The humongous fungus among us develops in dark, mysterious ways without a root to grow on. As a matter of fact it doesn't even produce a single leaf, pretty flowers, or seeds but prefers to grow alone in the dark. You've probably guessed we're describing a favorite food that is available in a host of varieties belonging to the mushroom family.
Since mushrooms do not grow in sunlight from plants with leaves that bring nutrients into the plant, mushrooms must receive all their nourishment from the organic matter on which their spores are cultivated. Some of the eclectic growing media include live or dead tree trunks, rotted wood, sawdust, natural or synthetic manure, hummus, decayed rags, compost, rusty metal, and even dirty glass.
The name mushroom is thought to have been derived from the French mousseron, a term that included edible mushrooms as well as poisonous varieties. Today, the word mushroom refers only to edible fungi and is generally thought of as having a cap and a stem. Those without the typical stem and cap are identified by their specific names such as morels or truffles.
Though we may hear the term wild mushroom referring to portabella, oyster mushroom, shiitaki, enoki, and crimini mushrooms, most mushrooms are actually grown on farms rather than gathered in the wild. The Mushroom Council tells us that the term "specialty mushroom" is quickly replacing "exotic" mushroom when referring to particular varieties like wood ear, or maitake.
Mushrooms of all varieties have been revered worldwide except by the British who to this day only consume the field mushroom. Wild mushrooms are thought to be simply toadstools, poisonous and inedible. This negative attitude goes back to the 17th century when Gerard in his Herbal said, "Most of them do suffocate and strangle the eater." Venner, another 17th century writer, expressed even stronger contempt when he wrote, "Many phantasticall people doe greatly delight to eat of the earthly excrescences called Mushrums. They are convenient for no season, age or temperament." In 1784 John Farley in his The London Art of Cookery referred to mushrooms as "treacherous gratifications." In other parts of Europe, wild mushrooms have been gathered and eaten with great enthusiasm.
Seneca, a first century Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman, said of mushrooms, "(They) are not really food, but are relished to bully the sated stomach into further eating." Diderot, an 18th century French encyclopedist and philosopher was quoted in the Encyclopedie, "Whatever dressing one gives to them, to whatever sauce our Apiciuses put them, they are not really good but to be sent back to the dung heap where they are born."
Pliny, the Elder, a naturalist and writer of the first century C.E., was acquainted with truffles as were the Babylonians. Desert truffles were well known and highly revered in medieval Baghdad. These truffles might have come from the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, an area that is even known today for its wealth of truffle mines.
Pierre Francois de la Varenne, a chef of the French court during the mid 17th century, brought some modern touches to traditional French cooking of that era. He created a dish that remains classic in today's French cooking. Named for Marquis d'Uxelles for whom he worked is the French dish, Mushroom Duxelles, a preparation of minced mushrooms cooked in butter and seasonings which is combined with vegetables, rice, or breadcrumbs to make a flavorful stuffing.
Mushrooms were gathered and eaten from the time of early man, yet it wasn't until the 18th century that the details of their cultivation were fully understood. Because mushrooms in the garden often appear to pop up overnight, even the ancient scholar Dioscorides thought them capable of spontaneous generation, a belief that held fast throughout medieval times.
There were early writers who could distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous varieties but didn't include information on mushroom cookery until Paulet's book was published in 1793. More highly praised is a book written in 1841 by Roques whose work is still thought to be the best treatise on mushroom cookery to this day.
Charles Darwin relates his observation of a Patagonian mushroom. He tells us that the women and children of Tierra del Fuego, an island off the coast of Argentina, gathered fungus in great quantities and ate them uncooked. Other than a variety of berries growing on the island, the natives did not eat any vegetable other than the fungus.
Mushroom cultivation reached the United States in the late1800's with the use of imported spawn from England. Many problems arose from this imported spawn leading to experiments by USDA scientists to produce a pure culture virgin spawn. In 1903 they achieved success, and production began a year later by the American Spawn Company of St. Paul, Minnesota. Since then, mushroom cultivation has--well--mushroomed.
Many cultures believed that eating mushrooms could endow them with super-human strength. This belief was prevalent in Russia, China, Greece, Mexico, and Latin America. Other beliefs concluded that partaking of mushrooms could lead the soul to reside with the gods.
Mushrooms grow upward with such surprising strength they are said to push up cement stones.
Some cultures believed that eating mushrooms gave them clairvoyance in locating lost objects.
Mushrooms were known to be such a powerful aphrodisiac that they became infused into important rituals and ceremonies. The Normans, during the 11th century C.E., traditionally prepared a wedding dish that contained a pound of mushrooms to be fed to the groom only.
An Ancient Greek artifact from the Etruscan period, 8th century B.C.E., depicts unusual mushrooms, either the poisonous amanita muscaria or panaeolus papilionacceus, at the feet of Nessus the Centaur. Centaurs earned their reputation of possessing both divine wisdom and rather naughty behavior. Some believe their mischievous antics were enhanced by these potent fungi rather than by the ale and wine they consumed.
Of those who have studied Greek mythology, some believe that the ambrosia consumed during the Mysteries of Orphic and Eleusinian rituals was actually made from mushrooms, possibly the dung mushroom (panaeolus papilionacceus.) Some scholars believe that these same mushrooms powered the fierce Norsemen known as berserkers who worked themselves into a frenzy before battle.
In France truffles were unknown until the 14th century. As with many foods at that time that were unfamiliar to Europeans, truffles were attributed with powerful aphrodisiac abilities. The colorful legend of the Duke of Clarence tells that he married an Italian woman with a dowry of the hills of Alba, Italy, an area that was rich with truffles. On the night of his wedding he was said to have eaten so many truffles, referred to as "white diamonds," that he died before enjoying their magical abilities.
Asians have known for many years that shiitake mushrooms have medicinal powers with the ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, boost the immune system and inhibit tumor growth. Lentinan derived from the shiitake mushroom is used to treat cancer in Japan. Doctors in the U.S. are just now taking a look at these facts.
For many centuries mushrooms have been characterized as an aphrodisiac. While there have not been medical studies to test this belief, you might conduct your own investigation, and in the process discover they produce a laxative effect, provide a natural antibiotic, offer protection against tumors, lower cholesterol, and rev up the immune system.
In 1960, a scientist at the University of Michigan discovered that shiitake mushrooms contained an antiviral substance that could stimulate the immune system. Most studies on shiitakes have taken place in Japan where their health benefits have been noted for boosting the immune system to produce more interferon, the body's defense against viral and bacterial infections.
Other studies have found that Chinese black mushrooms, known as wood ear, contain an anticoagulant-type substances, acting like blood thinners that may prevent blood clots. The effect was likened to that of aspirin.
The trace mineral germanium, found in mushrooms, is noted for its antiviral and antitumor effects. Germanium also energizes the body. With so many healing abilities and such variety of flavors and textures, mushrooms just may help the body generate energy, offer protection against tumors and virus infection, and bring complete satiety to the mushroom aficionado.
Enoki mushrooms, or enokitake, flammulina velutipes, originated in Japan and was gathered in the wild, but in the United States they are strictly cultivated on live or dead tree trunks as well as tree roots and even branches that are covered with soil. Grown in clusters, they develop long thin stems, about four inches, with tiny little caps, the largest being the size of a pencil eraser. With their delicate ivory color and dainty appearance, they're prized for their ability to provide a simple yet dramatic garnish.Shiitake mushrooms, lentinus edodus, also known as Japanese black forest mushrooms, have been commercially cultivated since their original journey from Japan and are widely available either fresh or dried in supermarkets as well as in Asian markets. Originally harvested from hardwood trees in their native country for at least two thousand years, they are best cultivated on artificial logs. Shiitakes have a medium brown color with a distinctive, thick, umbrella-shaped cap, and offer a rich, distinctly earthy flavor and chewy texture.
Oyster mushrooms, pleurotus ostreatus, remind one of little ears with many tiny, closely formed gills. Color can vary slightly depending on variety, from pale gray, to light beige, and sometimes pink or yellow. Oyster mushrooms are cultivated and grow well on rotted wood in clusters. Once purchased they should be used quickly, within a day or two, to avoid becoming soggy.
Morels, morchella esculenta, have a unique, conical cap about 1" to 5" in height with a mustard brown colored, honeycomb-like appearance. Their stems are usually white but can also become more yellowed as they grow older. Morels appear in the spring and are gathered in the wild in wooded areas. Scandinavians refer to morels as "truffles of the north."
Criminis or Creminis, agaricus bisporus, similar to the white mushrooms, are a brownish color and denser in texture with a pronounced earthy flavor. Another distinguishing feature is their thick, firm stem. Criminis are cultivated just like the white mushrooms. What makes criminis taste so different from white mushrooms is the variety of microscopic spores from which they develop.
Portabellas or Portobellos, agaricus bisporus; With a name like portabellas, you might think these spectacular giant mushrooms come from Italy. Actually, they are just criminis that have been allowed to grow six or seven days longer. Originally a mushroom farmer had overlooked a growing area and discovered the large caps by accident. At first he thought they were unmarketable but soon discovered they were highly sought after. Because of their longer growth time, portabellas have a distinctly pungent, earthy flavor and fleshy texture.
In the matter of portabella versus portobello, both spellings are used. However, the Mushroom Council has adopted the two "a" version to establish some consistency.
Chanterelles, cantharellus cibarius, grow in the wild in the Pacific Northwest in forests with pine trees and deciduous trees. Their caps are ruffled and shaped somewhat like cups with colors that vary from yellow, pale orange, and brownish gray to pale ivory. They have a unique peppery taste when eaten raw but lose this quality when cooked. Their texture is slightly rubbery. Beware of chanterelles that have become translucent. These are poisonous.
Truffles, tuber aestivum, are fungi that grow underground in wooded areas. They have never been successfully cultivated and are even a challenge to forage in the wild. Dogs or pigs are specially trained to recognize the scent of the truffle and are taken on gathering events to sniff them out. The shape of a truffle is an irregular spheroid with a lumpy surface, often described as warty, the texture fleshy. Black truffles from France, known as Perigord, are best known for flavoring pate de foie gras. White truffles gathered in Alba, Italy, are highly valued as well. Both are priced well out of affordability for the average person's budget. If you are fortunate enough to encounter the real thing, enjoy it raw, cooked, and in the form of juice or extract.
Gathering in the Wild
Of the many thousands of mushroom species existing today, only a few are known to possess a deadly poison. Many, however, are capable of making one very ill.
Educate yourself by reading books on wild mushrooms. When you're a novice mushroom gatherer, take an experienced teacher along until you become fully confident that you have the ability to positively identify safe, edible varieties.
Usually one type of mushroom will grow in a specific area and that area becomes known as a place to harvest that species. Because mushroom spores are so tiny and light, it's easy for them to be carried by winds and birds to locations not necessarily typical for that variety.
Some mushrooms, such as shiitake, have been grown for as long as two thousand years up to present time on rotting logs. Others need a parasitic environment such as living trees to survive.
In the mid 1600's, Parisian melon farmers discovered that they could cultivate the common mushroom known today as agaricus in their melon fields. Two hundred years later they learned that caves were the ideal environment because the climate was stable. Louis XIV may have been France's earliest mushroom grower. Today, mushrooms are grown in mushroom houses where the climate is completely controlled.
For some preparations you may want to use just the mushroom caps without the stems. To remove stems, give them a gentle push with the thumb and they will loosen easily. As an alternative, give the stems a twist. When they snap loose, simply lift them off the cap.
Some mushrooms spoil quickly while others have a longer life span. Shiitake mushrooms will keep up to two weeks if well refrigerated.
The Mushroom Council provides some helpful information for planning servings. One pound of portabellas with stems equal about 3 to 4 medium mushrooms about 4"in diameter, or 2 large caps about 6" in diameter.
Dried: Some mushrooms such as shiitakes are available in dried form. Drying seems to enhance and intensify their flavor. If they are uncleaned, wash them thoroughly before soaking. Soak clean shiitakes for 30 to 45 minutes in very warm water to cover or pour boiling water over them. Then using a sharp knife or kitchen scissors, snip off and discard the tough stems.
Raw: White button mushrooms, criminis, enoki, portabellas, oyster, and shiitakes can be eaten raw. They can be chopped, sliced, quartered, minced, or pureed. Use a food processor for preparing large quantities or for pureeing.
Prepare mushrooms as a salad with sliced or diced onions, finely minced garlic, diced red bell pepper, extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon or lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste.
Add sliced mushrooms to a fresh spinach salad along with raw pecans or walnuts, chopped scallions, and finely diced fresh pears. Add balsamic vinaigrette and enjoy.
Combine sliced mushrooms with chopped snap peas, diced jicama, diced red bell pepper, and kernels cut from fresh white corn. Add a pungent dressing and fill scooped out tomato halves. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve as an attractive side dish.
Marinate mushrooms in equal parts of apple cider vinegar, soy sauce or Bragg Liquid Aminos, and water for 2 hours. Drain and fill with seed cheese (a mixture of soaked and sprouted seeds, such as sunflower seeds, combined with minced vegetables and seasonings).
Broiling or Grilling
If you use only the mushroom caps in a special dish, reserve the stems for adding to soups, stir fries, and stuffings.
As a variation to oil basting, try using teriyaki sauce, your favorite pungent salad dressing, hoisin sauce, or peanut sauce.
Grill kabobs by threading whole crimini or white mushrooms on a skewer with vegetables such as zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, chunks of eggplant, colorful bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes. Brush with a tangy dressing and grill, turning skewers frequently, for about 10 to 12 minutes.
Serve the portabella as the centerpiece of the meal and add side dishes such as a grain dish, salad, and steamed or stir-fried vegetables.
White or crimini mushrooms can be sliced and wrapped in aluminum foil (shiny side inside), drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, and seasoned with salt and pepper before grilling on the barbecue for about 7 to 10 minutes.
Oyster mushrooms should be very briefly sauteed,, about 1 to 1 minutes to best enjoy their delicate flavor. They accept seasoning well and can make a tasty dish when cooked with onions and chopped cashews. The stems become tough on very large oyster mushrooms and may have to be cut away.
Shiitakes need about 3 to 5 minutes of sauteing to bring out their pungent flavors.
Chanterelles are best started on medium heat with a little extra virgin olive oil to help them release their liquid. The heat can then be turned up to saute them for 3 to 5 minutes.
If you plan to cook enoki mushrooms, drop them into the saute pan at the last minute and cook briefly, a minute or two at most. Enokis become tough if overcooked.
As a low fat method of sauteing, use a seasoned vegetable broth or red or white wine instead of extra virgin olive oil.
Create a side dish with sauteed mushrooms combined with nuts and diced vegetables of your choice. Add a pungent dressing and toss to combine flavors.
Braising Morels require special attention. Be sure to wash them thoroughly to remove any insects that may be imbedded in the crevices. It's best to saute them briefly in a little extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Then, cover the pan and simmer for as long as 1 hour, checking after 45 minutes for tenderness.
They also have many of the B vitamins. Most cultivated mushrooms contain vitamins C and K, and some vitamin E.
Mushrooms are a rich source of potassium and phosphorous. About 5 raw button mushrooms contain 370 mg. of potassium and 104 mg. phosphorous.
Portabellas are an ideal food for those watching their waistlines. They contain no fat or sodium, are high in fiber, and low in calories (40 calories for a medium size). Also noteworthy is that mushrooms are very low in carbohydrates, making them ideal for diabetics
Chanterelles, with their appealing yellow coloring, are the only mushrooms that contain beta carotene and vitamin D.
Mushroom Cashew Walnut Patties is one of the delicious recipes from Zel Allen's cookbook The Nut Gourmet: Nourishing Nuts for Every Occasion published by Book Publishing Company in 2006.
MUSHROOM CASHEW WALNUT PATTIES
NOTE: To enhance the presentation of these tasty patties, spoon a dollop of Silken Magic Sauce onto the center of each patty and dust them with paprika or a sprtinkling of fresh herbs just before serving.
SILKEN MAGIC SAUCE
Here's a sauce that's the ultimate in versatility. Need a topping to dress up a savory dish or steamed vegetables, a dip for crudites, a seasoned mayonnaise sandwich spread, or a garnish to swirl into a soup? Make this sauce often and keep it on hand.
3/4 t. salt
1/2 t. onion powder
1/2 t. ground coriander
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/8 t. garlic powder
1 to 4 T. lemon juice to taste.
Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Scrape down sides if needed and process until completely blended. Refrigerate. Keeps for 1 week. Makes 1 1/2 cups (360 ml).
NOTE: For a firmer sauce, use the firm silken tofu. When serving this sauce at the table, garnish with a sprinkle of dill weed and a dash of paprika.
For other mushroom recipes click on Recipe Index.