HUNTING FOR “MERKLES”
Blackbirds are taking over the bird feeder as they wipe out another sack full of seed. Cardinals and mourning doves are still vying for the seed, but they are vastly outnumbered. We have had the redwing blackbirds recently, but these are the solid black ones. It is impossible to shoo them away, for they merely fly up in the maple tree and swoop down again. I wish they would leave and make nests deep in the woods, but they would just hatch out another flock to return for feed.
April gently sprinkles our hills with springtime beauty, and with plenty of showers to encourage the grass to grow green and lush. The apple trees put forth their fragrant pink and white blossoms, promising fruit in the future. There is a forecast for frost in our hills, so hopefully it won’t freeze the bloom.
The redbud trees are blooming now, and the white dogwoods are putting out their blossoms that bless our hills. Redbud trees have always been special to me. My brother Larry planted one for Mom in our front yard when I was growing up, and it was beautiful even when it was not blooming. Heart-shaped leaves that turned yellow in the fall made a spot of beauty there. I’ve always been attracted to the pods that come after the flowers are gone, and I once found a recipe for stir-fries containing them.
They must have been past their prime, as they tasted like a mouthful of dry leaves or hay. They have to be picked while they are pink and tender. The flowers can be used in a salad (my sister Mary Ellen has used them often) and my flower book says that they can be fried. That is something I’d like to try. Our hills do produce many wild foods that can be eaten.
One of the best wild food is now being found, and that is the mushrooms, which are called morels. We call them “merkles,” and some folks know them as “Molly Moochers.” No matter what you call them, they are one of the most delicious wild mushrooms that abound in our hills, and probably the most widely recognized. They are cone-shaped, and honeycombed. The black and half-cap morels have been found for a little while, but now the yellow ones are appearing.
These are choice edibles, and can be found on the ground in old apple orchards and burned areas. Sometimes they are found under dead elms, poplars, ash, oak and beech trees. I used to find them along the creek, where the soil was rich and moist. In fact, we used to call these yellow ones “creek merkles.” I can remember the first one I ate. Mom was working in the upper end of the bottom, and she found a fat one under a sycamore tree. She fried it and gave it to me on a biscuit. That began a love affair that has never ended.
There are many ways to cook them, but I like them best simply sautéed in a little bacon grease or butter, with salt and pepper. That way, you can taste the full flavor of the mushroom. Criss likes them rolled in flour, and then fried in oil or bacon grease. My nephew Doug’s wife Sally stuffed them with cream cheese and I don’t know what else. They lived in Nebraska where the morels grew really big. She froze a lot of them, brought them home and shared them. They were so good!
You can use them in any recipe that calls for mushrooms. I have chopped them and added them to spaghetti sauce, and also sautéed them and put them on a pizza. They should be cleaned where you find them, by cutting off the bottom of the stalk. When you get home, slice them in half and soak them in salt water to get rid of insects and debris. I didn’t realize until I read just now that morels are best when dried and then dehydrated, preferably in cream. They never last that long in our house!
To dry them, slice them very thin and place them in a food dryer or a barely warm oven. To rehydrate, soak for one to three hours in warm cream or water. I have tried freezing them, but was not too satisfied with the results. Perhaps I didn’t use the right formula, which states that that after they are cleaned, they should be blanched or parboiled. They are then plunged into ice water and drained, and then packed in freezer-safe containers.
Along with ramps, which are in their glory right now, and new poke greens that are sticking their tender little heads through the ground, we can almost live off the land. There is another spring wild food that I love, but since my mother is gone, I am deprived of it now. Each spring she cooked a big mess of creasy greens, and shared them with us. With an iron skillet of hot cornbread dripping with butter, there is no better eating. Creasy greens grew in her garden each spring.
I am happy to report that my husband found a large sack of yellow morels, fresh and tender. After soaking them in salt water all night, they were rolled in flour and fried in bacon grease. There are some things that require bacon grease, although it is frowned upon by many health food cooks. I can’t imagine a pot of fresh green beans right out of the garden without using bacon grease to season them.
April seems to have gathered her flowery garments about her and fled to a warmer spot for right now. She will return …
- DAD’S LOVE - July 3, 2020
- HUNTING FOR “MERKLES” - April 24, 2020
- THE SEASON OF GOLD – News From The Hills - November 8, 2019