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There are not very many new vegetables coming to market, but there are still plenty of new ingredients for the kitchen coming from the Kingdom of Fungi. Chefs and adventurous home cooks are learning to appreciate the whole range of flavors and textures from cultivated specialty mushrooms. Up until recently, mushroom choice was limited to white button mushrooms and seasonably available wild-foraged mushrooms. Even shiitake mushrooms, now becoming ubiquitous, were unknown as a fresh mushroom up until the 1980s. If shiitake now seem ho-hum, then it’s time to expand your specialty mushroom repertoire. Nothing encourages creativity like new ingredients, and mushrooms’ natural flexibility provides plenty of inspiration.
In the past few years, mushroom growers in the U.S. have learned new cultivation techniques from Asia. Shiitake were traditionally grown on logs outdoors, but new methods, relying on sawdust, have made the process more efficient and have opened the potential for growing more varieties. The sawdust substrate provides a medium and food for the mushroom mycelium. Some species, like chanterelles and porcini, are symbiotic with living plants and cannot be farmed. Others, like shiitake, hen-of-the-woods, and nameko are easily adapted to sawdust culture. Wood is the natural food for these varieties. Some species that are now becoming available include enoki, honshimeji (beech or clamshell mushroom), Nebrodini, pioppini (black poplar mushroom) and lion’s mane (pom-pom).
Mushrooms behave like meat
So why do chefs love mushrooms? They are beautiful to the eye, and easily adapt to a wide range of cuisines, but, most important, mushrooms behave in the kitchen much the same way that meats do: They change their character in response to different cooking techniques and they express different qualities depending on the ingredients with which they are paired. There is sound science behind these effects.
Mushrooms are not vegetables. They are fungi and their biochemical structure has more in common with animals in some ways than with vegetables. Mushrooms have a broad range of amino acids, as animal proteins do, and this provides them with savory flavor. They are high in glutamic acid, an amino acid that is naturally occurring in glutamates and acts as a flavor enhancer. (The “unnatural” form is known as MSG, monosodium glutamate.)
Mushrooms are also rich in nucleotides, compounds that are synergistic with glutamates. Together, these characteristics make up umami, the savory flavor component that is now widely accepted as the fifth flavor along with the old standbys of salt, bitter, sweet, and acid. These attributes make mushrooms perfect pairing partners in a wide variety of culinary settings. Savory flavor plus a satisfying “meaty” texture make them excellent in vegetarian meals. Mushrooms give you something to chew on.
Fungi are influenced by their company
As an example of their culinary adaptability, a fairly mild mushroom like the king oyster has a mildly sweet flavor when lightly sautéed in butter with lemon and tarragon, and pairs well with chicken and fish. Prepared this way it is best complemented by white wines. The same mushroom tossed with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, then grilled over hot coals, has a deeply satisfying, hearty character that would stand up to grilled beef and bold red varietals from Cabernet to Zinfandel. One can image a similar contrast with varying preparations of chicken breast. A gently sautéed chicken breast has a different flavor than the same chicken breast grilled, but comparable shifts of flavor do not occur so readily with vegetables. And while some vegetable flavors are hard to pair with wines, mushrooms easily complement them.
With the possible exception of the onion family, mushrooms occur in more recipes around the world than any other single ingredient. Doubtless this is because they grow wild on every continent. In Asia, they are found in soups, noodle dishes and stir-fries. In Northern Europe, they are used in stews and pickled. In Southern Europe, they add depth to ragouts, garnish grilled meats and are tossed in pastas. The culinary names Chasseur, Cacciatore and Jaeger schnitzel all share a common root in the word “hunter” — and all feature mushrooms. When you hunt, you spend a lot of time waiting quietly in the woods, time well spent scanning the ground for mushrooms. The hunter who returned from the forest with game and mushrooms, of course cooked them together.
The cultivation of specialty mushrooms broadens our culinary palette. Take some time to learn about each variety. You’ll find inspiration in their fresh range of colors, flavors and textures. Mushrooms are exciting and elegant enough to stand on their own as center-of-the-plate items, and they will accent, complement and highlight a wide range of pairings. While a brown crimini mushroom is only slightly different from a white button mushroom, a pioppini mushroom is very different from honshimeji, as honshimeji is from maitake. When explorers find a new country they are always ask, “what’s to eat?” Potatoes, corn, cocoa and chilies moved quickly from the Western Hemisphere back to Europe. The Kingdom of Fungi remains in part unexplored territory and chefs can look forward to even more new varieties as expanding acceptance leads to increased demand and farmers investigate new mushrooms and how best to cultivate them.
Photo: Bob Engel. Credit: Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc.