I have always been very fond of mushrooms, in fact, I frequently ate them long before I knew how good they were for me. There is a deep rooted tradition of mushroom picking in the forested areas of Spain and so they appear prominently featured in many Spanish dishes. I got used to eating them since I was very young and I still enjoy them very, very much.
Mushrooms epitomize the type of seasonal eating so in vogue these days. After all, just a few decades ago eating according to the time of the year was done without paying much attention to it. It was a simple notion: the natural rhythm of the seasons dictated what was available at the market.
In my family, for instance, we used to await the arrival of Fall and the abundant harvest of niscalos with great anticipation. Niscalos are meaty and firm wild mushrooms with an intense orange tinged flesh. They are beautiful and delicate and taste heavenly. They are usually sautéed in olive oil with some fresh garlic and not much more. Thanks to some high heat, they turn salty and intensely “umami” as they lose their water and become crispier. Nothing beats a freshly cooked plate of warm niscalos.
Mushrooms by Popular Demand
As I became interested in cooking, I learned about the many peculiarities of these fascinating fungi. I realized, for instance, that they have been a food source for humans for thousands of years. Although still somewhat mysterious and elusive, many varieties are currently cultivated due to the growing demand.
The main variety of cultivated mushroom is the button mushroom or champinon. They are versatile, much like a blank canvas, because they lack a strong flavor. They make an ideal introductory variety if you have never tried mushrooms before. I use them whenever I can find an organic option, but prefer other varieties such as crimini or portobellos. Portobellos are nothing more than a crimini mushroom left to its own devices for a longer period of time. An overgrown crimini, in short. Both varieties sport a tan outer skin with a gorgeous darker underside. Their flavor is stronger than that of a button mushroom, with some woodsy overtones. Oyster mushrooms are very palatable and smooth, with an almost floral quality to them. If you have enjoyed good Chinese food, chances are you have tasted an oyster mushroom before. All are worth trying to determine which taste is most appealing to you.
Because of their growing popularity as well as their many culinary and medicinal uses, mushrooms can now be found at any supermarket. In health food stores you can find them dried, powdered, in tea, in extract form and combined with other therapeutic ingredients. However, rare wild types of mushrooms, the kind that must be harvested by hand in the wild, still remain difficult to obtain and require the knowledge and experience of an expert who can safely determine their suitability for consumption. Many varieties are indeed very poisonous and can even be fatal if eaten. I find it paradoxical that mushrooms are simultaneously healing and poisonous. It’s part of their mystery…
What are Mushrooms?
Mushrooms are fungi. The part of the fungi that we eat is akin to a flower in a plant. It grows above ground with for the purpose of scattering the millions of spores that hold the key to the next generation of mushrooms. Grown specimens look like a tiny umbrella with a stalk that holds up the cap under which the spores are held. Their coloration varies a great deal, from pale white and all shades of brown to red in the case of some pretty amazing inedible varieties. Most mushrooms are very light weight with a spongy texture and a great deal of water in them. At the time of purchase they should be without blemishes or soft spots. I prefer to buy whole mushrooms since sliced ones deteriorate much faster and soon become soggy and smelly. The safest way to store them is inside a paper bag. Allow enough room for the mushrooms to breathe and put them in the refrigerator. With a little care they will last up to a week with all their flavor and nutritional qualities intact.
Mushrooms are a Powerhouses of Nutrients
Nutritionally, all mushrooms are rich sources of selenium, copper, potassium and zinc, a large amount of phytochemicals and B vitamins. They contain no traces of cholesterol and are very low in fat. They provide a moderate amount of protein, carbohydrates and fiber. They are an easily digested food that requires little to no preparation and combines well with many other ingredients. From salads to soups and stews, mushrooms are an ideal and versatile ingredient that can improve your diet dramatically. There are endless varieties to chose from depending on the intended culinary use but the most frequently used are crimini, portobello, oyster mushrooms, chanterelle and porcini.
Some mushrooms with medicinal properties are also becoming increasingly mainstream and can now be found at many grocery stores.
Maitake mushrooms (or hen of the woods) have a mild, woodsy and aromatic flavor. Maitake has proven anticancer and antiviral properties and an overall ability to strengthen the immune-system. In addition it helps control high blood pressure and blood sugar levels. They are a fantastic preventative tool to fight infection and to prevent the growth of tumors.
Reishi mushrooms can be found in 6 different colors, the red variety being the most common one. Their texture is more fibrous and they are usually removed from dishes after they have cooked for a period of time. The therapeutic aspect of these mushrooms resides in their high levels of beta glucans and polysaccharides.
In the case of Shiitake mushrooms, lentinan has been recognized as an immune system enhancer and possibly a cancer preventive as well. Another component called eritadenine, appears to lower the amount of circulating cholesterol in the blood. Shiitakes also have antiviral and anticancer effects.
It is easy to learn to love mushrooms. They are our allies in the fight against disease and pack a real punch in a very small and delicate package. Learn to trust their subtle flavor and their unique beauty by gradually adding them to your recipes. They are a great and tasty substitute for meat in many dishes but they can also be enjoyed by themselves simply by drizzling some olive oil and cooking them with some aromatic herbs. Their many health benefits are easy to reap by making them a staple in your kitchen.