The 411 on Mushrooms

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pasta wild mushrooms and greens

People are often amazed to learn facts and trivia about some of the foods we use every day. Would you be surprised to learn that an olive is actually a fruit; a caper is no more than a flower bud; and soybeans could be used to make crayons?

Beyond those tidbits of data, I’m most amazed about mushrooms! For instance, the mushroom plant isn’t grown from seeds. New mushroom plants start from spores. And they don’t grow leaves, roots or flowers like other vegetation we’re more familiar with. What’s just as fascinating is how the mushrooms nourish themselves. Unlike green plants that make their own food (remember back to photosynthesis), mushrooms take their food from living and decaying plant material in the soil.

There are thousands of mushroom types, but not all can be consumed. There is no golden rule to differentiate between the varieties that can be eaten and which, by fear of poisoning and death, should be avoided. So it is best to leave the forest foraging to professional fungus finders.

Because they are porous, the mushroom will retain moisture. Soaking mushrooms in water (for cleaning purposes), allows them to fill up with the water. If instead, just before use, the mushroom is quickly rinsed, or lightly scrubbed with a mushroom brush, it will instead fill up with the flavors of your dish, such as the nutty flavor of barley in a mushroom barley pilaf. The mushroom is a sponge and will capture the flavor of the other ingredients it is cooked with. Additionally, certain ingredients enhance the flavor of a mushroom. Even if you’re not going for an Asian taste, using a splash of soy sauce instead of salt will draw out each unique flavor. A spoonful of chopped garlic will marry nicely with mushrooms in almost any Mediterranean dish.

When a mushroom isn’t appropriate for eating raw, as in a salad or a crudite, it is more likely a good candidate for a quick sauté or stir-fry. The Shiitake, the rich earthy flavored Morel, the bright golden yellow Chanterelle and the Lobster mushrooms aren’t taste sensations in the raw, but better suited for cooking.

Mushrooms come in many different forms. Fresh, dried, in a paste, ground to a fine powder, or preserved in oil -- each is used in different methods of preparation. Dried mushrooms are a wonderful staple to store in your kitchen pantry. Due to the short season for Porcini mushrooms, they are one of the more common varieties to find in the dry form. Reconstitute the Porcini in a bowl of water to spruce up a soup or stew. Another option for the dried version is to grind and use as a dusting on pan-seared salmon or sea bass. Dried Black Mushrooms, often found in Asian sections of the market, add a great texture to Oriental dishes once reconstituted. However, with today’s availability of fresh mushroom varieties, there is no need to limit ingredients solely to the dried form. Fresh Shiitake mushrooms are a superb addition to salads, soups, stir-fries and quick sautés. Keep in mind that the fibrous stems of the Shiitake are one of the few that should be discarded.

Another commonly found mushroom is the Portobello. This large, dark brown mushroom is the product of an ingenious marketing ploy of the ‘80s. The Portobello is an unglamorous mushroom that was usually thrown away because growers couldn’t sell it. A marketing firm slapped on the fancy name and it sold. And sold and sold! Now the Portobello is considered a delicacy. The dense meaty texture of this mushroom is perfect for grilling or placing over a salad. Cutting long, thin strips and breading with panko is a great alternative to french fries. Portobello and its junior version, the Crimini are now fairly common in the markets. Each provides an interesting and earthy flavor to any dish that calls for white button mushrooms.

There are a couple of times when lobsters and oysters are permitted in a kosher kitchen…The Oyster (aka Pleurotte) and Lobster mushrooms were awarded their names by their appearance. The Oyster mushroom is pale, thin and gray. The Lobster mushroom is thick and meaty, and it boasts an orange-reddish hue. These are terrific choices to layer within a recipe; combining several types of mushrooms will greatly enhance the dish you are preparing with nuances of taste, color and texture.

If even one new mushroom that you’ve just read about sounds intriguing, do yourself a flavor and get some into your kitchen! The following recipe offers a variety of fabulous fungi for your next feast.

Please try out this delicious recipe - Pasta with Wild Mushrooms and Broccoli Rabe.