In the Kitchen: Mushrooms

Anyway you prepare them mushrooms make delicate morsels.

| October/November 2004

  • Mushrooms
    Today, mushrooms figure prominently in most of the world’s cuisines; in North America, for example, per capita consumption has steadily grown to almost 4 pounds per year.
    Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
  • Mushroom Soup
    Mushrooms also go nicely with almost all vegetables, from asparagus to zucchini, though some of the best pairings include eggplant, green beans and tomatoes.
    Photo courtesy Barbara Pleasant

  • Mushrooms
  • Mushroom Soup

How people ever figured out that mushrooms could be enjoyed at the table is amazing considering poisonous species far outnumber delectable edibles. But they did. Egyptian hieroglyphics depict mushrooms as food reserved for kings, and Roman philosopher Seneca called them “voluptuous poison.” By the Middle Ages, Europeans adopted the German word, todesstuhl, for “death’s stool,” to generally refer to mushrooms, all of which they thought too untrustworthy to eat.

But in China, Japan and, later, France, food lovers revisited that issue when they learned how to cultivate mushrooms on logs and stumps, and in caves, where cool temperatures made year-round mushroom production possible.

Today, mushrooms figure prominently in most of the world’s cuisines; in North America, for example, per capita consumption has steadily grown to almost 4 pounds per year. Mushrooms such as portobellos, crimini (baby portobellos) and shiitake have become more available, and more popular, in recent years, too.

Many enjoy raw mushrooms in fresh salads, and cultivated raw mushrooms won’t hurt you, but it is better nutritionally to eat them cooked. The cooking process breaks down a substance in mushroom cell walls called chitin, and is a necessary step to unlocking the nutrients and other beneficial compounds. Also, some edible wild mushrooms contain small amounts of toxins, which may be reduced or eliminated in cooking, but no amount of cooking will make a poisonous mushroom safe to eat.

Fortunately, edible mushrooms are widely available and can be prepared in many delicious ways, although veteran mushroom growers often say simplest is best: Just clean, slice and braise the mushrooms in a hot pan in olive oil and, sometimes, thinly sliced garlic, with salt and pepper to taste.

There’s magic in this method, too. In the first few minutes of cooking, mushrooms give off moisture. As this liquid evaporates, the mushrooms begin to brown slightly, and with a few more minutes of cooking, they take on the chewy, savory flavor preferred by connoisseurs. Shiitake and portobellos have more dry matter (fiber) than the common white button mushrooms, so they become quite meaty when braised, and portobellos are a favorite for the grill. Whether braised in a pan or on the grill, mushrooms cooked until they are toasty brown make fantastic “croutons” to add to salads — provided you can restrain yourself from eating them all straight from the pan.

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