Dining With Denise Neil

The morel of the story: Wichita diners love this freaky ’shroom

Chef Josh Rathbun said springtime is his favorite time to be a chef, and morel mushrooms are part of the reason.
Chef Josh Rathbun said springtime is his favorite time to be a chef, and morel mushrooms are part of the reason. The Wichita Eagle

Sometimes, Chef Josh Rathbun wonders if we’re deluding ourselves about morel mushrooms – those spongy, eerie-looking morsels so rare and so desired that they sell for $25 a pound.

Of course, they’re great. But does the fact that they’re so scarce that we get to taste them only a couple of months out of the year make us trick ourselves into thinking they’re THAT much better than other mushrooms?

It’s possible, said Rathbun, who has filled his spring menu at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse, 104 S. Broadway, with dishes featuring morels.

But who cares? It’s morel season, and Rathbun says that’s the best season of the year.

”While they’re in season, I just want to use them and enjoy them,” he said. “So I put them in all my dishes, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Morel mushrooms are among the most prized foraged foods of the spring. They grow wild in forested areas – including in Kansas – but they’re not easy to find. And those who do find them, as was outlined in a 2012 story by Wichita Eagle outdoors writer Michael Pearce, are dead serious about keeping the location secret.

At the beginning of the season, when they’re less plentiful, morels can cost around $40 a pound. At the moment, restaurants are paying about $25 a pound. That’s compared with other mushrooms, which cost less than half that.

Morels vary in size and color, but they all feature a honeycombed, elongated cap. One of the most popular ways to eat them is sauteed in butter, which sends mushroom fans into a texture and flavor nirvana.

Rathbun remembers his grandparents finding them on their farms, one near the Nebraska border, the other in Ellsworth. They were pretty casual about their finds, he remembers, but they’d coat them in a little flour, fry them up and serve them as a springtime treat.

Once Rathbun grew up and became a chef, he realized what a rare treat it was. Now, in his role as head chef at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse, Rathbun eagerly awaits morel season and has a box or two delivered to his restaurant every week while they’re available. The crop he’s getting now comes from California and Oregon, but he anticipates getting some Kansas morels as the season progresses.

His spring menu highlights morels in three different dishes: an English pea soup made with ricotta, morel, prosciutto and shallot; a short rib ravioli that also includes grilled wild leeks; and a chicken dish served with potato gnocchi, fava beans, morel and leeks.

Spring is his favorite season to be a chef, said Rathbun, who also fills his menu with seasonal treats like ramps and fava beans.

“The thing I like about spring food is that you don’t have to do much to it,” he said. “You just have to have good technique and good seasoning, and the rest is out of your hands. Mother Nature takes care of the rest.”

Another chef excited about morel season is Adrian Prud Homme De Lodder from Bella Vita Bistro, 120 N. West St.

Last Friday, he posted a picture of his morel haul on Facebook with the caption “Christmas came early for this chef.” He served them that night as an appetizer, left whole and covered with a sauce made of butter, shallots, chives, brandy and heavy cream. Customers ordered about three pounds of them, he said.

Prud Homme De Lodder describes the flavor as nutty and earthy and said he loves that the rare mushrooms are so versatile.

“I just think they’re full of flavor, and because they are so rare, people want them even more,” he said.

Chef Katharine Elder, the chef at Elderslie Farm, has started regularly offering farm-to-table dinners in her newly remodeled dining room on the farm. The morels she has on her May menu are from Kansas.

A logger who does business with Katharine’s husband, George, found a bunch of them on his land in the Sand Hills near Hutchinson and asked George, “Isn’t your wife a chef?” Katharine said she immediately made a purchase.

“I was happy to take them off his hands,” she said.

Her haul is being featured in an herbed gnocchi that also has asparagus from her garden.

Katharine said she’s always been fascinated by unusual mushrooms, and morels are one of her favorites.

“I love the earthy taste,” she said. “It’s just a more complex soft mushroom. And no one complains when they’re doused in butter.”

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil