There was a time when my father and I would have walked the distance up the hill to Gordon’s Rocky Top. We would have crossed the creek, stepping gingerly across the slick rocks like seasoned hopscotch players, hiked to the fork in the path, taken the trail on the left, and then quietly ascended the long, wooded hill. On our way, we would have walked past the pond, and if we were lucky, we might have spooked an owl or happened upon some white tail deer.
This time, we took the golf cart. Any romantic notion of a quiet walk in the woods was spit out from under the spinning tires, to be whisked away in exhaust fumes. In all fairness, we took the cart with good reason — my dad is older now, and my eight-year-old daughter would have tired from the long walk to the mushroom patch. Besides, there was still plenty of walking to do once we got to the top, and there would be ample quiet time once we began the mushroom hunt — there always is. Simpler times, I thought, aren’t always so simple.
We aren’t into the woods five steps before we spot our first morel, and it isn’t long before Vivian is shouting, “I found another!” with regularity. We find gray, black, and blonde morels. It’s one of those giddy afternoons I attribute to beginner’s luck; it’s why you bring a rookie. Vivian is proving to be our most valuable player, and within an hour or two, our search is over. We have our two to three pounds, and with no reason to be greedy, it’s time to leave the remaining mushrooms for others.
It’s on the drive home that I finally get real quiet time. Vivian is asleep, and my father is off somewhere in his own mind. As someone who is extremely passionate about cooking, I am of course flipping through possibilities for the mushrooms. A morel custard leads to a custard tart, which reminds me that I have always wanted to stuff morels with foie gras — but it all seems too overwhelming. I have to remind myself that I have very fresh ingredients, so I should keep things simple.
But simple doesn’t always mean simple; simple can be difficult if it requires exactness. What you put on the plate is the result of the steps you took to get it there. An equation such as this — a dish of morels and asparagus — isn’t about the number of steps, but rather the quality of each step. It is why sometimes simply following a recipe isn’t good enough.
Vivian wakes from her nap and asks if we can stop for ice cream. My father concurs, and I consent. From the back seat, Vivian begins rehashing the day’s events as if she is an old fisherman with bragging rights. My dad smiles, and I think to myself, what a special day and a special ingredient.
Simple doesn’t mean a recipe that’s easy to get to the table. It means you found the best ingredents, applied the right cooking process, and nailed it like a pro.
You shouldn’t always follow a recipe — here are 5 reasons why:
1. It’s important to know your ingredients. For example, are your morels wet or dry? What’s the best way to rinse the grit? How will they react to heat? All these questions are important to how your finished dish is going to taste and look. This applies to anything you are going to cook.
2. Pay attention to what’s happening with your ingredients and how they react to different cooking processes. Your cooking is the sum of your kitchen knowledge — don’t let recipes become a crutch.
3. Cookbook authors and recipe writers don’t know everything. If something in a recipe doesn’t seem like it will work, trust your instincts — you are probably right.
4. Learn from your mistakes. Ask yourself what happened to make a recipe fail. On the other hand, when something is good, ask yourself what made the recipe work. Remember these mental notes.
5. Learn where to find the best ingredients, how to choose the best ingredients, and — if you want to take it to the next level — how to grow the best ingredients.
Morels with Asparagus
A fistful of asparagus stalks, stalk end trimmed and peeled to rid it of any tough exterior
10 or so morels, rinsed and dried per the headnote
1 1/2 tablespoon shallot, minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/4 to 1/3
cup breadcrumbs (I like Ian’s gluten-free panko crumbs)
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves: half of them minced, and the other half left whole
1/4 cup tarragon leaves: half minced, and the other half torn in half
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Have all your ingredients prepped and on a sheet tray next to the stove.
2. Place a 10-inch pan over high heat. Once the pan is hot, add enough grapeseed oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the asparagus. The idea here is to cook the asparagus just through, but get the stalks seared. The oil should begin to smoke a little. You shouldn have wisps of smoke coming from the pan; the smoke shouldn’t be rolling off. Season the asparagus with salt and pepper. When they have finished cooking, remove them to a plate. Keep them warm in a low oven or close to the stove.
2. Add half the butter to the pan and quickly sear the morels until they begin to brown. Add the shallots and garlic. Stir and sauté until fragrant. Don’t let the garlic brown, or it will be bitter.
3. Add the remaining butter and half of the herbs, and toss. Season with salt and pepper, then add the bread crumbs. Toss again. Let the breadcrumbs toast.
4. Place the morels onto the asparagus, then top with the bread crumbs and the remaining herbs. Serve.