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MushroomsMushroom Article

Mushrooms are popping up all over

A morbidly entertaining foodie game is Last Meal, in which you decide what – besides hemlock – you would choose for your ultimate menu. That you would want many, many courses is a given, but a surprising number of people would include mushrooms, preferably wild, in that final request. Of course, if you happen to pick the wrong wild mushroom, your ‘last meal’ could be just that.

Our relationship with mushrooms is a combination of fascination with their inherent weirdness, fear of their deadly reputation, and sheer culinary lust: Nothing from earth is simpler or more delicious than fat slices of mushrooms sizzled in hot butter and olive oil, reeking of garlic, dusted with black pepper and parsley. Mushrooms are a feast for all the senses, as satisfying as meat, light as a cloud, madly fragrant with funky, earth-spiced smells. Raw mushrooms are flesh-like, cool, but without skin or seeds or bone. Transformed by heat they are pure alchemy with flavors rich and subtle, unlike anything else. An otherworldly pleasure.

Look backwards down the chain of human culinary evolution, when early peoples foraged for their food. Before snails met garlic and became escargot, they were just another protein source; before mushrooms became chic, they were just another item in the pot. Our ancestors being human, though, it wasn’t long before they figured out that the mushrooms that didn’t kill them outright really improved the leftover mammoth, and mushrooms themselves became the objects of the hunt. About a thousand years ago, the Japanese, whose subtle cuisine relies on the umami whammy from their revered woodland mushrooms, figured out how to grow mushrooms in jars, a method still used today. The first so-called ‘domestic’ mushroom is believed to have been cultivated in the 17th century in a Parisian stable.

Mushroom lovers no longer have to go hunting to get great mushrooms. A number of desirable exotic species are currently being cultivated locally, and nationwide. Flavor-wise, any exotic will give the plain white mushroom a run for its money. Supermarket shoppers can buy cultivated morels, King Trumpets, enoki, oyster, hon-shimeji, shiitakes and flavorful brown crimini mushrooms. Grillable giant Portobellos are readily available, their oversized caps as large and satisfying as a hamburger. Dried mushrooms from all over the world have become a pantry staple.

But the elusive, delicious and sometimes deadly wild mushroom is still the Holy Grail of most serious mycophiles world-wide. Russians, in particular, are crazy about wild mushrooms (possibly the origin of Russian roulette.) They seem to have as many names for mushrooms as Eskimos have for snow. Europeans forage woodlands and meadows for mushrooms and other fungi, such as the exquisite truffle. Mexico’s favorite fungus is the truly weird (but delicious) corn fungus known as huitlacoche, but many other indigenous mushrooms play major roles in the native cuisines and religions of Mexico. Mushrooms are esteemed in the Middle East, India and Africa, but have achieved their highest status in Asia, where they are prized for their health-giving properties. Only the English hold themselves aloof from this mushroom craziness, perhaps thinking the fungus world just a little too odd, a bit too foreign.

Mushrooms: Truly Wild

Mycophobes and the English aren’t entirely wrong: there’s something otherworldly about mushrooms. Strange fruit of darkness, rot and mystery, they erupt from nowhere (sometimes in a matter of hours) into eerie shapes reminiscent of clouds, wrinkled jelly, buds, stones, coral, bats, clamshells, brains, cauliflowers, or alien eyestalks—to name a very few. The bizarre shapes of wild mushrooms landscape a fey world of twilight and magic, the food of the archetypal Great Forest, of fairy tales and fantasy. There’s a reason why Alice ate mushrooms and not boring little berries.

Mushrooms can be slippery or shaggy, spotted or smooth, bulbous or elongated, sweet-smelling or sumptuously smelly. They may have pores like skin or gills like fish. Mushrooms come in every color from shiny black to bright red, peacock green, ivory, cinnamon, sienna, bright yellow, even luminous, glow-in-the-dark blue. The elegant Destroyer Angel, the most dangerous mushroom of all, shines pure white on the forest floor, like a lethal beacon.

Technically, a mushroom is the spore-carrying ‘fruit’ of one of hundreds of thousands of species of fungus. The actual fungus is made up of hair-fine threads known as mycelium, which are usually hidden within the decaying matter the fungus is consuming but are sometimes visible as a mass of cotton-like white threads. Fungi are one of nature’s most important recyclers, because they live by breaking down decaying organic matter. Decomposition releases nutrients and carbon for use by plants - a perfect recycling system which meshes with photosynthesis and closes the all-important carbon circle. A single malevolent fungus, like the one which caused the Irish potato famine, can cause widespread devastation. But without the many beneficial fungi there would be no bread, no wine, no cheese, no beer…not a happy thought.

Depending on weather conditions, the commercial wild mushroom season starts around Mother’s Day with the first morels and wraps up in the depths of winter, but some mushrooms are foraged year-round in wooded areas and meadows. San Diego’s mushroom scene is most active from December through May, following the rains. Among the most prized edible mushrooms are spicy-scented golden chanterelles; fat, succulent porcinis; the hen of the woods, with its layers of feather-like white and grey fringes; crunchy, bright orange lobster mushrooms; delicate and velvety Black Trumpets, or trompets de mort; the prized matsutake with its subtle piney fragrance; and the king of wild mushrooms, the morel with its whorled chambers and priapic shape. Local hunters can find many of these varieties, plus blewits, oyster mushrooms, and others.

With prices for true wild mushrooms in the stratosphere, and demand at an all- time high, foraging has turned into an adventure worthy of Robin Hood. Competition among commercial foragers has become so intense that battles have actually broken out in parts of the country over prime areas.

Caveat: This Means You!

Never, never, never eat any unknown wild mushroom. Many wild mushrooms are poisonous and some are lethal. As the saying goes, there are bold mushroom eaters, and old mushroom eaters, but no bold, old mushroom eaters. San Diego County has more than its share of poisonous mushrooms. A book is not a safe reference for determining edibility; only locally experienced mushroom experts can tell you if a mushroom is safe to eat. Again: Don’t do it.

Even expert foragers proceed with caution before consuming mushrooms from the wild. Several locally experienced foragers must agree that the mushroom is edible. It takes an expert mycologist to see the subtle difference between a safe mushroom and its nearly-identical, deadly cousin. Also, the appearance of poisonous varieties varies from region to region and continent to continent. An edible East Coast mushroom may have a deadly West Coast twin.

Certain mushrooms may be laughingly sought after for their hallucinogenic properties, but those same trippy toxins – dude! - may slowly and painfully destroy the kidneys and respiratory system.

Cultivation: From Del Mar to You

San Diego County is a steaming hotbed of mushroom production. There are mushroom farms where you might not think to find them: Fallbrook, San Marcos, Escondido. These busy farms produce shiitakes, oysters, enoki, King erengyii, Portobellos, white and crimini mushrooms for sale locally and nationally. Each mushroom species has different requirements for cultivation, thus every farm is a study in a ‘closed’ recycling system that is uniquely San Diegan.

The life cycle of your grilled Portobello salad begins at the Del Mar Racetrack during racing season. Lightly used straw from the stalls of pampered thoroughbreds is picked up daily and trucked up to the Mountain Meadow Mushroom farm in Escondido. By the end of race season, some six thousand one-ton bales of straw have been diverted from local landfills and are composting in piles. Contrary to popular belief, mushrooms are not grown in manure, but in decaying straw. The very small amount of manure present merely helps fire up the composting process.

The composted straw is pasteurized to kill bacteria, and the straw is moved into one of 26 growing rooms and inoculated with spores of the common “domestic” mushroom (agaricus bisporus.) Over several weeks, the straw becomes white with mycelium, and then begins to “fruit.”

The first tiny mushrooms, called buttons, are harvested first, then as the mushroom grows, medium and large white mushrooms are taken. At this point the pure-white mushroom has begun to turn thick-skinned and dark brown; it is now called a ‘crimini’ mushroom. The criminis are picked in turn to make room for a remaining few, and a remarkable thing happens. As the mushroom matures into a Portobello, it opens from a tight, round bud into a curled-edge umbrella and then a flat, completely open cap as large as 8 inches in diameter.

After the last giant Portobellos are harvested, the spent and sterilized growing medium is given to local farmers and landscapers for use as mulch and soil amendment. So what began in a stall at Del Mar winds up being dug back into the earth of San Diego County instead of going to landfill – after Mountain Meadows grows 4.5 million pounds of mushrooms. You could call it a sort of fungal trifecta.

When asked about his favorite mushroom, Mountain Meadow’s Robert Ramirez laughed. “I thought they were all poisonous! My wife got me into it. She makes a secret recipe mushroom sauce that she learned from her father. But I still don’t want to eat the really wild ones.”

Cultivated Exotics

The big news in the mushroom world is the King erengyii, sometimes sold as King Oyster or Trumpet Royale (though it is neither an oyster nor a trumpet mushroom.) With white stems thick and long as a good cigar, topped with small pearl-colored caps, these Kings are crisp and full of flavor off the grill or sliced and sautéed in olive oil with a grind of pepper and aromatic slivers of fresh garlic. The fact that they are grown in a nondescript warehouse in San Marcos makes a point that mushrooms do, indeed, pop up in the strangest places.

At the Golden Gourmet Mushroom facility, long concrete corridors are lined with heavy blue doors that lead to a series of dim, cold, foggy rooms, replicating a Japanese forest in winter. Each room is filled with tiers of tens of thousands of small white plastic bottles, marching into misty oblivion. The bottles sprout wild Beethoven wigs of white enoki and terraced buttons of elegant gray-capped hon-shimeji.

Looming in the dream-like, wispy twilight of one cool chamber was the startling sight of what appeared to be thousands of alien eyes on stalks sprouting out of the walls. On closer inspection these proved to be mature King erengyii mushrooms, hanging out of their growing bottles like fat brown-tipped fingers, branching into antlers and tentacles, lurching from their fungal roots like a pack of zombie bananas making a break for the door.

Golden Gourmet General Manager Steve Farrar got his start in the business as a horticulturist, trained to seek and destroy fungi; now he nurtures, nurses and harvests tons of fungal fruit annually from squat plastic bottles in the 60,000 square foot San Marcos facility. He is most interested in the medicinal aspects of the Asian mushrooms he raises. “Penicillin came from a fungus,” he points out. “It’s surprising that there aren’t more medicines being developed from mushrooms and fungi.” His personal favorite is the delicate Mai-take mushroom, a summer fruit, prized like so many other Japanese mushrooms for its nutritive and medicinal value but also, he says, “a great culinary mushroom.”

The technique of growing mushrooms in bottles originated in Japan centuries ago. Today the process is mostly mechanized, but otherwise identically patient. From inoculation to harvest, a pure white bouquet of enoki-take (their biggest seller) takes 40 to 50 days, with the bottles moved on racks from room to room to mimic the Japanese winter climate. Hon-shimeji and King erengyii can take up to 80 days from inoculation to harvest. Most of these varieties are sold wholesale to Asian distributors; consumer demand for the King erengyii is surging.

After harvest, the trimmed mushroom bases are sold to pharmaceutical and ‘nutra-ceutical” companies for use in natural foods and treatments. The spent substrate is turned over to organic farmers and gardeners for use as a valuable soil amendment, or used as a medium for growing worms.

A note about medicinal mushrooms: Not to stoke the fires of our North American culinary inferiority complex, but the rest of the world scoffs at our little white mushrooms. In Asia, mushrooms are considered as much medicine as food. Asian varieties, in particular, are packed with nutrition in the form of B vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Japanese researchers believe that some mushrooms possess beneficial compounds such as anti-oxidants and cholesterol-lowering compounds, even anti-tumor chemicals and anti-toxins. The most revered medicinal mushrooms are Asian: Mai-take (Hen of the Wood), Shii-take, Reishi, Coriolus and Cordyceps.

While American research lags behind that of Europe and Asia, it’s hard to go wrong with something that tastes good and is (possibly) good for you. Medicinal mushrooms are always cooked or made into a sort of tea. They are never eaten raw.

Dried vs. Fresh

Mushrooms have a short shelf life and are often dried to preserve them and intensify their flavor. While the price for a tiny package of dried mushrooms may make one’s hair stand on end, the shriveled, woody fragments pack a flavor wallop that is well worth the investment. No pantry should be without a few dried mushrooms: good choices are dried porcini, morels, shiitake and Chinese black mushrooms. Rinse them well to remove grit, soak in a little hot water for an hour or so, and add (along with their strained soaking liquid) to sauces, stocks, soups and stir-fries. Mushrooms are particularly welcome in vegetarian recipes, where they gift the palate with the enigmatic fifth flavor known as umami, which roughly translates as ‘fullness.’

Buying, Storing, Cleaning

Exotic mushrooms can be purchased in season at specialty grocery stores and Asian markets such as 99 Ranch. Specialty Produce of San Diego will sell wild and cultivated exotic mushrooms to the public after 2 p.m.

Mushrooms can be quickly swished in cold water if they are filthy; in most cases, wipe the caps with a damp cloth or use a clean pastry brush to remove any debris. Foraged mushrooms should be carefully examined for unwanted inhabitants, and very thoroughly cleaned. If you are lucky enough to receive some wild morels, they should be split and carefully examined for slugs.

Though my stepdad will spend hours peeling mushrooms with exquisite care, in most cases peeling is unnecessary. Remove any fibrous stems; they are a nice addition to stock, if you happen to be making some.

Mushrooms should be stored in a paper sack and used as soon as possible. Do not store them in plastic, or they will turn slimy rather quickly.

San Diego Mushrooms: A Walk on the Wild Side

The San Diego wild mushroom season runs with the rains, usually from December to May. Despite drought and post-fire conditions, the San Diego Mycological Society (motto: ‘We put the fun in fungus!’ Unofficial motto: ‘Just a bunch of fun guys’) will be showcasing a remarkable variety of local mushrooms at the annual Fungus Fair at Balboa Park, to be held in the Casa Del Prado on Sunday, February 22, 2004.

The star of the show will be a sixty-foot long display spread with leaves, pine needles, sticks and logs, complete with ants and tiny spiders– a microcosm of San Diego’s back country, and a revelation to those who think San Diego is either beaches or asphalt. Carefully displayed on this background, like so many jewels, will be a mind-boggling array of fungi and mushrooms (both non-edible and edible) gathered from San Diego’s parks, neighborhoods and gardens within 48 hours of the show.

Among the many edible mushrooms found locally are choice morels, thumb-sized and firm; soft grey Shaggy Manes; King Boletus or porcini (called cèpe by the French;) wine-colored Pine Spikes and lavender-hued Blewit; the unassuming reishi, prized for its medicinal qualities; golden chanterelles, tasty campestris (a full-flavored cousin of the common button mushroom,) the ever-popular Cinnamon Caps, and Oyster mushrooms.

The fungi you can’t eat are really the most interesting. While the species gathered vary from year to year, there are bound to be some fungi on display that will forever alter your definition of the word ‘mushroom.’ These come in infinite variety, with bark-like caps as big as dinner plates, or small as a little fingernail. There might be huge shaggy-maned white mushrooms sprung from a fairy tale, wrinkled yellow jelly clinging to logs or a fat brown bolete with a brilliant, neon-green underside. Some mushrooms smell variously of garlic, or rotting meat, or cinnamon, or bleach. There might even be a local ‘truffle,’ smelling faintly (sadly, very faintly) of actual truffle. Each displayed species will be clearly marked with its Latin name, a common name (like Cramp Ball, Earth Star, Dead Man’s Foot, Witch’s Jelly) and an offhand tag line: edible, or poisonous, or not good, or unknown.

Poisonous mushrooms are unmistakably marked with skull and crossbones. If you’ve ever made eye contact with a cobra, you know the feeling of gazing at the deadliest mushroom on earth: the very beautiful, exquisitely white Amanita Ocreata, or Destroying Angel, which kills slowly and painfully. Hunched nearby, like a gang of murderous thugs, will be equally lovely (and lethal) specimens of elegant, sienna-hued Jack o’ Lantern, and the aptly named Poison Pie. It‘s easy to see why edibility through positive identification is the number-one priority with the Society.

If you’re contemplating a mushroom-hunting expedition, take careful note that experience with San Diego species identification is essential before fungi is cooked and eaten (wild mushrooms, a bacterial Disneyland, are never eaten raw.) According to member and “myco-chef” Dave Grubb, San Diego has fewer mushroom species than the northern area of the state and more than its share of poisonous ones, which often mimic edible species.

Grubb warns that using a picture from a guidebook is not enough information to determine whether or not a local species is edible or poisonous; local expertise is essential. A benign and delicious mushroom from one part of the country may be almost identical to the poisonous species of another region. The message here is clear. If you want to mushroom, join the local group and learn proper identification. No mushroom should be considered safe to eat until a number of locally experienced hunters agree on its edibility.

The San Diego Mycological Society has about sixty members with permits to forage on public lands in San Diego, Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties. When it rains, an email goes out naming a rendezvous point for several days later. Members forage on their own and meet back at the parking lot for the all- important rituals of species identification and bragging rights. Though any pine-oak woodland will produce mushrooms after a rain, mushroom hunters tend to be rather secretive about the really good spots.

For more information on the San Diego Mycological Society, contact Les Braund at (858)566-3958; membership is $15 annually, including the Sporadic Press. Mushroom societies go underground for part of the year too- meetings take place only between December and May.

Miso Mushroom Soup

Japanese mushrooms are packed with nutrition and phytonutrients.This soup is also vegan, quick to make, virtuously low in fat and high in soy proteins. What more can I say? Serves 4 generously.

1/ 2 ounce dry shiitake mushrooms (about 12)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 stalk celery, minced
½ cup white onion, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ pound white or crimini mushrooms, chopped
5 cups water (divided use)
3 tablespoons yellow miso
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 ounces firm tofu, cut into cubes
2 green onions, finely sliced
Optional: 1 package enoki mushrooms, trimmed to 3 inches in length

Pour two cups of the water over the dried shiitakes, and soak for one hour. Reserve soaking liquid. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and discard. Cut the shiitakes into ½ inch dice.

Heat the oil in a 2 quart saucepan, and sauté the celery, onion, ginger and garlic for one minute. Add the soaked shiitakes and chopped white mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are softened. Add the reserved soaking liquid and the reaming 3 cups of water.

Cook at a slow simmer for 30 minutes. Add the miso paste and soy sauce. Add the tofu (and optional enoki mushrooms) and heat through. Serve in heated bowls, garnished with the green onions. (Note: I like a few chili flakes in mine.)

Sesame-Garlic Steak and Spinach Salad

with Warm Shitake Dressing

Perfect summer dining – easy and light. Any flavorful mushroom, such as crimini, oyster, wild mushroom or King oyster can be substituted for the shiitakes.. Serves 4.

For the grilled steak:

2 pounds tri-tip, skirt steak, flap meat or flank steak
1 tablespoon light sesame oil
½ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons Hoisin sauce
1-inch piece fresh ginger, washed and minced
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced

For the salad:

1 large bunch fresh spinach, stemmed, washed and dried
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 large fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (more to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper (more to taste)
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 green onions, sliced
2 tablespoons sesame seed, lightly toasted

Combine all marinade ingredients in a large Ziploc bag or non-reactive dish. Add the steak and marinate for 4-12 hours. 45 minutes before serving, grill the meat over medium-hot flame until it reaches an internal temperature of 125 degrees (for medium rare; for medium cook to 140 degrees, for well set it and forget it.) When done to your liking, remove from heat and let rest for at least 15 minutes before proceeding.

In a large bowl, toss together the spinach and red peppers. Heat the olive oil in a 10 inch sauté pan over medium heat and sauté the sliced shiitakes until soft. Season with the salt and pepper. While still very hot, pour the oil and mushrooms over the spinach and toss until the spinach wilts. Add the red wine vinegar, sesame seeds and green onions, and toss well to combine. Taste and add more salt or vinegar to your taste.

Slice the meat into thin slices. Divide the spinach salad among 4 plates and top each plate with several slices of steak. Serve immediately.

Note: Chicken can be substituted for the beef.

Individual Brie and Mushroom Pizette

Use any combination of flavorful ‘exotic’ mushrooms (shiitake, crimini, hon-shimejii, King Oyster, porcini, morel etc.) you like. This recipe is also excellent if you substitute a small amount of creamy blue cheese (stilton or gorgonzola) for some of the Brie. Makes 8 pizette.

1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed overnight in the refrigerator
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (divided use)
1 pound flavorful mushrooms: shiitake or crimini, thinly sliced or diced
Optional: 2 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ red onion, very thinly sliced
4 ounces brie cheese, sliced about 3/8 inch thick
1 sprig fresh marjoram or thyme, chopped (about 1 teaspoon)

Roll out the puff pastry to a 1/8th inch thickness (it needs to be quite thin.) Cut into four-inch circles or squares, and prick all over with a fork. Place on a rimless baking sheet and chill for an hour.

Heat a heavy sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Sauté the mushrooms (and optional garlic) until they start to give off juice, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until they are dry. Season well with salt and pepper.

Slice the Brie thinly, and lay over the chilled pastry, leaving some space between. Divide the mushrooms and red onions equally over the cheese. Drizzle with a little olive oil, chill again for at least 30 minutes (pizettes can be prepared ahead to this point, wrapped and chilled for 24 hours before proceeding)

Bake at 425 degrees for 8-10 minutes, or until crisp and brown on the bottom. Serve immediately.

Grilled Portobello Napoleon with Boursin Cheese

A really spectacular entrée presentation that can be completely made ahead and reheated just before serving. For hors d’ouevres, cut the stacks into quarters. Serves 4.

1 bunch fresh basil
½ cup finely chopped garlic
2 cups olive oil
2 green zucchini
2 yellow zucchini
1 medium eggplant
8 very large Portobello mushroom caps
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 very large vine-ripe red tomatoes
4 ounces Boursin cheese

Preheat a grill to medium hot, or preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Stem the basil, stack the leaves cut into strips, then chop. In a large bowl, combine the basil with the chopped garlic and olive oil. Set aside while you prepare the vegetables.

Trim the ends from the zucchinis, cut in two. Slice the zucchinis about ¼ inch thick; you should have square-ish pieces about three inches in length. Toss with the garlic oil, and lay out in a single layer on sheet pans. Season well with salt and pepper.

Trim the ends from the eggplant, and cut into circles 1/2 inch thick. Lay in a single layer on a sheet pan, and brush on both sides with the garlic oil with a pastry brush. Season well with salt and pepper.

Cut the stems out of the Portobellos and reserve for another use. Use a sharp paring knife or spoon to gently scrape the dark gills out of the mushrooms. Brush the mushrooms well with the garlic oil. Season well with salt and pepper.

Starting with the mushrooms, grill the vegetables on both sides until soft and almost completely done. Brush with garlic oil while grilling (if baking, brush the vegetables with oil and bake until soft but not mushy.)

Slice the tomatoes and marinate in the remaining garlic oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Assemble the Napoleons: Set one mushroom cap, gill side up. Spread with ½ ounce of the Boursin cheese. Top with two overlapping slices of the green zucchini, then two yellow zucchini, then one large slice of eggplant. Top the eggplant with a little more Boursin cheese and stack two tomato slices, overlapping, on top. Set another mushroom cap on top, gill side down, and secure the whole thing with a toothpick or skewer. Repeat with remaining vegetables. (Can be prepared ahead to this point, no more than four hours before serving.)

Reheat the napoleons in a 350 degree oven for about five minutes. Brush the tops with a little more garlic oil before serving.

Note: Serve with a simple Marinara sauce.


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