to 300°.
Cut bacon in ¼-inch slices and sauté until crisp. Drain and set aside. Slice morels and sauté in butter. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add bacon and Swiss cheese. Scald cream and cool.
Mix eggs and yolks together and add cream. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Sprinkle breadcrumbs on the baked tart shell. Spread the mushroom mixture on top of them. Spoon in egg and cream mixture. Bake until tart is barely firm to touch. Turn off oven and leave until the tart is quite well set. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and serve hot.
— Chef Harlan Peterson, Tapawingo, Ellsworth
Celebrate the morel
-- The Mesick Lions 51st annual Mushroom Festival is scheduled for May 7-9. Visit www.mesick-mushroomfest.org
Need a little help? The Mesick Mushroom Festival sells Mushroom Picker's Kits. For $6, you get a morel treasure hunt map and mesh bag for collecting morels. They're available at Sparks Restaurant in Mesick or by calling Louie Hughes at 878-5204.
-- Boyne City celebrates its 50th annual National Morel Mushroom Festival May 13-16. More details can be found at www.morelfest.com.