More Morels, Please

May 11th, 2010: As seen on Chicago Sun-Times (PDF)

shroom_lead

The elusive morel mushroom season is upon us, sprouting on menus in spades.

Smoky. Nutty. Hints of cream. These are just some of the alluring flavors that characterize the morel mushroom, a staple of spring menus across the city. The honeycomb-shaped delicacies start popping up mid-April in golden hues, darkening to a bark-brown peak in May before they bid palates goodbye mid-June, making the hunt just as fun as the feast. Here’s how some Chicago kitchens are celebrating the short-lived season.

Green Zebra 


Photo: Gavin PaulThe executive chef of this white-tablecloth vegetarian temple, Molly Harrison, is a mushroom fanatic with a secondary soft spot for asparagus. She shows that love by pureeing white spears, stuffing them into into a farm egg raviolo and topping things off with sautéed, salt-kissed morels to bring out “a nice woodsy component to go with the sweetness.” Sprinkled strips of sorrel help the dish ($12) finish with a little citrus zin.

Chilam Balam Cocina Mexicana


Photo: Gavin PaulTwenty-three year-old former Rick Bayless protege, Chuy Valencia, is a fan of “big chunks in his food” over at his new farm-to-table Spanish spot in Lakeview. He’s digging the versatility of the morel, both grilling and braising pinky-size caps to single-chop and toss with a malty Michoacan pasilla sauce and pop in corn masa gordita pockets ($9.95). Expect a smoky taste-bud party until the bed of parsnip and red onion farmer’s slaw cools things down.

Anteprima


Photo: Gavin PaulChef Carlos Ysaguirre takes more of a minimalist route at this Andersonville spot, putting quarter-bunches of morels in company with their royal trumpet and hen of the woods brethren, letting them “speak for themselves” in his wild mushroom cartoccio ($10). It’s all baked in a parchment pouch with a little olive oil, knob onions and white wine, then cut tableside and served with a sage leaf and sprig of thyme for texture.

Gage


2Chef Dirk Flanigan’s traditional salt, butter and pepper treatment starts with thumb-size (“unless you’re Michael Jordan”) ‘shrooms with a texture that makes you “feel like you’re doing something wrong” when you bite into them. The chef then adds in a poached Swan Creek duck egg, toothsome Nichols Farm peas and chunks of aged L’Amuse gouda to round it out with a caramel sweet-salt balance ($13).

Nightwood


Photo: Gavin PaulDown in Pilsen at Lula Cafe’s sister spot, Jason Vincent and crew are playing with a “mix-and-match puzzle” of sorts, concentrating on a morel ragu that took an entire day and two pounds of ‘shrooms to break down into a traditional veal-stock demi-glace, thickened with a little green garlic and red wine. One night, you might catch it in an interesting warm form, blanketing strips of veal tenderloin in a garlic aioli and mustard green-dressed carpaccio ($12), whereas “tomorrow, who knows where it’s going to go,” teases Jason of the restaurant’s daily changing menu.

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