Growing up, I never liked mushrooms. I know I’m not the only one, either. I go out to eat quite often and hear this from other patrons a lot: “No mushrooms please.” You won’t hear me say that anymore, though!
I think I started liking mushrooms when I started traveling abroad, and I tasted them in lovely dishes with wine and cheese. Perhaps it was in Italy or France. After that, I started thinking I had been robbed — of flavor and taste, that is — growing up in Ohio in the 1960s. So let me guide you in the secret of mushrooms and why they have been so misrepresented in the lexicon of food flavor and taste.
Mushrooms and Us
Mushrooms are fungi that grow on tree logs or tree roots that lay on the forest floor. Their purpose is to break down the wood and leaves and return the tree back to its essential elements while the tree provides a source of glucose. Mushrooms found in nature range from as small as a few inches to as big as a mile or more depending on how much rainfall occurs in an area. People have a long non-culinary history with mushrooms. The ancient Aztecs and Mayans used them for religious rituals. Later, the royal houses of the Egyptians and Chinese used mushrooms for medicinal purposes. In the 1950s and 1960s mushrooms were part of the drug culture — and are so still used. Today, medical researchers are looking at properties of some mushroom varieties for cancer research.
Mostly, mushrooms contain toxins and are often poisonous if collected by the untrained. Actually, only two to five percent of mushroom varieties are not poisonous, and today most mushrooms are grown in commercial laboratories as the natural availability has been picked out over the years.
Cooking and Storing Mushrooms
There are many varieties of mushrooms available for the food connoisseur but most people stay within these varieties: Black Trumpet, Button, Porcini, Cremini and Chanterelle. Other varieties that are also popular are Oyster, Shiitake and Morel. Preparation of mushrooms is important to achieve the full flavor. Remember, they absorb lots of water. For soups and sauces, this is good news; but if you are looking for a concentrated flavor, you will want to keep liquid to a minimum or use dried mushrooms. Sautéing is a simple and flavorful method of cooking mushrooms, and many cooks use wine or broth along with garlic and onions to enhance flavors.
The best way to store mushrooms is to place them in a brown paper bag or wrap them in wax paper and refrigerate them for a week or two. Or, you can dry mushrooms on a paper towel and store them in a container at room temperature for longer time. To use dried mushrooms as you would the fresh kind, they will need to be rehydrated in water or liquid, or you can add dried mushrooms directly into soups or stews.
My favorite mushroom recipe consists of: a simple pizza dough crust with white or red sauce, cheese, and mushrooms. Delicious! Sauté the mushrooms in red (such as Marsala) wine, use fancier cheeses, and put on thin whole wheat crust. Wow! This combination creates a sophisticated recipe with complex flavors.
Mushrooms have a long and colorful past — and their taste and flavor can’t be beat. Try it for yourself — I am glad I did.