The Month of the Mushroom

by on January 23rd, 2011
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I love mushrooms. So do a lot of other folks. It is rather confusing; in the United States, September is National Mushroom Month, October 15th is National Mushroom Day and February 4th is National Stuffed Mushroom Day. What’s that all about?

Mushrooms abound almost everywhere. We see them popping up in our yards and gardens, in open meadows, on trees and in the dense forest floor. There are over 38,000 varieties of mushrooms worldwide, over 3,000 in North America alone. There are probably thousands yet to be discovered. Some mushrooms are a gastronomical delight, while others are pure poison.

Mushroom are the fleshy, spore-bearing fruity body of a fungus; Mycophagy, or the act of consuming mushrooms or edible fungi, dates back to prehistoric man. Many mushroom varieties are easily preserved by drying and have historically been used to provide nutrition during times of food sparsity.

The ancient Egyptians believed that mushrooms were the plant of immortality. The subtle and exotic flavors intrigued the pharaohs so much that mushrooms were decreed food fit only for royalty; commoners were not allowed to taste them.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, especially those of the wealthier classes, consumed many mushrooms. Wisely, the Roman Caesars employed a special food taster to sample all mushrooms before they were served to the royal gourmands. The Greeks called mushroom jelly Ambrosia and before battle consumed mushrooms for strength. Today, mushroom extracts are used in soft drinks to help energize athletes and promote endurance.

Chanterelles, Puff Balls, Shaggy Manes, Meadow Mushrooms and Morels are the most commonly found edible wild mushrooms in the United States. Mushroom have varying shapes, colors, textures and flavors. Some mushroom species are so very rare that they only appear for one week during the year.

Fascinating fungi grows wild in many parts of the world, but most edible mushrooms on the market now, with the exception of truffles, are commercially-grown on mushroom farms.

Warning! Danger! Many mushrooms are poisonous.

Many parts of the world are famous for their prized wild mushrooms, however it is imperative that you really research your target thoroughly if you plan to hunt your own wild mushrooms.

Many poisonous mushrooms look nearly identical to safe ones and may be a poisonous “twin”. Many mushrooms may be highly toxic and life-threatening; do not rely upon casual advice to determine toxicity of wild mushrooms. Many types of mushrooms are a food source to sustain wildlife but are toxic to humans. The danger inherent in many poisonous species of mushrooms cannot be over-stressed or under-rated; a simple identification error can lead to death.

History records mushroom consumption to have often had less than benign reactions. Pope Clement VII and well as Claudius the II were poisoned by the deadly mushroom Amanitas. According to legend, Buddha died after eating a mushroom that grew underground. He was delivered his death by a mushroom given to him by a peasant who believed it to be a delicacy.

Unless you are highly educated in all types of mushrooms, especially in the identification of the poisonous ones, it is prudent to obtain your mushrooms from a reputable grower or green grocer rather than harvesting them yourself.

I am going to take advantage of the Mushroom celebrations and marketing “hoopla” and shop for some of the scrumptious new varieties to enter the commercial market. I will sample and enjoy all the mushrooms available at our local farmers market.

Look for firm specimens with no slime, soft spots, or obvious bruising or dark discoloration. Store these treasures of nature in a paper bag in the refrigerator for up to a week before using. You can also purchase a variety of dried mushrooms which can be re-hydrated for cooking.

The varieties are numerous, the supply plentiful and prices are the lowest this time of the year; I will make my family’s old favorite, Portabella mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat. I relish homemade creme of mushroom soup and cannot resist mushroom burgers or grilled mushrooms on a sizzling steak. Did I mention, I love mushrooms?

Throughout history and around the world, edible mushrooms have been used extensively in cooking. Many cultures, most notably European, Japanese and Chinese have been consuming mushrooms for centuries. The French were the first to commercially grow mushrooms. Historical records indicate that Louis XIV was the first mushroom grower. The mushrooms were grown in caves near Paris set aside for just that purpose. Edible mushroom cultivation reached the United States in the late 1800s with imported spores from Old Mexico and later from Europe and England.

Types Of Edible Mushrooms

White mushrooms or table mushrooms (Agaricus bisporusare) are just about everyone’s favorite. This popular mushroom represents about ninety percent of all mushrooms consumed in the United States. Rather neutral, the white mushroom has a very mild taste that will blend well with almost anything. The flavor intensifies when cooked and these tasty morsels are often used in pizza, pasta and salads.

My personal favorite is the Crimini or Baby Portabella. They are similar in appearance to the white mushrooms but have a light to rich brown top and a firmer texture.

Crimini mushrooms have a deep, earthy flavor and their hardy, full-bodied taste is an excellent accompaniment to beef, vegetable or wild game dishes. One of my cherished culinary experiences is of Crimini Mushrooms and floured back-strap slices of elk, pan fried in bacon grease in a cast iron skillet over a blazing campfire.

Portabella, the larger relative of the Crimini Mushroom has brown caps that can measure up to six inches in diameter. Firm and chewy with a deep, meat like texture, they are delicious grilled, broiled or roasted. Many of my vegetarian friends use this mushroom as a flavorful vegetarian alternative to meat in panini sandwiches, burgers or casseroles.

Porcini Mushrooms, (Boletus edulis), also known as the King Bolete, Steinpilz or Cep Mushrooms are renowned for their intense nutty flavor. Porcinis are sought after worldwide and can be found in a variety of cultural culinary dishes.

The tiny button shaped caps and crunchy thin stems of the Enoki or winter mushroom (Flammulina velutipesare) a wonderful addition to salads and sandwiches. The popular Straw or Paddy Mushroom (Volvariela volvacea) is similar to the Enoki, tasty and delicious; a staple of Chinese cuisine. Volvariella mushrooms account for about 20% of total production of cultivated mushrooms in the world.

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus) have a very delicate flavor and velvety texture. Oyster mushrooms are some of the most colorful, ranging from pale yellow to grayish blue.

Maitake Mushrooms, also called the “Hen of the Woods” are delightful and delicious. They are rippling and fan-shaped without caps. Maitake mushrooms have a pungent “earthy” aroma and a rich woodsy flavor. If you want a stronger mushroom flavor in any dish, just add a few maitakes.

The elegant Shiitake or oak mushroom (Lentinus edodes) is mainly produced in South Korea, China and Japan. This delectable mushroom is also known as the Fragrant mushroom, Black mushroom or Black Forest mushroom. Its delicate, earthy flavor adds a subtle enhancement to fish and fowl.

Medicinal Mushrooms

Scientific research now indicates these friendly, oh so edible fungi are not only good, but so very good for us. Mushrooms have important disease-fighting potential and are loaded with essential nutrients. Portabellos have more potassium than a banana and all mushrooms are excellent sources of selenium, copper and B-complex vitamins. Mushrooms are the only fruit or vegetable that has naturally occurring vitamin D. Mushrooms, especially Portabellas and Chimi varieties, are a great source of ergothioneine; a naturally occurring antioxidant that may help protect the body’s cells.

Many species of mushrooms, which have been widely used in Asian folk medicine for thousands of years, are currently under intense scrutiny by medical researchers and ethnobotanists. Reishi, the most well known “medical mushroom” as well as Maitake, Shiitake, Blazei, Turkey Tail and Chaga mushrooms are being studied for potential anti-viral, anti-cancer and immune system enhancing properties. Mushrooms or fungi have provided the world with many important life saving drugs such as the statin lovastatin and the anti-biotic penicillin; who knows what life enhancing discoveries are on the horizon.

Psychedelic Mushrooms

Many prehistoric and several modern cultures around the world have used psychedelic mushrooms for ritualistic purposes including religious communion, divination, and healing. Hallucinogenic, “magic” or “divine” mushrooms have a history that dates back over a million years ago; originating in East Africa. Early humans gathered Psilocybin mushrooms off the African grasslands and regularly consumed them as part of their diet.

The oldest representations of the use of hallucinogen mushrooms were found in the Sahara Desert. Prehistoric rock art, over 7000-9000 years old, is believed to have been inspired by the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms.

Believed to bring spontaneous enlightenment for those who ingested them, psychedelic mushrooms contain psilocin and psilocybin. Extremely dangerous, these compounds can cause effects similar to a “bad trip” on LSD; loss of reality may be experienced and severe anxiety and paranoia often occurs.

Other Uses For Fungi and Mushrooms

Historically mushrooms have be used for dying natural fibers such as wool. The chromophores or pigment of many mushrooms produce strong and vivid colors. Beautiful and bold, all colors of the spectrum can be achieved with mushroom dyes. Before the invention of synthetic textile dyes, mushrooms were the primary source of many textile dyes.

In the United States, Native Americans have long used mushroom dyes to create vibrant, colorful patterns in baskets, ceremonial dress and daily clothing, and to color ceremonial body decorations or “warpaint”. Various Indian Tribes also had several interesting religious or spiritual uses for mushrooms. Northwest tribes burned Puffball Mushrooms as incense to scare away unfriendly spirits. They also dried Puffballs, which when emptied of spores, were filled with small pebbles to make spiritualistic rattles used in religious ceremonies by the tribe’s medicine men.

Normally found growing on tree trunks across North America, some backet fungi, types of polypores commonly called mushrooms, are used as a fire starters. Also known as tinder fungus or horse hoof fungus, this non-edible mushroom is useful in lighting fires as the tissue can smolder for several hours. This characteristic allowed nomadic tribes to transport fire.

Tinder or horse hoof fungus was considered sacred to the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest who called it the “Bread of Ghosts”. The shamans of the tribe carved this fungus or “conk” to intensify it supernatural power. Faces or bodies were carved with the mouth or other orifices opened, which gave the mushroom spirit-catching abilities. These carving were used to mark the grave of medicine men, and gave clear warning to all that the land was sacred and not to be disturbed.

Today, scientists worldwide continue to explore the investigate the mysterious mushroom. Exciting research is being conducted on mushroom based bio-pesticides. Several new earth friendly pesticides are currently under review with the help of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

Vital to a balanced eco-system, forest fungi and mushrooms, through the use of cellulose-degrading enzymes, prevent the forest from becoming strangled and chocked by fallen branches, leaves and dead trees. The action of the mushroom mycelium causes the decay of organic material, converting dead timber, leaves and hubris into rich, available food for new and continued growth. Without mushrooms, the world’s forests would suffocate and die.

When we consider the vast amount of forested land in the world, it is evident that mushrooms are integral to the environmental health of the planet.

Learn more about these friendly fungi, taste a few new varieties and celebrate the month of the mushroom.

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