Mushrooms

Mushrooms are delicacies for some, nothing for others.

Mushrooms taste like dirt. Now don’t get defensive about the mushroom, they grow in dirty dark places and are a fungus. How could anyone not think that they don’t taste like dirt?

Maybe I should use the politically correct wording of “they taste Earthy”. That should calm some of your more enthusiastic mushroom devourers. Of course I realize that some of you are staring at the screen, mouths agape, wondering how I could be writing for a food magazine and yet degrading the mushroom. But then there are some of you in complete agreement with me. Mushrooms are a little too “earthy” tasting for some.

Before you start sending me mean emails, let us discuss the mushroom. It is usually grouped in with vegetables, yet often left out when one starts preaching nutrition and telling folks to eat bright shinny vegetables. These basement dwelling, rotted wood loving edibles provide many of the same nutrition as those brightly colored vegetables, as well as those found in meats, beans and grains. For those of you on special diets, mushrooms are low in calories, low in sodium, fat fee, and cholesterol free.

And if we break it down and look a little closer, you can find a mineral called Selenium. Mushrooms are among the richest sources for this mineral that works like an antioxidant to protect your body’s cells from damage that leads to heart disease, some cancers and a few diseases of aging. Vegetarians take note, as your options for such mineral is limited naturally, in your diet. Another antioxidant found in Mushrooms, that might also help you body’s cells is Ergothioneine.

Copper, which helps make red blood cells, and potassium, something that helps blood pressure, are also found in the mushroom. Another note for vegetarians, mushrooms also are a great source for B2, B3 and B5.

This is all well in good. So far I have given you a few unpronounceable words and told you that they are good for you. That still doesn’t help with the taste. Not only am I trying to convince myself that the mushroom isn’t so “earthy” that it is far from being edible, but a few of you as well.

There is this strange phenomenon that has been occurring for awhile now. People cut these things up and place them on pizzas. More times than not, this is the first introduction people have to the mushroom, we will not talk about that vile stuff called canned cream of mushroom soup. The biggest problem with this method of cooking mushrooms is that the cook uses the wrong mushroom, usually relying on what the general public has deemed popular. The cook also tends to slice them too thinly, and then proceeds to cook them way too long. Mushrooms should be added only near the end of your cooking time, never at the beginning. What you end up with on these pizzas are tough, flavorless, oddly shaped brown bits. This will never convince me to eat them again.

Back in 1932, a man by the name of Lewis Lambert discovered the cultivated white mushroom. These are picked in four different stages. Stage one is the Button Mushroom. These are used as toppings, such as Curried Mushrooms. If the Buttons are not picked they will double in size every 24 hours developing into a closed cup mushroom, by far the most popular of the mushroom grades. Closed cup mushrooms are used in everything from raw salads to stuffings.

If the closed cups are not picked, the next stage is the open cup. They are not much different than the closed cups, except that you can see the gills on the under side. These are good for something like garlic mushrooms on toast. But if these open cups are not picked quickly enough, you have large flat mushrooms on your hands. This is the final stage for the white cultivated mushroom. They are large, and obviously open and flat, with completely broken veils and darker brown gills. These are used best in more simple recipes, like a pasta with broccoli.

I like pastas and stuffings, so maybe mushrooms aren’t so bad. Yet we have only covered the white mushrooms. What about all those exotic's out there that people claim are “nutty” in flavor?

Let us look at the brown mushrooms, otherwise known as the Brown cap, Chestnut, Champignon Marron and Portabello. These are sold in two sizes, big and small. The big ones are the large, flat, gill exposed ones, while the smalls are the opposite. Not too difficult to figure that one out. Portabello’s are by far the most popular of exotic mushrooms in the United States. They are used to replace meat in hamburgers, and other sandwiches, as will as being used as a filling for ravioli.

 Oyster mushrooms come in a rainbow of dark corner colors, like brown, grey, pink and yellow. Be warned that they are very delicate to work with and need very little cooking, tossing these into an omelet is the best way of eating them. With the Shitake Mushroom you get the reverse coloring of the white mushroom. Shitake’s are brown with a white under side (gills). The stalks can be tough, so remove them before cooking. Traditionally they are used in Japanese dishes, or cooked in rich sherry sauces.

Blewit mushrooms have white caps and blue tinted stalks. These are not the best ones to eat raw as some people can be sensitive to them (make you a little upset to the belly). They should be sliced and cook thoroughly with something like bacon.

Hon-Shimeji mushrooms are the ones you see sold in clusters. These should be gently pulled apart, keeping the stalks intact. Their texture is crisp and best when sautéed in a little butter and served with those brightly colored vegetables we talked about earlier. They will also remain firm with longer cooking, unlike some of the others, such as the Enoki mushroom. This one is a crisp white, with long stems and tiny caps. These should be tossed into your cooking at the very last moment, just long enough to heat them up. Enoki are traditionally used in stir-fries.

Mushrooms are one crop that does not need any pesticides or fungicides to do well. If you are looking for something organic to add to your diet, mushrooms are the way to go. Chemicals tend to depress yields, and pest such as flies are easy to deal with. Use of mites and fly sticky traps are common among producers.

When buying your mushrooms, remember that they are on the shelves within hours of picking. They are hand picked, and bruise easily. You want to look for firm caps, nothing slimy. And the larger the mushroom, the more developed the flavor. Once you get these home, do not store them in plastic or cling wrap. You need to use paper bags, removing them from the store packaging. They keep for up to five days, max. Before eating, rinse in cold water, no need to soak. They only reason to wash is because other customers may have pawed at your mushrooms before you bought them.

I will admit that the mushroom is versatile, as it can be used as a main dish, side dish and an ingredient to add flavor. I will also admit that mushrooms do hold a soft spot in my heart. I love the mushroom. I talked myself into eating them years ago. My first experience being the awful pizza, and later the tangy combination of a salad with thickly chopped raw mushrooms, shredded sharp cheddar and ranch dressing. Over the years I played with different spices and herbs, replacing main ingredients with the “earthy” tasting fungus. And after a time, I learned that the mushroom enhanced many meals, with the correct additions. It does take time for some people to enjoy the taste of a mushroom, and I hope that those of you that are still leery take a chance and try your hand, and taste buds, at one of the recipes I have here. You might be surprised in the new flavor that can be found with the mushroom.

Detail of dried mushrooms

Dried mushrooms