Connoisseurs consider mushrooms the luxuries and frivolities of gastronomy. Both professionals and amateurs have started to acquire a taste for both cultivated and wild mushrooms.
Mushrooms possess a subtle and deep flavour, a crisp but yielding texture, and while they have no real nutritive value, all provide substantial gustatory pleasure.
When the right mushroom is used for the right ingredient, ordinary foods can be elevated to heavenly heights.
The difference in taste and texture between the many edible mushrooms is amazing. There exist many verities, but to date, only approximately ten have been successfully cultivated. The most flavourful mushrooms grow wild and must be “hunted”.
North America offers untold opportunities to the mushrooms “hunter”, but very few take advantage of nature’s bounty. The unwillingness to “hunt” wild mushrooms may be related to the possibility of picking poisonous species. Only very few wild mushrooms species happen to be poisonous and how to determine their deathly qualities can be learned quickly.
The four most popular and best mushrooms are: cepe, chanterelle, morel and field mushrooms.
Shiitake, oyster, and enoki (actually enokitake) mushrooms from Japan have been successfully cultivated and are now widely available at least in metropolitan North American cities.
Famous chefs have been using truffles (tubers) for centuries.
Mushrooms were first cultivated at the end of the 17th century on fumigated horse manure, and in caves of abandoned quarries around Paris. Field mushrooms are the descendents of those which have a creamy white colour. Slightly firmer brown cultivars a.k.a. cremini are also available and sought after.
Button mushrooms are small and possess a more intense flavour, whereas larger number ones which are more suitable for stuffing and general cooking.
Cultivated mushrooms taste best when freshly picked and consumed within a day or two. Always look for mushrooms with their wail in tact. Japanese appreciate mushrooms as Europeans and North American, and are also avid “hunters”. North Europeans, however, are the most ardent ”hunters”. To them “hunting” is a Sunday outing for fresh air, enjoyment of nature, and gastronomic pleasure, all wrapped in one.
The most popular Japanese mushroom shiitake (oak mushroom), is grown on oak stumps propped against neatly arranged fences on clearings of forest edges. Shiitakes are available fresh or dried.
The best way to enjoy shiitake mushrooms is simply sautéed and seasoned with salt and pepper. Look for hana donko (the best); they taste delicious, donko, doshin, koko, kotsubo donko are best used in sauces, mixed with other vegetables and stews. Shiitake mushrooms contain 12 – 13 percent protein, 60 percent saccharoids, 4.6 percent mineral salts, vitamins B1, B2, niacin and D2/
Morels (morchella), abundant in France and Germany are variously called pinecones, sponges, and brains in North America.
Europeans love to hunt morels, and although Georgia, South Carolina, Virginal, Pennsylvania, New York and New England states abound with this delicious mushroom, few bother to take advantage of natures bounty.
There are four species of morels, all of which are suitable for sautéing, broiling, stuffing, in egg dishes and casseroles. The white morel is considered to be superior in taste and texture to black morels.
Morels are also available canned and frozen.
Caesars mushrooms (amanita caesarea) can be found in Europe, Asia and Africa/ The name derives from their superior taste worthy of an emperor’s table. Some varieties are poisonous. Caesar’s mushroom can be eaten raw in salads (marinated in lemon juice for four hours) or sautéed.
Chefs considered Cepe (boletus edulis) a k a steinpilz in German, fungi porcini in Italian, to be one of the best wild mushrooms. For centuries. Ancient Greeks and Romans thought them to be the most flavourful of all and even today many famous chefs continue to believe this to be true. It grows in Europe, Asia and North America. At first, the cap is white then changes to a redish brown. Cepe lacks aroma, but has a mild to intense flavour with a chewy texture. Most cepe are broiled and served along game specialties. Chefs use it risottos, pastas and sautéed serve along veal cutlets.
Ceps are available canned and generally from European processors.
Funnel-shaped chanterelles (cantharelius tubaeformis) is an exquisite mushroom much prized by French, Swiss, German and Austrian chefs. It grows wild in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia in coniferous forests and can reach a diameter of 2 – 12 cm. It can be sautéed, or breaded deep- or pan-fried.
The fan-shaped oyster mushroom (pleurotus ostreatus) has a creamy white to pale grey colour and a semi-soft texture with a mild flavour. Sauteed oyster mushrooms display a meaty flavour, can complement cod stews, roast pork loin and homemade veal sausages.
Girolle (cantherellus cibarius) is a season from June to October in Northern Europe, Japan and North America. Griolles taste best when fresh and stewed.
Fresh mushrooms should be firm and moist but with no damp or wet spots.
Store them in paper bags, as plastic makes them sweat, turning mushrooms slimy. Poke a couple of holes in the paper bag to ensure adequate air circulation. This way they should keep three to four days.
Do not clean until before use. To clean, brush with a pastry brush or wipe with a damp cloth. Very sandy and dirty mushrooms can be sloshed around in a sink of cold water, then drained well.
Mushrooms are natural sponges, about 90 percent water, so do not soak them.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu