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.
Mushroom risotto is pretty simple: You want to revel in the flavor of these mushrooms, so not much else should compete with it. The only special ingredient (other than the morels) you need to make this is risotto rice. You must use a short-grain rice for risotto, or it will not work; long-grain rice has a different set of starches, and will not make that creamy sauce. I prefer carnaroli rice here, but arborio or vialone nano are also excellent choices. Arborio is sold in most supermarkets
- 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
- 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.
- 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.