By Davies Wakefield
I will always remember the day that my wife and I took my parents out to see the last refuge of the Prairie Chicken east of the Mississippi River. We drove to the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area near Newton, Illinois about 200 miles south of Chicago. The chickens mate in mid-April and we hoped to see them booming their mating calls and puffing out their scarlet breasts. Our timing for seeing the mating ritual was about a week too late according to the area ranger. We decided to take a walk in the preserves wooded area instead.
The previous night had seen the first warm rain of the year and the temperature was in the high 70s causing us to break out in a mild sweat as we walked through the woods. We could hear quite a few spring warblers flitting furtively through the young ash and elm trees as we strolled along the paths. We also heard the faint rustling of the grass as garter snakes that were sunning themselves moved out of our way. It was one of those glorious spring days when there is a mild zephyr of a breeze, a clear sky and everything was right with the world.
We came into a small clearing with open grass and, as I recall, my wife said “Oh my God!” and there, in front of us, was a flush of Morel mushrooms that literally covered the ground in all directions for about 50 feet. My wife and I had been foraging for morels ever since we were married. Since we were as poor as church mice, finding morels, wild asparagus, and black raspberries gave us a taste of the good life that we couldn’t afford otherwise. Seeing this many morels in one spot was like discovering the mother lode. Luckily, we had light coats on that day. We tied the sleeves and zipped up the coats to craft makeshift containers and between the four of us we filled our windbreakers with morels and had to leave a lot more on the ground. My mom said that it reminded her of her childhood in Minnesota when she went mushroom hunting with her parents. It was a memorable trip for my wife and I as well.
We think of it fondly every spring.
The morels we found that day were dried and saved for braised beef stews that winter, but this year I wanted to do something with morels that I had not done before. I wanted to do a recipe that was vegetarian and would incorporate the spring vegetables of northern Wisconsin. This recipe will have butter, eggs, cheese and cream in it ,but no meat. I also wanted to see if there was a suitable white wine that would stand up to this treatment. In past morel recipes, Pinot Noir had been my go to wine.
The spring morel season in the areas around Green Bay occurs in late May. The picture nearby was taken on May 19. This year the morels may be later because of the cold winter. Look for that first 70 degree day when warm rain has fallen the previous week. Look around dead elms that the bark is peeling off of, in long strips. Recently cut ash stumps and in prairie areas that were burnt the year before are also a prime area for morels.
Savory Bread Pudding with Morels, Wild Leeks and Roasted Asparagus
1 pound French country bread cut into 1 ½” pieces and spread out to dry overnight
1 pound fresh morels or 1 Oz. dried then reconstituted in hot water
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup diced wild leeks or onion
2 cloves garlic finely diced
4 sprigs parsley finely chopped
The leaves of three fresh thyme sprigs
¼ cup chopped chives
½ cup each Parmesan and Gruyere cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease a 13”x9”x2” deep casserole.
Split the morels lengthwise into four pieces and sauté in the butter over medium low heat with the onions or leeks until soft about 6 minutes.
Add the garlic and herbs mix and turn off the heat. Let the mixture cool.
In a separate large mixing bowl thoroughly blend the eggs, cream milk, and cheese. This creates a custard mixture.
When the mushroom herb mixture is cool add to the custard mixture and put the bread into the mixture. Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes.
Pour mixture into the greased casserole and bake for about 45 minutes. The mixture should puff up and the custard should be set.
Serve with a side of roasted asparagus and the wines I’ve selected. This can also be done as a side to a steak or chop if you are a full-fledged carnivore.
The wines I’ve selected have a bit of sharpness and are full bodied enough to match the herbs, mushrooms and dairy. Two wines are from the Chablis area of France and one from the Saint- Veran area that is near Pouilly Fuisse. These wines are 100 percent Chardonnay which is an unusual selection for me, as I enjoy blended wines as a preference, normally.
One thing that has not changed is my preference for lower alcohol wines that reflect the underlying ground that the grapes grow in. These three wines definitely fit that description. The Saint-Veran is grown in soil that overlays sedimentary limestone from the Cretaceous era (about 145 million years ago). The wines of Chablis are grown on Kimmeridgian soil that consists of the shells of extinct shellfish that were alive during the upper Jurassic period which predates the Cretaceous. Both Saint-Veran and Chablis are part of the Burgundy region of France and these soils are the most desirable soils in the world for growing white wines.
These wines will age; indeed they must age in order to fully appreciate the mineral aspect of them. In “Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion,” he talks about a 45 year old Les Clos Chablis from 1923 that was the “greatest white wine I ever tasted.” For the most part, Chablis is unoaked and a certain salinity shines through that pairs so well with fish, oysters and cream sauces.
The first wine is the 2011 Saint-Veran from Vins Auvigue, 13 percent alcohol and about $24 at McKnight and Carlson. The wine is golden green in color with hints of hazelnuts and white flowers. It is rich and round in the mouth and fleshy with a bite of green apple. I thought that this one matched very well with the cheese component of the dish but was just a tad light for the morels.
The second wine is the Joseph Drouhin 2011 Chablis, 13 percent alcohol, $22 at Woodman’s. Mr. Drouhin bought the parcel of land these grapes were grown on in the 1960’s when growers had largely abandoned the Chablis area because of the vine disease Phylloxera. This wine has a herbed chicken stock flavor with fresh lemon juice that matches well with the thyme and parsley in the dish. The salinity and carnal note match well with the morels and cream. This wine is a bargain and will develop over the next few years.
The last wine is the William Ferve 2011 Chablis, 13 percent alcohol, $20 at Woodman’s. The grapes for this wine were grown in parcels on either side of the Serein River in Chablis overlying fossilized oyster beds. The wine is fresh and supple with bouquets of citrus and white fleshed fruit like Bosc pears. There is a distinct mineral note on the finish that makes this a great pairing with the bread pudding.
“The synergy of well-made food and matching wines really makes a simple meal a great one”