Fresh lasagna, savory with layers of sliced shiitake; a tart of Camembert and nutty-flavored morels, rich with aristocratic promise; brown creminis stuffed with scrambled eggs—a treat that elevates the meager omelet to something verging on haute cuisine. I’d never encountered so many delectable mushroom dishes, or so many mushroom lovers, as at a dinner of the Mycological Society of San Francisco earlier this year.
Quickly I came to appreciate that ’shroom lovers are almost cultlike in their excitement about edible fungus. I mean, many of us love certain foods—a ripe peach can rock my world—but I know of no clubs devoted to fans of the stone fruit, no international conferences, no hunting tales, no in-depth study of species subtleties. Clearly, few foods command the devotion that mushrooms do.
In fact, more than one mycological aficionado I spoke with claimed that mushroom lovers even have higher IQs and more curious, creative minds. (Alas, as far as I can tell, no studies back this up.)
Once viewed as nutritional nobodies, mushrooms are now considered something of a wonder food. They are rich in vitamin B complex and antioxidants. And many of the 2,500 varieties in cultivation have natural antibiotic, antiviral, or anti-inflammatory effects. Both cooked and raw mushrooms are an excellent source of ergothioneine, a powerful antioxidant that helps the body’s cells combat free-radical damage. Pound for pound, white button mushrooms have 12 times as much of this antioxidant as wheat germ (previously considered the food with the highest level), while oyster, maitake, and shiitake mushrooms have even more.
Researchers have also found that mushrooms can play a role in fighting cancer, immunological diseases, and obesity. A study under way at Bastyr University in Seattle is examining whether turkey tail mushrooms can suppress tumor growth in breast cancer. Another study funded this year by the National Institutes of Health is examining the role that oyster mushrooms can play in reducing the levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, for AIDS patients. And sales of maitake are at an all-time high in the United States, thanks to promising research showing that they may boost immune function, lower blood pressure, and, in diabetics, improve glucose metabolism.
Better Than Bacon
But mushrooms are most appealing where we think of them most often—in the kitchen. They are the original fake steak, thanks to their intense flavors and chewy texture. “I love the taste of bacon, but I can get that meatlike flavor from crispy brown mushrooms without having to eat meat,” says Paul Stamets, owner of Fungi Perfecti, a retailer of mushroom-growing kits, and the author of six books on the subject, including Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Many grocers now carry shiitake, portobellos, and oyster mushrooms, all of which are widely cultivated. And gourmet shops often offer a wider seasonal variety of species foraged from the forest floor, including the fruity chanterelle, the thin-stemmed enoki, the aptly named black trumpet, the wrinkly, meaty maitake (“hen of the woods”), the aromatic porcini, and others. Most of these grow wild and are gathered by a method closer to fishing than to horticulture: Hunters venture to their favorite coveted spots in the woods, then sell their “catch” to local brokers. Once you’ve brought your own catch home from the market, gently rub the caps clean with a damp cloth or soft brush—rinsing mushrooms in water can leave them soft and mushy. Generally speaking, mushrooms are at their best paired with some kind of fat: sautéed in butter or a delicate walnut oil; coated with tempura batter and deep-fried; drizzled with olive oil and charred on a grill; stuffed with a rich filling and baked. Once cooked, mushrooms can be frozen for later use. (If you freeze them when they’re raw, they’ll wilt.)
If you’re intrigued by a variety that local markets don’t carry, you can grow your own with a kit that contains the substrate (the material on which the mushrooms grow) and the spores (the “seeds” that start the fungus growth). Regular watering and a cool spot out of direct sunlight can yield a fresh supply for months. Contrary to popular belief, most mushrooms don’t grow in the dark; buttons are an exception. Enoki, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms are all appropriate for novice growers, Stamets says, but he adds, “Oysters are by far the easiest. In fact, they can be difficult to hold back!” (A kit yielding three or more pounds costs $30.)
Definitely explore what’s available dried, too. Rehydrated shiitake are more intensely flavorful and meatier than their fresh counterparts. Dried porcini and morels are a mainstay in many sauces, risottos, and pasta dishes. Soak them in water for 20 minutes and add them to a sauce or a sauté of fresh mushrooms to create a richly flavored, elegant dish. Whatever variety you’ve got can inspire culinary creativity: portobello burgers, wild mushroom ragout, marinated buttons topped with raw enoki. So passionate about the possibilities is chef Todd Humphries, owner of the tony Martini House in St. Helena, California, that he offers a year-round mushroom-tasting menu. “It’s probably my favorite ingredient,” Humphries says. “I love the texture, and there are so many wonderful varieties to work with.” Among his signature dishes are butter-poached chanterelles in a velvety hollandaise sauce and candy caps blended into panna cotta with chocolate sauce. But he admits that the lightest hand often yields the best results and that any mushroom is well served by light sautéing with a bit of shallot. Maybe mushrooms won’t make you smarter. But however you slice them—or grill them, or roast them—the succulent, unmistakable flavor of mushrooms will be the best medicine you’ve ever tasted.
Karen Solomon is a food writer in San Francisco. You can find her at www.ksolomon.com.