Harbingers of spring

Photography courtesy Thinkstock

Scattered remains of winter cling to the landscape in ragged white patches, but here in Michigan, renewal rides the warm winds of April. Just when winter seems to linger forever, spring comes sweeping over the state with a deep sigh of relief that’s felt more than heard.

Today melting snow is plunking and plopping from budding branches. Tiny streams trickle down hillsides, converging in vernal pools where chirping wood frogs and trilling peepers sing songs of spring. Southern breezes carry redwing blackbirds home from distant climes. Fuzzy woodcock chicks bumble along behind their mothers, and dappled fawns lay like lawn ornaments along river bottoms.

After months of icy weather, new life abounds, and we welcome it with open arms.

Morels and ramps are emerging, as well, pushing through the shell of stale snow like hatchlings. If justification to skip work and slip outdoors was ever needed, these elusive harbingers of spring would be reason enough.

Magnificent morels could be pursued for their taste alone, but pinpointing their complex flavor can be as elusive as finding them.

The smaller black morels show up first, normally making their debut in late March or early April. Hot on their heels are wild leeks, otherwise known as ramps. Finally the larger yellow and white morels arrive in May.

Hard-core foragers guard productive patches like CIA secrets, so forget about asking. Don’t despair, however. Beginners can start by lacing on a pair of hiking boots and scouring the woods. Likely locations include recently burned forests and clear cuts, aspen stands, abandoned apple orchards and maple groves. And don’t neglect areas with dead or dying elms and ash trees. (Thanks to Dutch elm disease and the emerald ash borer, these “arboreal graveyards” aren’t difficult to find.) Following a warm spring rain, morels even sprout up in suburban backyards and along busy bike paths.

Simple as it sounds, morels are where you find them.

Wearing camouflage that would make a chameleon envious, morels blend perfectly with last fall’s moldering leaves, but seasoned foragers develop an “eye” for spotting them that becomes more proficient with practice. Though challenging to locate, morels are “social” mushrooms, so if you find one, expect more nearby.

Magnificent morels could be pursued for their taste alone, but pinpointing their complex flavor can be as elusive as finding them. Rich, smoky and nutty, morels have an earthy taste and a meaty texture like no other mushroom.

Once harvested, morels should be eaten soon. Notoriously perishable, it’s important to keep these fragile fungi cool, dry and ventilated, preferably in the refrigerator. Dehydrated morels on the other hand, will keep for years, and can be reconstituted in wine or water when a special occasion arises. You know you’re among friends when your host breaks out a stash of dried morels for the evening meal.

Similar to leeks and shallots, ramps are another popular target for spring foragers. They look a bit like compact green onions with broader leaves and narrower bulbs. Ramps often grow in sizable clusters known as crowns.

Whereas morels can be challenging to locate, ramps are much easier to find. In fact, sometimes their signature, garlicky aroma gives them away even before they are seen.

While it’s best to cut morels off at the base with a sharp knife, you’ll need a trowel to gather ramps. Unlike morels, the entire plant is used so it’s important to “leave some for seed,” as the old timers used to say. In other words, use care to avoid over-harvesting these spring delicacies. Look for them in dark, moist soil near maple and beech trees, or scattered among other common, seasonal plants like trout lilies, trilliums and May apples.

Mildly sweet and wildly garlicky, ramps possess a pungent flavor all their own. The scallion-like bulbs and spinachy leaves pair well with eggs and make one heck of an omelet. Walnuts and ramps also blend together to make a pasta-worthy pesto.

This time of year, the woods are full of surprises. It’s a forager’s delight out there, and spring is a season to explore.

Spring forager’s omelets

4-6 ramps, bulbs and leaves, thinly sliced
4 farm fresh eggs at room temperature
1-2 cups diced morel mushrooms
¼ cup milk
½ cup crumbled goat cheese
3 tablespoons butter
½ to 1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Scramble eggs, thyme and milk in a mixing bowl and set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and sauté sliced ramps in a small cast iron pan for about 3 minutes. Add the morels and continue to sauté 2 additional minutes, and set aside.

Melt remaining butter in an omelet pan over medium heat and add egg mixture, reducing heat slightly and tilting pan to cook evenly. When eggs are firm, add sautéed morels and ramps and top with 1/3 cup goat cheese. With a spatula, gently fold omelet in half over filling. Top with remaining goat cheese and minced ramps. Salt and pepper to taste.

Author and freelance writer Jon Osborn resides in Holland.

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