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.
The 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 zing.
Chilam Balam Cocina Mexicana
Twenty-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.
Chef 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.
photo: Elizabeth Lynch
Chef 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).
Down 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.