Regular readers may be relieved to know I’m not going to challenge your palates with a new vegetable today. Nor a new grain. No hard-to-find fruits. No nuts, no seeds, no dairy. Not an herb. Not a spice.
Today’s all about fungus.
Mushrooms! The fab fungi that bring you loads of minerals, rival bananas for potassium stores. They’re filling and flavorful, and you can eat a plateful without fear. 100 grams of criminis come in at just 22 calories, no fat, 4 grams carbs, and 3 grams protein. Cool.
They’ll flavor a stir-fry, a soup, a stew, a roast. Cooked gently in a nice olive oil, sprinkled with thyme or tarragon, they can take center stage on your plate, over your pasta. Try delicate enokis, earthy shitakes, frilly chanterelles. There are oysters so blue they look black. I can’t get my hands on porcinis, but believe it’s worth the trip to Florence to find them.
Portobellos marinated and pressed with roasted yellow peppers and baby mozzarella and basil into a terrine, then sliced and served up with a cold fresh tomato sauce is the whole reason one grows tomatoes, isn’t it? I haven’t tried but need to understand wood ears and clamshells and cinnamon caps. Truffles are still a form of currency in some French hill towns. And they completely understand why, those hill dwellers. But where I spent much of my childhood, the mighty morel rules the mushroom world. During the short morel season, families remove their children from school to recruit them for the hunt.
I was a terrible morel hunter. Weak vision combined with worse instincts, wrapped in a tendency to daydream, made me worse than useless on a morel hunting excursion. But I enjoyed myself, the wormy smell of barely warmed dirt as we flipped over the winter’s leaves under certain varieties of trees, wandering farther and deeper and sometimes losing our way in the thousands of acres of state property at the tip of Michigan’s mitt. The part I liked best came in my mother’s kitchen at the end of the hunt when we emptied our bags and warmed the booty in butter.
One big Portobello cap, painted with a good olive oil and grilled over charcoal, salt and pepper, makes a better burger than any of the vegetarian soy-substitutes you can toss my way. A homemade cream of mushroom soup using a combination of portobello and dried shitake mushrooms is so many moons away from that canned experience, it’s a shame to give them both the same name.
I like buying up portobellos when they’re cheap, making the biggest slices I can, and drying them myself in my trusty dehydrator. Mushroom chips are my most satisfying crunchy snack these days. A bit of a luxury, and worth every penny.
If you’ve always been nervous about mushrooms, or have only eaten them canned, start with good fresh ones. Unusual ones. Cook them over low heat with a little olive oil, salt and pepper until they have softened, begun to release their juices. Then give them another chance. Go with wild varieties, find your own, or even start your own mushroom farm. They’re actually not all that hard to grow, it seems.