The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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April 28, 2012

Cross: A hunted meal even a vegetarian could enjoy

Seek and ye shall find. (Well, sometimes.)

If you’re a serious morel ’shroom hunter, then you’ve heard the rumors for several weeks about lucky folks already finding some of the tasty fungi, probably even found a few yourself.

An usually mild March and early April apparently set the stage for an early appearance of the coveted woodland treat.

Serious mushroomers rely on time-honored signals to gauge the likelihood that the mysterious spores may have sprouted in the woodlands.

Some are inspired to search for them about the time the first apple blossoms appear, others are prompted by the blooming lilacs, both of which have occurred this spring ahead of schedule.

I’d hardly qualify as an expert fungi hunter. My finds frequently are incidental, bonuses to my forays into the springtime woods while scouting for or hunting wild turkeys.

But I’m smart enough to turn my attention to the ground around my feet when a standing dead elm, its bark spreading out like flower petals from the trunk, looms over me in the woods.

Such places can be fertile places for a patch of morels to emerge from the forest floor.

Of course, just when and where they ultimately grow is a mysterious combination of spores, sunlight, moisture and temperature coming together at just the right time.

Mostly, I rely a good measure of luck to gather up a mess of them.

Last weekend, while wandering through the wind-blown woods of Nebraska and keeping a sharp eye on the ridges for turkeys, I kept an equally sharp eye around my feet for mushrooms.

Given that wind gusts were approaching 35 mph, I was happy enough to carry a jake out of the woods to fill one of my turkey tags but a bit disappointed that I didn’t find a single morel.

But mushrooms are but one bonus of the spring season.

Come April, in the wide-open expanses of southwest Minnesota where I grew up, it is wild asparagus that inspires folks to prowl the countryside, looking at their feet.

Actually, the real hunt for wild asparagus begins in the fall when the conspicuous fern-like asparagus bushes are easily spotted along fencelines and road ditches.

Serious asparagus pickers dutifully record such locations. Before the days of GPS, marking spots in a roadside frequently involved counting the fence posts or marking a spot with an inconspicuous ribbon in order to zero in the following spring on the tender, tasty spears.

Just how such a wild stand of asparagus gets a start out in the middle of no where is a something of a mystery, though seeds falling from the south end of a bird flying north might have something to do with it.

Like a bed of domestic, cultivated asparagus, an established patch of the wild variety can produce for decades.    

Of course, in the wide-open spaces, it’s hard to keep such locations secret for long.

Eventually, diligence and determination is required to get to a patch of emerging asparagus at just the right time before someone else does.   

But it’s worth the effort.

Recently, a friend whose taste buds evidently are not tuned to appreciate asparagus since he had no hesitation in sharing its precise location, tipped me off to a small patch that has grown for several years along the edge of a local cemetery.

A couple of quick visits to the site over the past two weeks revealed nothing.

But then on Friday, I managed to harvest a half-dozen or so of the thick, chunky spears — just enough to make it worth the effort of slathering them with olive oil and a bit of seasoning before running them across the grill.

Funny how something bagged in the field always tastes a little better than something bagged at the grocery store.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.

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