Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The 'Shroom Boom

By Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Mushrooms are funny things. Filling your plate with fungus hardly sounds appetizing, but no matter how hard we try to cast them in a more favorable "vegetable" light, mushrooms remain a part of the fungi family. Time was that the fungus appellation kept a majority of American consumers away from mushrooms, especially the exotic, wild varieties. But today, a steadily increasing number of mushrooms -- both cultivated and wild -- are appearing in produce sections across the country.

The National Agriculture Statistics Service reports that sales of specialty mushrooms are expected to hit a record high of $35.5 million in the 1996/1997 season, up nearly 20% over last year, and more than double the value of the 1992/1993 crop. On a local level, chefs have been quick to incorporate flavorful fungi into their menus, familiarizing diners with varieties such as the shiitake and porcini -- mushrooms virtually unheard of only five years ago. Favored by gourmet hounds, specialty mushrooms have also become the darlings of the the health-conscious spa food set. Mushrooms are made up of some 90% water, so they're ridiculously low in calories. Most varieties possess a good amount of potassium and are correspondingly low in sodium, qualities valued for keeping blood pressure in check. When it comes to per capita consumption of fungi, Americans may lag behind their Asian and European counterparts, but after years of mistrusting mushrooms, U.S. consumers have emphatically embraced them.

Generally, mushrooms can be divided into two categories -- wild and cultivated -- although innovative intensive farming methods have led to the widespread cultivation of several wild species, among them the shiitake and oyster mushroom.

When I lived in France, the onset of fall brought with it wild mushroom mania. Each year, otherwise sane individuals would adopt irrational, paranoid behavior, spending entire weekends hovering over leaf-matted forest floors (treasured hunting grounds they kept secret) in the hopes of uncovering elusive fungi like the cepe, better known in the U.S. by its Italian name, porcini. This behavior exists stateside primarily in the mushroom-plentiful regions of the Pacific Northwest and northeastern seaboard, where mushroom hunting is a seasonal rite and autumnal tables would be incomplete without the addition of hand-picked wild fungi. But for most Americans, wild mushrooms are better left harvested by professionals. Among the wild varieties readily available to consumers in supermarkets are the porcini, chanterelle, and morel.

photograph by John Anderson

Porcini (Botulis edulis) are hearty, meaty mushrooms that wear a price tag upward of $10 per pound. Both the cap, with its distinctive, sponge-like underside, and the stem of the porcini are edible, although neither should be eaten raw. These mushrooms contain more protein than any other vegetables except legumes, and their concentrated, woodsy flavor makes them an ideal accompaniment to robust meat dishes. In the U.S., porcini are often sold dried, in which case preparing them as the principal component in a stew or sauce best showcases their flavor.

Chanterelle mushrooms (a general name given to several mushrooms in the Cantharellus family) are characterized by their orange-toned, chewy flesh and their fruity aroma and flavor -- sort of one part apricot, one part mushroom. Best when cooked, chanterelles marry particularly well with shellfish and game, and do wonders for otherwise ordinary chicken dishes. On the health front, they are high in vitamins A and D. For centuries, the Chinese have appreciated chanterelles for their curative powers in correcting vision and respiratory ailments.

While most wild mushrooms are in their prime in the fall, the tiny, tasty morel, a relative of the prohibitively expensive truffle, is a harbinger of spring. Morels peek through the snow patches of the northern Midwest (Michigan and Minnesota) as early as March and are usually only a distant memory come June. Distinguished by a hollow cap resembling a loofa sponge, these diminutive mushrooms are packed with nutty flavor. Morels should never be eaten raw, although their natural "al dente" texture, even once cooked, makes them perfect for tossing in pasta dishes.

When it comes to cultivated mushrooms, the most widespread remains the common white button mushroom (Agaricus brunnescens). The French were the first to commercially cultivate button mushrooms, producing them in moist caves under the streets of Paris in the 1700s. (Mushroom cultivation in general dates back some 2,000 years in China; it was begun in the U.S. in the late 1800s.) Of those mushrooms commercially produced in this country, primarily in Pennsylvania, 93% are in the Agaricus family, which includes the white button, the dark-capped crimini, and the mammoth portobello -- the last actually a mature version of the crimini made popular by marketing genius. Texas growers of agaricus mushrooms are located in Gonzales and Madisonville.

When buying button mushrooms, keep in mind that closed-capped specimens are best for making white sauces because the mushrooms' gills are unable to darken the preparation. If it's optimum mushroom flavor you're after, pick the more mature, close-capped mushrooms with exposed gills.

Although more closely associated with wild mushrooms, most shiitakes sold in stores are almost exclusively farmed versions. The shiitake is one of the five most commonly cultivated mushrooms in the world (the Japanese wrote about raising shiitakes 1,000 years ago), though the pungent fungus grows wild only in Eastern Asia. A versatile mushroom that can withstand extended cooking, the shiitake may also be consumed raw, although its fibrous stems are better cooked or removed. The shiitake has a smoky flavor that adapts well to spicy cooking, however the Japanese prefer to use this flavorful mushroom to infuse light, dipping sauces or marinades. Shiitakes contain lentinan, a compound sugar believed to have cancer-fighting properties.

Also a mushroom once found exclusively in the wild, the oyster mushroom (of which there are dozens of varieties), is now widely cultivated. The mushroom, which gets its name from its jagged shape, has a mild flavor with subtle sweetness. Both the cap and stem of the oyster mushroom are edible, and the oyster mushroom is best when cooked. The Chinese prescribe it for tendon and leg pain as well as blood pressure problems and lumbago.

When selecting mushrooms, several general rules apply regardless of variety. Always choose firm, fresh specimens and refrain from washing the mushrooms in water, as the flavor is concentrated in the skin. A slightly damp paper cloth or mushroom brush is ideal for removing grit. If you buy mushrooms that you intend to store for later use, refrigerate them in a paper bag or waxed paper as plastic bags and airtight containers advance decay.

To ring in autumn, experiment with a wide variety of wild mushrooms, most of which are now at their peak.

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