One of the jewels in the gastronomic crown, the morel mushroom is gracing us now with its elegant and rather pricy return.
While the price spikes around its appearance at Easter, the cost has now subsided to less eye-watering levels, making it safer to explore. Don't be intimidated by the price per kilo – 100g or so suffices, bringing this magical mushroom within reach of dedicated cooks.
Although you can find morels which have been picked in Scotland, they are a rarity; this is one of those instances when it is acceptable and desirable to introduce something special to the menu from further afield. Missing out on morels is unthinkable, especially as they make such good partners to local treats.
Asparagus or chicken are classic marriages for the honey gold to chocolate-coloured mushroom. Less expensive and simple ingredients, such as eggs and pasta, work in much the same way as they would for truffles, creating a perfect background for the intense earthiness of morels. Diced shallot softened patiently in butter, a whisper of garlic and a dash of cream lift the morel to heavenly levels.
Since morels are spongy they can quickly become waterlogged, which dilutes their taste and texture. So when it's time to clean them, resist the temptation to soak them in water. Instead, clean them with a small brush over a bowl of water, which will get rid of any frilly pockets of sandy grit. Only buy firm specimens, rejecting any with traces of moisture or sliminess.
Eggs cooked en cocotte with morels and parsley
A generous knob of butter for cooking plus a little more for greasing the moulds
1 small onion, peeled and finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
10-12 morel mushrooms, depending on size
4 free-range hen's eggs (or duck eggs for extra richness)
1tbsp chopped curly-leaf parsley
1. Clean the morels in advance. Remove the stems (this can be used in sauces, soup bases or to enrich stocks), cut each mushroom in half lengthways then brush them inside and out with a small pastry brush over a bowl of cold water, dipping the brush into the water every so often. Set the mushrooms aside on kitchen paper as you go then once finished transfer them to a fresh bed of dry kitchen paper so they are not sitting on a damp surface.
2. Heat a wide non-stick saucepan or a small frying pan and add a knob of butter then the onion. Season with salt then sweat very slowly so the onion softens but does not colour. Once the onion begins to soften add one whole clove of garlic and continue to cook the onion until it is meltingly soft with no bite, then transfer it to a bowl, removing and discarding the garlic.
3. Heat a small frying pan and add a small piece of butter and the remaining clove of garlic. When the butter is foaming add the mushrooms and fry gently over a low heat for three minutes then add the madeira. Bring to a boil (this will happen almost immediately) then tip out the contents of the pan into a small bowl and set aside.
4. To serve, grease four cocotte dishes, ramekins or any wide dish with a lip such as you might use for creme brulee. Butter the inside then divide the onion mixture between the four dishes. Break one egg into each dish then season with salt. Place the dishes on a tray and bake in the oven at 180C/gas mark 4 until the white is set – it should take 6-8 minutes depending on the size of the egg. Keep an eye on them so that when they are nearly done, you can divide the morel mixture between the four dishes then return them to the oven for the last minute or so. Finish by sprinkling the chopped parsley over at the last moment. Season with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper then serve.
Roast chicken with shallots and creamed morels
For the morels:
5-6 morels per person
A knob of butter
2 small shallots, finely diced
1-2tbsp creme fraiche
For the chicken:
Olive oil and butter
4 breasts of chicken
Salt and pepper
A generous knob of butter
1dsstsp finely chopped chives
1. Clean the mushrooms as per step one of the previous recipe then cut them in half lengthways. Heat a wide frying pan and add the butter then, when it's foaming, add the shallots and season with salt. Reduce the heat and cook very gently so the shallot softens but doesn't colour. When soft, scrape the shallots out into a bowl then add a little more butter to the pan. Wait for the butter to foam then add the morels, coat them in the butter and fry gently for 3-4 minutes before returning the shallots to the pan. Mix well then add the creme fraiche; once melted, tip the contents out into a bowl and set aside.
2. To cook the chicken, heat a wide frying pan over a moderate flame and add enough olive oil to make a light film across the surface. Season the chicken breasts lightly all over with salt and fresh ground pepper then place them skin side down in the pan. Brown gently on the first side for five minutes, the meat sizzling but not spitting. Add a slice of butter, about 15g, then cover the pan with a lid and continue cooking for three minutes. Turn the breasts over and spoon some of the pan juices over the skin before covering with the lid once more. Cook for five minutes then turn off the heat. Using the tip of a small knife, open the meat at the back of one of the breasts to check it's cooked through – it should be moist and tender rather than dry and stringy. Leave covered with the lid for five minutes, during which time you can boil some vegetables such as asparagus spears or peas.
3. Remove the lid from the frying pan holding the chicken. Add the morels and creme fraiche juices to the pan then heat them gently, swirling them all over the chicken, before adding the chives. Arrange on warm serving plates with the chicken in the middle and the morel cream spooned over the meat and around the plate. Add your chosen vegetables then serve at once.