Flavors: The Morel Hunter and the Chef

May 15, 2017

Blond and Gray Morel mushrooms found by the Yellowstone River.
Credit Stella Fong

Most morel mushroom hunters keep secrets, stored deep in the chambers of their minds, holding the location of mushrooms past. This burden of hiding information, and then the want of recognition, sometimes compels them to share what they know, only to be held back by protectiveness and paranoia.

I found a hunter who uncloaked the secret and revealed with modesty his skills as a morel mushroom hunter. I tracked him down with the help of Executive Chef James Honaker, owner of Bistro Enzo. Trevor McFarren, owner of Yellowstone Striping by day, secured morels for the top restaurants in Billings, at sunrise and sunset.

In this blog, I will describe my morning morel hunt with Trevor McFarren as he offered tips for harvesting these gems. The mushroom, with a long conical creviced cap atop a hollow stem, commands the attention of chefs who relish cooking this elusively flavorful delicacy. After the foraging, I brought the bounty to Bistro Enzo where Chef Honaker showcased the fresh morels in a Sherry Thyme Cream Sauce with Angel Hair Pasta.

McFarren met me in the Burger King parking lot on this sunny May morning as clouds parted welcoming blue skies after many days of rain, with temperatures edging into the sixties. I approached a truck with its tailgate down as a man was putting on his waders. After introductions, I followed him in my car over Interstate 90 along Midland to turn down towards the Yellowstone River.

The first morel mushrooms sighted right next to the gravel trail.
Credit Stella Fong

Fly fishing led McFarren to hunting morels. He fished frequently, and would often take a break during the action to pick mushrooms.  His fishing placed him in riparian areas where morels are often found, especially in Eastern Montana.  Often he would forego fishing to hunt morels.  So, naturally McFarren’s uniform was a pair of waders. The coverage kept ticks at bay and at the same time, prevented scrapes and scratches while moving through the brush. Waderless, I sprayed my pant legs and exposed skin with insect repellent.

With a plastic bag from the grocery store in his pocket, we left the parking lot and walked on an established gravel trail near the torrential Yellowstone River. The recent rains had softened the ground with moisture. As we walked, McFarren emphasized patience in the pursuit of the morel. I followed him with anticipation, hoping to re-live his collecting nearly 40 pounds of mushrooms in the last week.

He warned of false morels that were an uglier version of the true mushroom. The false morel’s cap was brain-like in appearance with lobes and flaps. The imposter’s stem was interlaced with tissue while the true morel’s is hollow.   Chef  Honaker spoke of how the false morel exuded a formaldehyde-like aroma. While the true morel’s cap was lengthier than its stem, this did not hold for the fake version.

Though a permit was not needed for McFarren to collect the morels by the Yellowstone River here in Billings, he advised those who ventured into the National Forest and Parks to adhere to the rules and regulations.

McFarren preferred to hunt in the mornings when the sun was coming up. With his work schedule, he often times collected in the evenings around sunset though   shadows and glare often times made it more challenging, especially if he was looking in areas under branches and in the trees.

In the beginning of the season, the first mushrooms were usually found by the river and especially on the islands when the mushrooms started springing up in moist areas littered with decayed plant matter such as leaves, branches and dead grass. There seemed to be an optimal thickness as the coverage needed to be loose enough for the mushroom to push through. McFarren had collected morels that had difficulty emerging as their caps were folded over.

Trevor McFarren gets ready to harvest the first morels of the day.
Credit Stella Fong

On this day, the first sighting of the morels was close to the trail. I spotted the first ones, a cluster of thumb size mushrooms where water settled at the edges. As he bent down to make his collection, he plucked the mushroom from the ground at its base while scanning the nearby area. Like magic, other mushrooms came into focus, mostly singles within a 10-feet radius.  McFarren said, “Once you find the first ones, your eyes adjust. You get into that mushroom mode.”

McFarren detached each mushroom from the ground at its base.  At the bottom, a white mold acted like threads reaching for the dirt. He broke off this bottom part and threw it onto the ground believing it helped to regenerate more mushrooms for the future. Also, his goal was to deliver the cleanest mushrooms possible to his buyers.

Blond morels found in an open area of a forested area.
Credit Stella Fong

As we continued hunting, McFarren mused, “I wonder how many mushrooms are looking at us right now.” With careful searching, the feeling of missing mushrooms near us nagged him. He joked about inventing a sighting scope to locate the morels hiding from his eyes.

The mushrooms in the open areas were blonde morels, favored by chefs. These tan, khaki-colored mushrooms tended to be larger, what McFarren called “hogs,” as they could be as large as a baseball. In more forested areas, the Gray Morel popped up from the decomposing foliage. These mushrooms tended to be smaller, more the size of fingers with dark gray crevices and ashen color ridges. He found the later mushrooms harder to spot.

A Blond Morel next to a quarter.
Credit Stella Fong

McFarren shared how the morels were so unpredictable. “You can come back to the same place with the same conditions, year to year, and there will not be any in the exact same spot,” he continued, “It takes 3 to 4 years for them to come back.” His advice: “Hunt the same area but not the same spot.”  Most importantly, the conditions need to be conducive to the morel’s growth.

McFarren generosity divulging his secret morel spot was rare and appreciated. On the subject of competition, he said, “It’s a big area. Generally most mushroom pickers are nice and helpful.” 

On this day, we harvested about a pound of mushrooms in less than an hour, and I headed over to Bistro Enzo around the lunch hour to let Chef Honaker have a go at them.

Chef Honaker prepared a Morel Mushroom Sherry Thyme Cream Sauce with angel hair pasta.  During the preparation and cooking of this dish, he shared some wisdom on mushrooms and provided advice for young chefs.

Chef James Honaker slices up asparagus for cooking.
Credit Joe Dillard

As he prepared the morels, he differentiated between morels found by the river and those found in the forest. River morels harbor sand while the forest variety carry more bugs. As he cut the morels for his dish, he suggested halving them to observe the central core, and to size them for eating.  He rinsed the mushrooms in cold water and then drained them thoroughly in a strainer.

Honaker’s suggestion for storage was to cover them with a cloth or parchment paper and refrigerate.  By storing them this way, the mushrooms should have at least a week of shelf life.

Honaker encouraged flexibility in the cooking method. Though sherry was his alcohol of choice he believed port or brandy would be good alternatives.  The cook should decide on the doneness of the morels. In reducing the sauce, the time varies, depending on the hydration of the mushrooms, and the fat content of the cream, with a heavier cream taking less time.  Honaker kept a close eye on the pan, observing the amount of liquid, making adjustments and stirring minimally. The mushrooms were delicate, and over-stirring would break them up.

Morel Mushroom Sherry Thyme Cream Sauce reducing to syrup consistency.
Credit Joe Dillard

The chef’s culinary skill was obvious as he quickly sliced the shallots in equal slices, and  in the way he added his ingredients in layers,  knowing how each contributed to the flavors in the pan. He patiently waited for the sauce to thicken to a consistency of syrup rather than watching a clock. His second-nature cooking sense came from over 30 years in a professional kitchen.

Executive Chef James Honaker with Morel Mushroom Sherry Thyme Cream Sauce over angel hair pasta.
Credit Joe Dillard

As he spooned his morel pasta dish onto a plate, he shared the following advice: “Creativity is a sin.” He advised young chefs to perfect basic cooking skills prior to attempting creativity.  “Learn your craft,” he emphasized.

Both Chef James Honaker and Trevor McFarren have learned their craft. Both generously shared their talents and secrets making Billings just a little more flavorful.

James Honaker’s Morel Mushroom Sherry Thyme Cream Sauce

Serves 2 or 4 as an appetizer

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
4 to 6 stalks of asparagus, trimmed, sliced on a diagonal
4 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed

2 tablespoons amontillado sherry
¼ cup white wine
8 ounces morel mushrooms, discard stems, sliced in half or quartered depending on size
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 tablespoon lemon zest, finely grated
1/3 cup veal or chicken stock
½ cup heavy cream
¼ pound Parmesan Reggiano chunk
8 ounces Angel Hair Pasta, cooked

Soak mushrooms quickly in cold water. Then drain in a strainer to rid of any sand or dirt and any excess water. Set aside. In a pot, boil water for reheating pasta and then keep warm until ready to use.

Heat oil in sauté pan over medium high heat, add shallots and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle in salt.  Add asparagus and cook for a minute. Add thyme, sherry and white wine. Cook for two minutes. Add mushrooms and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, lowering heat to a simmer. Add salt. Stir in lemon zest and add stock. Simmer for a minute and then add the cream. Simmer until sauce thickens to the consistency of syrup, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Turn water back up to boiling. Quickly heat pasta in the water, drain thoroughly. Toss with sauce in pan. Divide evenly onto plates and serve with freshly shaved Parmesan cheese.