Cooking with the elusive, sensitive mushroom

Venture beyond the common button shape for a flavor-full dish.

A huge creaking wagon pulled by two shabby horses passed through the large wooden gate and into the cobblestone entryway that we shared with our neighbor. Our family was sitting around the table munching our midday meal in our small dining room in a Hungarian town in the early 1950s. We all got up from the table and crowded around the windows to see. The wagon stopped right under our noses.

The driver climbed down and loosened the ropes that held a tarp covering the load. The unmistakable pungent smell of manure filled the air of the beautiful fall day. We then watched with horror as our neighbor opened his basement window – that faced our dining room – and shoveled the smelly stuff in.

I was a young boy and got along well with our elderly neighbor couple. After the meal, I walked over just as the empty wagon pulled out and asked the man what he was doing with the manure. "Growing mushrooms," he said.

He had mixed the manure with about half straw and piled the mixture on his large basement floor in three long, narrow, parallel wall-to-wall ridges. He must have known what he was doing, because in five or six weeks' time the mushrooms started sprouting in staggering numbers.

Every few days, my mother sent me over to buy mushrooms for our meals. The fresh-picked mushrooms were excellent, conveniently located, and inexpensive. Fortunately we all loved mushrooms, even us kids. The harvesting went on for several months into mid-winter, then the mushrooms stopped growing.

Next year the same creaking, fully loaded wagon arrived again, and this time, anticipating the wonderful fresh mushrooms to come, we ignored the smell. But something went wrong. Even though the neighbor did everything the same as the previous year, very few mushrooms appeared in the manure ridges. There were just enough to supply a few neighbors for a few weeks. That was the end of the neighborhood's mushroom enterprise.

Mushroom growing is a finely tuned microbiological science, and many of the growers, particularly the small ones specializing in exotic species, have a microbiology background. Without that knowledge and plenty of growing experience, mushroom cultivation is unpredictable. The environment for mushroom growing must be perfectly sterile. Today the substrate is straw in most mushroom farms with some added organic material, such as freshly cleaned chicken manure. But it also may be oat, bran, or another organic substance.

From France to Japan, all great cuisines of the world use plenty of mushrooms.

Mushrooms have high flavor, but their open, porous texture also acts like a sponge to other flavors, and its slightly chewy consistency lends a lot to the complexity of most dishes. Their texture is a turnoff for many, however, and children in particular are experts at picking out mushrooms from any dish.

Differences among fungus

People throughout history collected and ate mushrooms from the wild but had a tough time taming them. Even today, growers are only able to cultivate a handful of different kinds. But these exotic, wonderfully flavored mushrooms are widely available in many markets and most gourmet food stores with prices that compete with beef tenderloin.

Most edible mushrooms are gilled mushrooms with the familiar radiating gills under the cap. A second kind, called the pore mushrooms, have tiny, just barely visible pores instead of gills. Pore mushrooms are only available from the wild.

There is also a third type with neither gills nor pores, not even the familiar stem, that grow into a shapeless, knobby blob. In this group are the famed truffles, also called earth nuts, a name that describes its underground habitat. The solid interior has the consistency of wax, and it chips into flakes, like candle wax.

Don't look for truffles in your supermarket. At $700 to $3,000 a pound for French black truffles, a produce manager would have to store them in a safe. We have a close relative in the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon white truffle, that is not quite as good but more affordable – about $200 a pound when available.

Some enthusiastic mushroom aficionados live for the thrill of hunting wild mushrooms. For example, the morel mushroom, with its honeycomb appearance, is relished for its delicacy in French cuisine. But wild mushroom hunting requires knowledge and skill, since many poisonous mushrooms resemble edible ones.

So most of us are stuck with the mild-flavored domestic button mushrooms. Since they left the wilderness, mushroom growers sacrificed flavor for varieties that are fast-growing and stay healthy the longest in storage. Farm-grown exotic mushrooms, with far better flavor (though with higher prices), can also be found in the produce section. Here are six:

Crimini, also called Italian field mushroom and Italian brown mushroom is a variety of the common button mushroom. This is the lowest priced of the exotic mushrooms. It is denser, meatier, and has more flavor than the common white button mushroom.

Portabella (also portobello) is a mature crimini mushroom. It has almost a meaty flavor and a very sturdy, almost chewy texture.

Oyster mushrooms are delicate, pearly white, meaty, mild-flavored, and high in water. Oyster mushrooms are much cherished in Chinese cooking and are often available fresh in Asian and gourmet food stores. Sauté at high heat to quickly evaporate its moisture so it browns instead of steams.

Shiitake (Chinese or Black Forest mushroom), originally from Japan, is rich, woodsy in flavor, and meaty in texture. The more open the caps, the more flavor it has.

Porcini, what the French call cèpe, has high flavor – very sturdy, but not chewy. It is the only available exotic mushroom that has tiny pores under its cap.

Enoki, also called velvet stem, is a tiny, flowerlike mushroom with white caps not much larger than a caper. Each package contains a small bundle, like a tiny bouquet. Enoki has almost no flavor, but it provides stunning garnishes.

Mushroom tips and tricks

I remember watching my mother painstakingly peeling each mushroom with a tiny knife, an entirely unnecessary chore. Not only was it a lot of needless work, but whatever little nutrition you found in the mushroom was likely to be just under the skin.

Mushrooms in grocery stores are reasonably clean, but they still need a quick wash in plenty of water just before cooking. Be sure the washed mushrooms are properly drained, otherwise you'll end up steaming instead of sautéing the mushrooms, resulting in far less flavor.

For storing, use a closed heavy paper bag in your refrigerator. This way, mushrooms have a chance to breathe through the paper, but humidity doesn't build up enough to encourage mold and rot to grow. A closed plastic bag is the worst choice.

Mushrooms also freeze well. They need a minute of blanching in boiling water to stop enzyme action. Adding something acidic to the boiling water (a teaspoon of lemon juice per quart), prevents browning. Or, sauté the mushrooms for a few minutes before freezing.

Raw sliced mushroom are eye-pleasing in a salad but totally without flavor. Only high heat puts flavor in them.

The deepest flavor comes from high-heat sautéing, pan-frying, or deep-frying. Even when you use mushrooms in soups and stews, brown them first on high heat in a little fat – the flavor you develop is worth the extra effort. Never crowd them in the sauté pan or the liquid the mushrooms release will cool the pan and you end up steaming them.

Once you befriend mushrooms in your kitchen, you will discover what a great, full-flavored, easy-to-prepare side dish you can create in just a few minutes. So put those little fungi on your shopping list often. And if you feel really adventurous, find a mushroom guide to help you stalk them in the forest.

Mushroom Gorgonzola Galette

1/4 ounce wild dried mushrooms

1 cup boiling water

2 tablespoons butter

5 green onions, sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

2 teaspoons fresh (or 3/4 teaspoon dried) rosemary, chopped

2 teaspoons fresh (or 3/4 teaspoon dried) thyme, chopped

1/2 pound exotic mushrooms (such as portabella or shiitake), thinly sliced

1/2 pound common white button mushrooms, thinly sliced

5 ounces Gorgonzola or blue cheese

Single-crust pie dough, chilled1. Pour boiling water into a heat-proof bowl and then add the dried mushrooms. Soak until soft. This can take between 15 minutes and 1 hour. Drain, finely mince, and set aside.

2. Sauté green onion in butter for 1 minute, add garlic, rosemary, and thyme. Cook for another minute.

3. Add all three kinds of mushrooms and sauté over medium-high heat until most of the liquid evaporates, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool.

4. Combine mushrooms with cheese.

5. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

6. On a flour-dusted working surface, use a rolling pin to roll out the chilled pie dough until it makes a 12- inch circle. Place the dough on an ungreased baking sheet. Spread filling mixture over the dough, leaving a border the width of two fingers around the edge. Fold this edge over the filling and pleat the dough to make a finished edge.

7. Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned.

Serves 6 as a brunch or lunch.

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