The Fungus Among Us
If you were a leprechaun what would use for an umbrella? I'll bet you never pondered that one huh? Well, according to the medieval
If you were a leprechaun what would use for an umbrella? I'll bet you never pondered that one huh? Well, according to the medieval Irish, leprechauns used mushrooms to protect them from the rain.
Actually, mushrooms are dreadfully unsuited to such a purpose. Mushrooms are like little sponges. Prolonged exposure to moisture would render them water logged and hence, quite ineffective umbrellas. That's OK; they have so many other uses.
Mushrooms are a fungus first cultivated by the Greeks and Romans. There are thousands of varieties. Contemporary mass scale production began in France in the 17th century and in the US in the 19th century. Pennsylvania remains the largest producer with California a close second.
The most common cultivated mushroom in the US is the white button mushroom found in every supermarket and available year round. Cremini mushrooms are also cultivated. They are similar in shape and size to the button mushrooms but noticeably browner. Portobello mushrooms are creminis that have grown up.
There are many varieties of exotic mushrooms that offer a range of interesting flavors. These include shitake, porcini, chanterelle, oyster, and the coveted morel, which is in season in the spring. Some of these can be found in dried forms.
Dried porcinis and morels can be rehydrated by soaking in warm water for 30 minutes. Dried shitakes will take hours unless soaked in boiling water. After soaking, squeeze out the excess liquid. Strain the soaking liquid to remove the grit and save it for incorporation into your dish or a sauce.
Unless you're with a mycologist, (a mushroom expert), never forage for wild mushrooms. There are very poisonous varieties of mushrooms that look similar to their edible cousins.
The dangerous ones contain highly concentrated toxins that attack the internal organs and produce death from liver and kidney failure. The infamous Death Cap mushroom is found in this country and is the most lethal.
Choose mushrooms with tight caps, little discoloration, and no damp or wilted parts. If dried, avoid packages containing bits and pieces. Dried whole mushrooms are usually of better quality.
Debate exists about whether to wash mushrooms because of their aforementioned propensity to absorb water. Many suggest wiping them with a damp cloth or with a special mushroom brush. However, as long as you don't soak them in water and you dry them after washing, you can rely on your faucet.
But don't wash them until you're ready to use them. Store them in the fridge up to three days in contact with circulating air. No vacuum sealed plastic bags please. Mushrooms do not need to be peeled. Trim the stem end except for shitakes, whose stems are woody and inedible and must be removed entirely.
Mushrooms contain selenium, potassium, copper, and B-complex vitamins, and are purported to have anti-cancer properties. Nowadays however, everything either causes cancer or fights cancer.
Mushrooms can be cooked in innumerable ways although the dry heat methods are best. They are loaded with water and techniques that release it will intensify the mushroom's flavor. Sautéing is my personal favorite. Mushrooms add an earthy flavor to food. I like mushroom dishes with burgundy, an earthy-flavor friendly wine.