These mysterious delicacies offer deep, earthy flavors and a wealth of nutritional value.
Right next to your basic button mushrooms and portabellas, most grocery stores now offer their wild cousins. They might look unusual, but they have an array of complex, earthy flavors — and they pack a powerful health-supporting punch.
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi and are renowned for their meaty flavors and tantalizing aromas. Most of the estimated 38,000 varieties of mushrooms are edible, including wild chanterelle, morel and porcini. But some are highly toxic and even poisonous. (If you forage, don’t consume wild mushrooms without expert identification. For a longer list of wild mushrooms and a brief description of each, read the online version of this article at experiencelife.com.) When purchasing, look for mushrooms that are firm, evenly colored, with tightly closed caps. Avoid those with soft spots and darkened surfaces.
Mushrooms are high in protein and vitamin B12. They’re fat- and cholesterol-free and rich in antioxidants, and certain varieties, such as shiitakes, contain all of the amino acids essential for human nutrition. Many wild mushrooms are an excellent source of other B-complex vitamins, which are essential for turning proteins, fats and carbohydrates into energy. They’re also a good source of potassium, which helps control blood pressure, and phosphorus, which is essential for strong bones and teeth. Some mushrooms — like shiitakes, which have been mentioned in medical literature for more than 2,000 years — have proven medicinal benefits, including antiviral, antifungal and anti-tumor effects. Oyster mushrooms have been found to lower cholesterol.
- Cook mushrooms slowly in a minimum amount of oil, broth or cream over low heat for about three to five minutes to bring out their most intense flavors. Slow cooking concentrates flavors. A quick sauté in a wok (one to two minutes in a small amount of oil over high heat) helps maintain mushrooms’ firmness.
- Sauté mushrooms with olive oil then add to frittatas, egg scrambles, omelets, breakfast wraps or hash browns.
- Brush large mushrooms with a favorite vinaigrette and grill until tender. Slice and sauté into quick stir-fries and pastas, or stuff into sandwiches.
- Dice and simmer mushrooms in stews to replace meats.
- Slowly simmer chanterelles and morels with cipollini onions or shallots, fresh herbs, and a touch of chicken stock to make a rich, wild mushroom ragout to serve with meats, poultry, polenta, risotto or even fish.
- To store fresh mushrooms, place them in a single layer on a tray, cover with a clean cloth or paper towel (dampened only when mushrooms seem dry), and refrigerate for up to three days.
- To clean, brush them lightly with a damp paper towel. A quick rinse is OK if necessary, but fresh mushrooms should never be soaked, because they get soggy.
- Dried mushrooms can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to six months. To rehydrate dried mushrooms, place them in hot water and let stand for 30 minutes. Then rinse, chop and add to your dish. (Discard water.)
- Whether you should keep the stem attached depends on the type of mushroom you’re using. Chanterelles, morels, porcini and matsutake all have firm yet tender stems and can be cut just above the dirt ends. Shiitake stems, however, are dry and woody and should be removed from the cap.