I often have a hard time with morels. As a forager, it took me years to dial them in with any regularity. Now that I can get them consistently every year, as a cook I still find myself using morels not as the star of the plate, but as a bit player in some other dish. The morel is such a wonderful mushroom it really ought to be given a chance for center stage.
And while I know a lot of people like them simply dusted in flour and fried, for me the best way to highlight morels is in a mushroom risotto.
Why risotto? Because this particular way of making rice is tailor-made for mushrooms, especially dried ones. The water you use to rehydrate your dried mushrooms becomes an instant broth to cook the rice in. If you’ve never made a risotto, which is Italy’s signature rice dish, it uses a lot of liquid and requires near-constant stirring to be perfect.
That stirring agitates the starches in the rice, causing some of it to slough off into the liquid, which results in a creamy sauce — only without the cream.
Most good risotto is served loose, almost soupy, with rice that is cooked al dente. Mushy risotto is a crime against God and Nature. A tighter risotto — one that could be served on a plate instead of in a bowl — is an acceptable style, although I am not overly fond of it.
Risotto can also be built around each variety of mushroom. My porcini risotto is different from this morel risotto, and I made a risotto variant with black trumpet mushrooms called midnight rice that is different from either of them.
In this recipe, I am pairing the morel risotto with fresh wild onions I gathered in the Sierra Nevada. I know you won’t have wild Sierra onions, but it doesn’t matter: Any sort of green onion will work.
Even if you are not a forager, I urge you to make this dish. You can easily buy a packet of dried morels at most supermarkets, or you can buy morels online. You only need 1/2 to 1 ounce of dried ones to make enough risotto for four people, and it is worth the effort, I guarantee it.
Morel Mushroom Risotto
- 1 quart duck stock, chicken stock or vegetable stock
- 2-3 cups water
- 2 tablespoon duck fat or butter
- 1 cup minced shallot, leek or onion
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 cups risotto rice
- 1/2 pound fresh morels, or 1 ounce dried
- 2 tablespoons chopped chives or parsley
- 1/2 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
FOR FRESH MORELS
- Pour the stock and 2 cups water into a pot and bring it to a gentle simmer.
- In another medium pot, heat the duck fat or butter over medium-high heat and saute the minced shallot or onion until it softens and turns translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic cloves, the morels and the rice and mix well. Cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring often.
- When the liquid from the morels has evaporated, add 1/2 cup of hot stock to the rice and stir well. Sprinkle a little salt over everything. The key to making a great risotto is to constantly stir, or at least stir every minute or so. As each 1/2 cup of stock is absorbed, add another, then another until the rice is cooked through, but still firm.
- When you reach that point, add the grated cheese and a little more stock. Stir to incorporate the cheese into the risotto. Add the chopped chives and serve at once.
FOR DRIED MORELS
- Start by setting the morels in a bowl. Pour 2 cups of boiling water over the morels and cover the bowl. Let the mushrooms steep for 30 minutes to 2 hours. Remove the mushrooms, squeeze them dry with your hands over the bowl, catching the juices. Chop the morels and set aside. Strain the soaking water through a paper towel set in a colander; you will be cooking with this soaking water, and you want it free of debris.
- Now follow the directions as above, but instead of 2 cups of water, use the 2 cups of the mushroom soaking water.