Mushrooms and tubers are the luxuries one might call frivolities of the kitchen. Of late ‘foodies” seem to have discovered a taste for both cultivated and wild mushrooms. They have a subtle and distinct flavour, a crisp but yielding texture, but no real food value or calories. If the right mushroom is used for the right recipe, the resulting culinary delight may be heavenly.
The range in both taste and texture between the many edible species of mushrooms is surprisingly wide. There are hundreds of mushroom varieties, but so far only ten types have been successfully cultivated.
Flavourful mushrooms grow wild and have to be “hunted”. North American forests abound with wild mushrooms, but unfortunately, only few “hunt” and appreciate them. Only a few wild mushroom species are poisonous, but anyone can be trained to identify them easily.
The four most popular wild mushrooms are the cepe, chanterelle, morel and field mushrooms. Black and white truffles, shiitake mushrooms, and oyster mushrooms have been popular with gourmet chefs and amateurs for centuries.
Standard white mushrooms were first cultivated on fumigated horse manure in abandoned quarries outside Paris at the end of the 17th century. These mushrooms are the “descendants” of the creamy white field mushrooms. Brown mushrooms marketed as crimini are firmer in texture and stronger in taste.
Button mushrooms are very small and deeply flavoured; on the other hand, No. 1 mushrooms are large, watery in taste and almost mushy in texture. They must be stuffed and baked.
Cultivated white mushrooms are widely available and best when their veil, the thin skin connecting the cap and stem, is intact. Champignons contain 90 percent water and can only be canned.
Japanese and Chinese gourmets appreciate mushrooms as much as any western gourmet and are avid mushroom hunters, much like northern Europeans. The most popular Japanese mushrooms are shiitake. Grown on oak stumps, or shija, the shiitake is an excellent mushroom for cooking, and salads.
Locally grown shiitake mushrooms are now widely available and worth trying.
Europeans prefer shiitake mushrooms sautéed with steaks, whereas Chinese like them stir fried. Japanese prefer them tempura style. Shiitakes are high in alkalis neutralizing acidity in meat, and help digest heavy foods. In Japan, shiitake mushrooms are graded as: Hana donko (the best), donko, doshin, koko, kotsubo donko, and small canned pieces.
Shittakes contain 10 – 12 percent protein, 60 percent saccharoids, 4.6 percent mineral salts, vitamins B1, B2, Niacin and D2.
They taste best in boiled foods, soups, added to ground meat, for sauces, for lobster preparations or simply fried in butter.
Mushrooms are highly perishable and should be stored in cool moist places. Oyster mushrooms (pleurotus ostreatus) will have a firm texture, pleasant and buttery flavour if julienned and sautéed. Its typical scent gives stews, salt cod, roast pork loins and sausages a distinct flavour. Oyster mushrooms are grown close to Toronto in Ontario in specialized farms and are available in fine grocery stores.
One of the most prized tubers, the black truffle (tuber melanosporum) grows on the roots of the truffle oak, often at less than 30 cm below the surface. Some have white veins but most are very black. Truffles cannot be cultivated. The more seedlings of the truffle oak are planted, the more chances exist for them to yield this precious tuber. Moderately humid climates are best for this tree. The best come from the Garonne (Perigord) and in south-eastern France. Since truffles are invisible, specially trained dogs are used to find them. Sows were once used but proved to be too difficult to transport and control as they love to eat truffles. Dogs are happier with a dog cookie. The size of the truffle varies considerably and can range from 10 grams to 100 grams. Large truffles are more expensive because of their rarity.
The trees thrive on limey stony soils with a good drainage. Truffles have long been considered aphrodisiacs, but there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Chefs use them in goose liver pates, in puff pastry, in sauces, in scrambled eggs, or serve them simply sautéed in butter and white wine.
There are also imitation truffles consisting of egg whites, truffle juice and seasonings. They should not be confused with the original product.
Black truffles are extremely expensive and sold by the gram from May to June. For the rest of the year one must be content with canned truffles, or truffles flavoured olive oil, or live with the memories from the previous season.
Spain and Germany also have truffle-bearing trees, but do not enjoy the reputation of their French counterparts. Fraudulent merchants sell soggy coloured truffle-like mushrooms for half the price with predictably poor flavour.
The white truffle (tuber magnatum) is considered by some connoisseurs to possess a superior smell and flavour than the black. It is found in Piedmont, around the town of Alba, and Monferrato in Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna around Parma, Modena and Bologna. The white truffle smells of garlic and is penetrating. It is used to flavour risottos, pastas, meats, and egg and cheese fondues.
Other less valued truffles are tuber mesentericum, tuber aestivum (red grained black truffles) and tuber borchii. Grey truffles are inferior in taste and texture.
Morels (morchella) are variously called pinecones, sponges and brains in North America. They are abundant in France and Germany. Many people hunt them in season and simply sauté them. In North America only the canned versions are available. There are fresh morels from New Brunswick in season but only for a few weeks.
Morels grow in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York State and New England States.
All true morels, of which there are four species, are delicious and can be eaten stuffed, broiled, sautéed, or incorporated into meat, egg recipes and casseroles.
Morels freeze and dry well.
Caesar’s mushroom (amianta caesarea), so called because it is considered worthy of an emperor, is undoubtedly one of the best tasting mushrooms.
It grows in Europe, Asia and Africa. It can be eaten raw in salads (marinate for four hours in lemon juice) or may be sautéed. Because this mushroom has some poisonous species, chefs shy away from using it.
Cepe (boletus edulis) , steinpilz in German and penny-bun bolete in Great Britain. Ancient Greeks and Romans considered cepes to be the best of all edible mushrooms. It is one of the prized edible mushrooms throughout its natural range in Europe, Asia and North America. Cepe is white at first and changes to develop a reddish-brown cap. The flesh is chalky white. It freezes well, can be canned, but processors prefer canning or drying for convenience in transportation. Chefs use cepes in risottos, pastas, and veal cutlets. It is in season form June to November. A hot humid summer induces growth.
The chanterelle (canttharelius tubaeformis) is shaped like a funnel (2 – 12 cm in diameter) and an exquisite taste. It grows in the coniferous forests of Europe, North Africa, North America, Asia and Australia. It is best to simply sauté them in butter, or slice and bread and fry in butter.
Girolle (cantharellus cibarius) is found in Europe, Japan, North Africa, North America, and Australia, and appears from June to October in markets. It tastes best stewed.
Although wild mushrooms are quite expensive, their culinary value is indisputable. They flavour sauces with delicate nuances elevating them from ordinary to heavenly. Mushroom hunters are happy to spend refreshing hours in the woods, and greatly appreciate their rewards.