Mushrooms: More than pizza
What grows in dark, damp caves, has no leaves, roots, flowers or seeds, and is in season all year long? Mushrooms. Although considered a vegetable by most, mushrooms are actually fungi. More than 3,000 varieties can be found growing wild throughout the world. Of these, morels — which don’t grow in our northern Adirondack region – and bolete, which do, are among the most prized. Such gourmet varieties offer distinct, intense flavors and textures. Morels and porcini mushrooms can sometimes be bought dried in the supermarket, and are very expensive. If you use them, rinse, then soak in hot water until they soften before adding to a dish. Use sparingly; a little goes a long way.
Wild mushrooms have been gathered and eaten since prehistoric times. Of the thousands of varieties, many are edible, but some will make you sick and others are deadly. Paleolithic rock carvings and cave drawings depicting mushrooms have been found in northern Africa. Although it is a desert today, the Sahara was once a lush savanna, ideal for growing mushrooms. Popular in folklore, mushrooms have an aura of mystery and magic, and some have been used as drugs to create altered states of consciousness in China, Latin America, and Russia. In Egypt, they were thought to bestow immortality, and were reserved for the Pharaohs.
The Japanese were the first to cultivate mushrooms, raising shitakes 2,000 years ago. In Europe, the first mushroom cultivation occurred when French melon farmers discovered they could grow the white button (agaricus) mushrooms in their fields. They soon discovered that caves afforded a more stable climate, and limestone quarries outside of Paris were converted into mushroom farms for King Louis XIV. Today, mushroom houses carefully regulate temperature and humidity to create ideal growing conditions.
Modern cultivated varieties include the Japanese shitake and enoki, oyster mushrooms that grow in clusters, and the most common, European agaricus bisporus mushrooms which include the common white button mushroom and its cousin, the darker brown portabella. Baby portabellas are also known as crimini mushrooms. Button mushrooms closely resemble agaricus campestris, a wild field or meadow mushroom. The big advantage to mushroom cultivation is that, since they’re grown indoors in climate-controlled conditions, they are available year round and are not dependent on season, soil or weather.
With their rich, meaty flavor and versatility, mushrooms augment dishes from soups to salads, casseroles to stir-fries. Fat and sodium free, they have a mere 20 calories per serving, which includes just 3 grams of carbohydrate and 1 gram of protein — so they’re good for diabetics and won’t expand your figure.
Mushrooms contain fiber, three B-complex vitamins (niacin, which provides protection against age-related cognitive decline, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid), and many minerals, including potassium, phosphorus, zinc (important for immune function), iron, selenium, copper, manganese and the trace mineral germanium, noted for its antiviral and anti-tumor effects.
Some mushrooms are widely used in Chinese medicine and have been studied for their anti-cancer properties. Scientists have been investigating the phytonutrients in mushrooms for over 20 years. These include L-ergothion eine, a powerful antioxidant; cholesterol-lowering chitin; and heart-healthy beta-glutan; Mushrooms may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, boost the immune system, and inhibit tumor growth. Some phytochemicals in mushrooms may help inhibit estrogen production, thus protecting against breast cancer.
Look for mushrooms that are firm, clean, and blemish-free, not slimy or wrinkled. Mushrooms darken as they age, so they should be creamy-white or tan. Store them in the refrigerator. A damp cloth will help them to stay moist without becoming soggy. Clean them by wiping with a damp cloth or paper towel. They are very porous, and should not be soaked in water or they will become soggy. Slice off the bottom of the stem, which tends to be dirty and spongy. Ready-to-use pre-sliced mushrooms are widely available.
Due to their high moisture content, mushrooms should be cooked over medium heat until they begin to brown; this helps to deepen their flavor. They can be sautéed in a little olive oil, braised In a little broth or wine; roasted whole by tossing with oil, salt and pepper and spreading on a pan in a hot oven, broiled or grilled.
We know mushroom pizza and mushroom omelets, but you can also add them to soups, stews, sauces, chili, stir-fries, casseroles, salads or stuffing. Stuffed mushrooms make great hors d’oeuvres. Cooked with onions in a little olive oil, they make a great side for meat dishes. Or try them on a sandwich with cheese or steak.
3 medium potatoes
1 pound mushrooms
1 Tablespoon butter
1 large onion
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon flour
1/4 cup finely minced fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Cook potatoes in boiling salted water until barely tender.
Cook whole mushrooms in butter over medium heat for about 5 minutes.
While mushrooms are cooking, peel and thinly slice the onion. Spray baking dish with cooking spray. Slice potatoes 1/8 inch thick. Layer thus: potatoes, mushrooms, onions, then potatoes, mushrooms, onions and finish with an extra layer of potatoes. Sprinkle each layer with a little salt and pepper. Blend sour cream with milk and flour, and pour over. Bake about 30 minutes. Garnish with parsley. Serve hot, with a tossed salad.
Real Cream of Mushroom Soup
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions
1 pound sliced mushrooms
1 Tablespoon butter
3 cups broth (vegetable or chicken)
1 large or 2 medium potatoes
salt and pepper to taste
3 cups milk
1/4 cup finely minced fresh parsley
In large pot, heat the oil. Peel and dice the onions, and add; cook about 5 minutes on medium-low heat. Stir in the mushrooms and butter, and cook another ten minutes.
Peel and dice the potato. Add broth, potato, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; lower heat to simmer, cover, and cook about 45-50 minutes. Add the milk, and heat to just before boiling. Taste to adjust seasonings. Stir in the parsley and serve.
Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.