A mushroom is the spore baring body of a fungus which grows in damp, dank soil in shaded areas. Cultivating your own mushroom crop can be achieved by setting up an area, in the basement, which is kept dark and soil is moist. However, if you are like myself, and the home has no basement, two choices are left, buy or hunt. Depending on how populated an area you live in, the local markets will carry the typical white button mushroom, but they will also carry other varieties (cremini, portobello, enoki, chanterelle, oyster, etc.). Not all mushrooms are the same as they each have their own flavor, texture, even scent, and experimenting with the varieties is basically how you will find out what works with the recipe you are trying to create. For example, portobello mushrooms have a firm texture and beefy taste; a large grilled portobello can take the place of a beef hamburger for vegetarians.
But, but mushrooms are a fungus! These edible fungi, believe it or not, do have health benefits for the human body. They contain macronutrients that support a healthy immune system, one of which is Selenium, which helps the body make antioxidant enzymes to prevent cell damage.
Hunting for mushrooms is something that should not be done willy-nilly. Like with many bushes that bear berries, just because they look delicious does not mean they are safe to eat. During the summer months, we often find puff ball mushrooms growing in the backyard. While these are deemed one of the safest mushrooms to eat, you still have to be careful when picking them.
Puff balls (Calvatia gigantea) are, typically, white, volley-ball shape and texture, with no stem or frilly exterior parts. They are firm and solid inside, and if kicked, do not explode into dust filled with spores. However, when picking them, especially in forested areas, watch for two other mushrooms that look like puff balls, but are poisonous to ingest. Earthball (Scleroderma citrinum) while firm, has a springy or elastic feel to the body, and the interior becomes dark purplish-black with white lines. Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) can look like a puff ball mushroom when looking downwards at it. However, it has the shape of, similar to, a Chinese wide brimmed hat, sits on a longest stem which has a frilly “skirt”, and the underside of the mushroom is lined, not smooth. Death Caps cause liver poisoning, failure and, as the name implies, death.
So far, I have not been able to find any classes, except online, that teach about foraging for wild mushrooms. That led me to purchasing a book, Mushrooms: How to Identify and Gather Wild Mushrooms and Other Fungi, by DK, that has a five-star rating, is described as, “…beautifully illustrated guide contains everything you need to help you on your next foraging adventure.” The photographs and descriptions of each mushroom (edible and poisonous) are very detailed, and clearly give the “mushroom hunter” much needed knowledge to pick, and eat safely. However, if still unsure if the fungi you have picked is safe, it would be a very good idea to find an expert to verify you are not about to poison yourself, or others. Better safe than dead.
Now, whether store bought, or picked in the wild, mushrooms should be cleaned.
It is best to clean mushrooms right before using them, and the easiest way to clean mushrooms is brush each one carefully with a mushroom brush or a damp paper towel. If the mushrooms are very dirty, give them a quick rinse, and dry them off immediately. Mushrooms get slimy if allowed to sit wet, and do not store well in refrigeration for very long as they pick up the moisture.
Battered and deep fried, served with a horseradish sauce for dipping, they become a fantastic appetizer.
Cooked down into a rich ragu with olive oil, port wine, beef broth and heavy cream becomes an amazing topping over beef, chicken, pork, and the delight of hunters, version or elk.
¼ cup olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 lb. mushroom mix (cremini, oyster, enoki), roughly chopped
1/8 tsp. salt and pepper
½ cup port
2 cups beef broth**
½ cup heavy cream
1 tsp. dry Italian herbal mix
In a large skillet, medium heat, sauté’ onion till soft; add garlic and sauté’ for 2 additional minutes. Add mushroom mix, salt, pepper; mix thoroughly. Increase heat to high, remove pan from stove, add port and return to heat; let alcohol burn off. Add broth and let simmer until liquid is reduced by half; stir occasionally to keep from sticking. Add heavy cream, herbal mix; mix thoroughly and spoon mixture over sliced meat.
**Note: if serving over chicken or other poultry, use chicken broth instead.
Makes 4-6 servings.
Mushrooms can be added to Asian cuisines, and are often seen in stir-fry dishes. Want a burger to be the ultimate in taste and texture? Saute’ sliced onions and mushrooms together, in equal parts olive oil and butter, season with salt and pepper, until edges begin to brown. Layer on top of the burger and cover with a slice, or two, of baby Swiss cheese…oh, do not forget to toast that bun. Take that first bite, and hello food heaven!