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This is a fabulous year for morels. Sellers have been offering them at our farmers markets for weeks, and pickers are out in droves now that the weather's warmed up and spring seems to have finally arrived. A group of us forayed out on Sunday to try our luck in a burn area near Seeley Lake (of course, I can't tell you exactly where), and within minutes we had collected a little over 3 pounds of the precious fungi.

"Morels are among the most unmistakable of all fungi by virtue of their pitted or honeycombed 'heads' " says mycologist David Arora in his encyclopedic "Mushrooms Demystified" (Ten Speed Press). The genus Morchella is what fungus-seeking hunters prize, and the black and yellow varieties are the kinds you're most likely to find in our neck of the woods. There can be a huge range of differences in morel sizes and appearance. Arora points out that false morels (genus Gyromitra) are vaguely similar, but their stems are solid, with caps that have a slight ledge overhanging the stem. In true morels, the stem and cap are continuous. And both the cap and stem are hollow. To be sure you're getting true morels, use a mushroom guide.

Morels should always be cooked, because they often cause digestive upsets when eaten raw. Before cooking, check the mushrooms carefully for dirt and little critters that might be hiding inside their cavities. A quick rinse in cool water is usually all that small morels need. Large morels, suitable for stuffing, should be split lengthwise, rinsed and patted dry.

Because morels are wild, they smell of the wild while cooking. People often describe them as meaty. I waft the aromas from a pan of morels simmering in butter up into my nostrils with a few waves of my hand, and what they remind me of elk most of all.

Wild foods tend to pair well with each other. Cook your abundant spring morel harvest and freeze it for use in the fall during game season.

But don't be restricted by game. Cooked morels are excellent on pizza (with scallions and a fresh farmer's cheese, fromage blanc); with pasta in a cream sauce; in omelettes; stuffed with crab or combined with it in a quiche or savory tart; with steak; chopped and mixed into burgers or meat loaf; with wild salmon; wrapped in phyllo or flaky pastry; filled with a mild cheese and dipped into batter and deep-fried; made into a mushroom butter or pate; served in a white sauce over biscuits; used as a topping for cornbread; or spooned over creamy polenta.

And the ideas don't stop there. Here are three more recipes for celebrating these fungal kings of the forest.

Morels on Toast with an Egg

This makes a great breakfast, lunch or dinner for one, or you can cook up two eggs and divvy things up to serve two as dinner appetizers.

4 ounces fresh morels

2 tablespoons butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons dry white Vermouth or dry white wine

2 slices firm-textured sandwich bread, toasted and buttered, crusts trimmed if desired

1 egg cooked sunnyside up in butter

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or basil

Pick over the morels carefully, rinse off any dirt and pat dry. Trim off the stem tips if necessary. If morels are small, leave them whole. If large, cut them into 1-inch pieces.

Heat the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat until bubbly and hot. Stir in the shallot and garlic, cook a few seconds, and add the morels. Stir well, tossing the morels about to coat with butter. Add a sprinkle of salt, a few grindings of pepper and the vermouth. Stir again and cover the pan. Cook 5 minutes, stirring two or three times.

Have the toast ready and cut on the bias. Have the egg ready or just about ready. Add chicken stock to the morels, raise heat to high, and cook uncovered a minute or two until juices are slightly thickened.

To serve, arrange toast points on a dinner plate, spoon morels and pan juices over the toast, set egg on top and sprinkle with the parsley or basil. Serve at once.

• Makes 1 serving.

Morel Mushroom Soup

It's hard to beat the combination of morels and cream. This soup is a cinch to make and is a great way to savor that wild morel taste. Make it once, and you'll have something to remember for an entire year.

1 cup cooked morels (see below, Cooking Morels for Freezing)

3 tablespoons butter

2 1/2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

3 1/2 cups unsalted chicken stock, boiling

1/4 cup sherry (see note)

1 cup whipping or heavy cream

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves

Have the cooked morels ready. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When hot and bubbly, stir in the flour with a wooden spoon. Stir continuously for 2 minutes to cook the flour without browning.

Remove pan from heat and pour in the boiling chicken stock all at once. Stir well with a wire whisk and return the pan to the heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook, stirring with the whisk, until it is only slightly thickened, just a minute or so. Stir in the sherry and simmer over low heat, partially covered, for 10 minutes.

Add the cream, salt, pepper and cooked morels. Stir briefly just to heat through without boiling. Ladle into small bowls, sprinkle with a pinch of the thyme, and serve at once.

Note: I like to use equal parts dry sherry and cream sherry.

• Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Cooking Morels for Freezing

Rinse away dirt from 1 pound of morels and trim off the stem tips if they are gritty; pat dry. If the mushrooms are small (up to 1 1/2 inches long), leave them whole. If larger, cut them into 1-inch pieces; rinse and pat dry.

Cook no more than 1 pound at a time. To cook more, simply repeat the recipe.

Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. When the butter is hot and foamy and begins to turn a light nut brown, add the morels. Stir well to coat the mushrooms with the butter and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover the pan and cook about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the morels are tender but slightly firm.

Cool, and store covered in the refrigerator for a day or two, or freeze in airtight bags and store for up to six months.

• Makes about 3 cups cooked morels.

Greg Patent is a food writer and columnist for the Missoulian and Missoula.com magazine. He also co-hosts a weekly show about food with Jon Jackson on KUFM Sundays at 11:10 a.m. His new cookbook, "A Baker's Odyssey," was a 2008 James Beard Award nominee. You can write him at chefguymt@gregpatent.com.

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