By Nancy Gerlach, fiery-foods.com Food Editor Emeritus
Last summer (2006) was one of the wettest ones on record here in the Southwest. It rained and rained and then it rained some more. As a result of all this moisture, it was also one of the best years for gathering wild mushrooms. On a camping trip in the northern mountains I was amazed by the number of mushrooms I saw. There was such a vast array in all shapes, sizes, and colors, that I wanted to pick some and start cooking. But since I don’t know how to tell the poisonous from the safe ones, I refrained.
A dedicated mycologist would probably call me fungophobic and tell me that of the thousands of mushroom varieties only about 30 are very poisonous. But with possible symptoms ranging from mild nausea to paralysis and death, I choose to stick to the cultivated varieties until someone who knows what she’s doing can teach me how to separate the good from the bad.
All mushrooms are fungi but not all fungi are mushrooms. For example, huitlacoche, the popular Mexican corn fungus is not a mushroom, even though it is sometimes referred to as one. The kind of edible fungi that we call mushrooms are have a cap and stem. Those without the typical stem and cap are identified by their specific names such as morels or truffles.
Mushrooms grow in the dark without sunlight, a root, or leaves to provide nutrients. Instead they grow symbiotically receiving their nutrition from the organic matter on which the spores (seeds) attach. They live on dead tree trunks, rotted wood, sawdust, compost, and even manure. The spores grow into an enormously long, threadlike, underground network called a mycelium. In fact, the largest living organism in the world is a mushroom. An Armillaria ostoyae, or honey mushroom, was discovered in eastern Oregon living 3 feet underground. The mycelium covers 2,200 acres or 1,665 football fields and scientists estimate that the fungus has been growing for at least 2,400 years. The mycelium is the actual fungus and the portion that emerges and is harvested is the fruit; mushroom growers use the term fruit to refer to their crops.
What do mushrooms have in common with Italian prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and shrimp? They are all rich in umami. Considered the fifth taste–like sweet, sour, bitter, or salty–umami is the rich, mouth-filling and savory flavor that’s found in foods with the amino acid glutamate. Pronounced oo-MAH-mee , the name is derived from the Japanese words ” umai,” meaning delicious and “mi” meaning essence. The Japanese have talked about umami for centuries, but it’s only been recently that science has proven that the brain experiences umami as a unique taste, just like sweet, sour, salty and bitter. And like salt, umami makes other foods taste better, even foods that have no umami themselves. Of all the foods that are umami, mushrooms are king in this flavor enhancing ability.
Fresh mushrooms need to be handled with care. Don’t wash them before storing and always keep them under refrigeration. To prolong their freshness, it’s recommended that they be stored in a porous paper bag and never in an airtight container or a plastic bag. These allow condensation to build which speeds their spoilage. The shelf life of mushrooms depends on the type. Some will spoil fairly quickly while others like the shitake can last for a couple of weeks if stored well. The best advice is to use mushrooms as soon after purchase as possible.
Before using, mushrooms need to be gently cleaned to remove any dirt. Wipe them with a damp cloth or soft brush and then pat dry with paper towels. Never soak mushrooms in water to clean as they are very porous and will soak up water and dilute their flavor. Mushrooms don’t need to be peeled and they can be used with or without their stems.
And finally, the method of cooking can affect the mushrooms’ flavor. They have a special affinity for butter and olive oil and are very flavorful when sautÃ©ed in either one. High heat will destroy the subtle flavor of the mushroom so they are best when cooked over a medium to low heat. Some recipes call for them to be sautÃ©ed to release their juices and then both mushrooms and the juices are used, while others call for them to be cooked until the juices have evaporated. They also are good broiled or on the barbecue. Try grilling a portabella in place of beef patty for a delicious low fat burger. And, of course, I always recommend using their umami with capsaicin for your own fiery, flaming fungus!
How Much Mushrooms?
1 pound crimini or white mushrooms = 5 cups, lightly packed
1 pound sliced crimini white = 2 cups sautÃ©ed mushrooms
1 pound crimini or white mushrooms = approximately 35 medium sized mushrooms
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms =1 1/2 cups sliced or chopped stems
6 ounces portabella mushrooms = 2 1/4 cups coarsely chopped without stems
A tapenade is a thick puree of olives, anchovies and capers, with olive oil and seasonings. It is most commonly served on crisp breads or with cruditÃ©s. This variation uses mushrooms as a base and is spiced with chiles. It’s great as a topping for baked potatoes or steak. This recipe should be prepared in advance because the flavor is improved if it rests overnight.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, shallots, chiles and garlic to the pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, tossing and stirring often, until the mushrooms begin to render their juices, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rosemary, parsley, and sherry, and lower the heat. Cook uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are tender, about 7 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
In a food processor or blender, combine the mushroom mixture, olives, capers, anchovy and lemon juice, and pulse until the mixture is coarsely chopped. With the motor running, pour in the remaining oil, then stop; don’t over process the tapenade because you want some texture to remain. Stir in the cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cover and refrigerate the tapenade for 3 hours or up to 3 days ahead of service.
To serve, bring the tapenade to room temperature and serve it with toasted bread, crackers, or cruditÃ©s.
This recipe is based on one created by the Mushroom Council. I’ve ramped up the heat by adding harissa, that fiery chile paste from Tunisia that has become popular all across North Africa (look for it in specialty food stores). Also popular in North Africa, couscous is wheat in a granular form that is usually steamed and combined with vegetables and/or meat. Portabellas are the mature form of the crimino mushroom, and because they lose moisture as the age the flavor intensifies and the texture becomes dense.
Wash and trim the stems from the portabellas, if attached, and thickly slice the caps.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium high heat. Add the portabellas and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 7 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms from the skillet to a plate; cover and keep warm.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet. Stir in the onion, cumin and cinnamon. Cook and stir until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the orange juice and harissa, then simmer until the liquid reduces to 1 cup, about 5 minutes.
To prepare the couscous, bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in the couscous and season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat, cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in the green onions, raisins, and almonds.
To serve, divide the couscous among 4 plates; top each with the portabellas, and drizzle with the orange-cumin sauce.
This is a quick and easy chowder that’s great for lunch and is hearty enough to serve as a dinner entree with a crisp salad and crusty bread. I have suggested using crimini mushrooms but you could use white button mushrooms, or even morels. If you’re using morels, reduce the amount as their flavor is much more intense.
Rinse the shrimp under cold water, drain and pat dry with paper towels.
Heat the butter in a large saucepan or stock pot over medium heat. When hot add the mushrooms and onion and sautÃ© for 2 minutes, or until the onion is tender. Stir in the flour and cook 2 more minutes, stirring constantly and being careful the flour doesn’t brown.
Whisk in the juice, wine, and chile, raise the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the dill, thyme, and mace and simmer until the chowder thickens. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.
Add the shrimp and continue to cook until they’re cooked through. Remove the chowder from the heat and stir in the cream.
Garnish the chowder with a few thin slices of uncooked mushroom and a sprinkle of dill weed.
Moroccans love to cook outdoors over homemade charcoal braziers, and roadside stands sell various kinds of grilled meats throughout the country. The stands also sell flat breads to make instant and tasty sandwiches. Serve these brochettes over a bed of couscous, rice pilaf, or, in the Moroccan way, in flat bread pockets. This is another adaptation of a recipe from the Mushroom Council.
In a large bowl, whisk the oil together with the parsley, garlic, paprika, cumin, and cayenne to make a marinade. Pour the mixture over the meat, cover and marinate in the refrigerator at least 8 hours or overnight.
Drain the brochettes, reserving the oil, then thread the beef cubes and mushrooms alternately onto each six skewers. Brush the mushrooms with the reserved oil.
Grill or broil the brochettes, turning several times until the beef is cooked according to preference, about 8 minutes.
Season the meat to taste with salt and pepper and serve on rice, couscous, or in a pita pocket.
Variations of this recipe call for using huitlacoche the corn fungus considered a delicacy in Mexico. In this recipe mushrooms are substituted for the hard to find fungus. The shitake mushrooms give an earthy flavor dish and compliments the richness of the sauce.
For the enchiladas:
For the sauce:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and grease a 13-inch baking pan.
To make the filling, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the onions and sauté until they are soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms, garlic, jalapeno, and oregano. Sauté the mixture until the mushrooms are browned and the liquid has evaporated. About 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken, corn, and cilantro and season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep the mixture warm.
To make the sauce, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for an additional minute.
Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, being careful the flour doesn’t brown. Whisk in the milk and bring to just below boiling, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until sauce thickens, whisking occasionally, about 5 minutes.
Pour the sauce into a blender or food processor. Add the cream and the chopped chiles and process until smooth.
To assemble, soften the tortillas by wrapping them in dish towel and microwaving them for 20 to 30 seconds. Place a tortilla in the baking pan and place some of the filling on top and roll the tortilla ending with the seam on the bottom. Repeat with the remaining tortillas. Pour the sauce over the enchiladas and top with the poblano strips and cheese.
Bake the enchiladas for 20 to 30 minutes or until heated through.
Garnish the enchiladas with chopped fresh cilantro and serve.