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Recipe: Morel Mushroom Mac and Cheese

Flickr user, Makeri
Morel mushroom (CC BY-NC-2.0)

About morel mushroom season, Food Guy Jon says: "The morel hunt is a pleasure in itself." Other Food Guy Greg points out that you can also hunt for a pound of mushrooms at your local farmers market. (He recommends seeking out vendors who sell mushrooms by weight, using a scale.) The versatile morel can be made into a side dish, into pasta sauce or soup, or an appetizer over toast points.

For the following recipe, plan to use about a pound of morels to half a pound of cheese and three cups of milk or cream, with half a pound of macaroni. Avoid sharp, strongly-flavored cheeses; stick with Swiss gruyère or Italian fontina, along with a bit of parmesan sprinkled on top. You can assemble this dish in advance and bake it just before serving, accompanying it with a green salad.

Morel Macaroni and Cheese, with Leeks

1 pound fresh morel mushrooms
8 tablespoons butter
1 large minced shallot
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons Madeira or dry Sherry
Salt and pepper
2 large leeks
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk plus 1 cup half and half, heated to the simmer
Pinch of cayenne
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
4 ounces Gruyere, coarsely grated
4 ounces Fontina, coarsely grated
1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
8 ounces of elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup panko crumbs

Pick over the morels and remove any dirt and twigs. Cut the mushrooms in half the long way and rinse quickly under running tap water; drain well and pat dry. Cut mushrooms into 1-inch pieces. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot. Stir and cook about 30 seconds. Add the morels, fresh thyme, and stir well. Cover the pan and cook 5 minutes,  until tender. Uncover pan, raise heat to high, and add the Madeira. Cook, stirring, until wine is all absorbed. Season with salt and pepper and transfer morels to a side dish.

Trim the root ends off the leeks.  Cut the white portions plus about an inch of the pale green lengthwise into quarters. Fan the layers out and rinse under running tap water to remove any dirt. Cut the leeks crosswise thinly. You should have 8 ounces of trimmed leeks, 2 generous cups.

Melt another 2 tablespoons butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Stir in the leeks, cover the pan, and cook 5 minutes. Check the leeks when the 5 minutes are up. If they seem dry, add 2 to 3 tablespoons water. Cover and cook another 3 minutes or until tender.

For the béchamel sauce, melt 3 tablespoons butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. When bubbly, stir in the flour. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat, and when bubbling subsides, pour in the milk and half and half all at once. Stir well with a whisk and return pan to the heat. Bring sauce to the boil over medium heat (this may take several minutes), stirring often. When boiling, reduce heat and whisk constantly for 1 minute. Remove pan from the heat and add 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, the cayenne, and nutmeg.  Add both cheeses and stir until cheese is melted into the sauce.

For the pasta, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the macaroni. Stir to keep macaroni pieces separate, and cook until pasta is tender to the bite, about 8 minutes. Drain well.

Stir the cooked macaroni into the sauce along with the parsley. Taste carefully and adjust seasoning if necessary.

For the topping, melt 1 tablespoon butter with the olive oil in a small heavy skillet over low heat. Add panko crumbs. Stir well to coat crumbs with the butter and oil.

Butter a 3-quart casserole and scrape in the macaroni and cheese. Sprinkle panko crumbs evenly on top. (May be made ahead to this point. Refrigerate for up to a few hours and bring to room temperature before baking).

Bake in upper third of preheated 375 degree oven until top is crusty and macaroni is bubbling hot, 35 to 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes and serve.

Makes 4 main dish servings.

(Recipe courtesy of Greg Patent ©2015)

(Broadcast: "The Food Guys," 5/31/15 and 6/4/15 and 5/19/19. Listen weekly on the radio at 11:50 a.m. Sundays and again at 4:54 p.m. Thursdays, or via podcast.)