In the Kitchen: Mushrooms

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Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
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.

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.

Of course, you can capture those flavorful juices given off
by mushrooms by using them in stocks or adding them to
soups and stews. To make sure the liquid is mushroom juice
and not just water, never submerge mushrooms when cleaning
them because they take up water too readily. Many cooks
clean them just by wiping the surface with a damp towel or
gently running cool water over the tops. If you opt for the
cool water method, avoid wetting the gills, which are
edible, although they usually are removed from large
portobellos because of their dark- chocolate color. When
preparing portobellos for stuffing or grilling, a
grapefruit spoon makes a great tool for scraping out the
colored gills.

Knowledgeable cooks keep a supply of dry mushrooms handy,
as well as fresh ones. Asian markets often offer several
dried varieties, or should you locate a good supply of
fresh shiitake, it’s easy to dry them yourself in a
slow oven. Thoroughly dried mushrooms store well in a cool,
dark place for many months. When you’re ready to use
them, just soak the mushrooms for 15 minutes in hot water;
they will continue to rehydrate as they are cooked.

Any type of mushroom can be used in the following
ways:

Sautéed with caramelized onions and then
pureed into a pâté

Combined with spinach in quiches or
quesadillas

Braised in oil, then folded into an omelet or
layered onto hot toast

Included in Asian stir-fries.

Good flavor accents from your garden or spice shelf include
thyme, tarragon, basil, sage, a sprinkling of grated orange
peel or a light spritz of lemon juice.
Mushrooms also go nicely with almost all vegetables, from
asparagus to zucchini, though some of the best pairings
include eggplant, green beans and tomatoes. One of my
favorite concoctions is sautéed onions, garlic,
peppers and mushrooms, with tomatoes added at the end of
the cooking time; this is served over hot polenta and
topped with parmesan cheese.

Grains from arborio (risotto) rice to nutty quinoa
pair well with mushrooms, too, and barley seems lost
without them. Recipes for barley pilafs, casseroles, soups
and stews invariably include mushrooms, and we can credit
resourceful Germans for creating delicious mushroom and barley soup.

Traditional cream of mushroom soup, a French invention,
also is delectable, and can be lightened substantially by
using half-and-half in place of cream. Should you find
yourself with a bumper supply of turkey stock, try braising
some mushrooms with an equal measure of shallots before
swirling them into the stock and adding a splash of sherry.
Add a plate of crusty bread or a nutty pumpkin muffin, and
dinner is served.