A Taste for Mushrooms
An acquired taste for many children may be a taste for mushrooms. Like licorice, it is an adult taste.
When I was growing up, I ate everything my mother gave me and don’t remember any food that I did not like, except a sugar-coated jellied candy called Chuckles. I traded the lime-green and lemon-yellow for orange and red, which I liked enough. Nobody wanted the black-licorice, so I got used to it. Now I keep a can of imported Italian unsweetened licorice in my car to enjoy on long rides. It dissolves slowly, and like espresso and cognac, licorice is an adult pleasure.
Acquiring a taste for mushrooms
When I was a child, mushrooms came in cans, and buying raw, white button mushrooms was for dedicated home cooks. If we ever had them at home, I don’t remember, but once I began eating in restaurants, they kept appearing on my plate. I liked the sliced shitake Chinese mushrooms and tree-ear fungus that came in hot and sour soup. Stir-fried with Chinese spices, white mushrooms were good too. They tasted great with wine in Italian dishes, like Osso Bucco. Cream and butter made mushrooms rich and suitable mates for nutmeg and saffron. I loved plain mushroom gravy on medium-rare sliced London broil.
Mushrooms in Italy
Traveling in Europe I noticed that the mushrooms came in more varieties and they were all better than what I’d been served at home. In Rome’s two-thousand-year-old Jewish ghetto, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, I found a restaurant called “Carciofo,” which means artichoke. There I ate a wild mushroom ragu on pasta that was so delicious, when I finished it I ordered another helping. The chef came out to meet me. I was tall and skinny. My female tablemate was fat and gorgeous, with long silky black hair, dark olive skin and light blue eyes. We were treated to free brandy, espresso, and desserts, not just from the chef, but from a group of much older men who admired our appetites; she more for drinks and dessert for which her sensuous and copious appreciation inspired more and more giving. Lina Wertmuller never discovered us.
The next day, at a different restaurant, we discovered pancake-wide portobellos grilled in olive oil, served as appetizer with fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato, olive oil, basil leaf, salt and pepper. It was a revelation. The mushroom was as meaty as steak.
Mushrooms in New York
Back in New York, portobellos were offered at fine restaurants with high prices. They were imported from Italy. I asked my friend Tony at Cove Fruit in Glen Cove, New York, if he could help me get some to cook at home. He provided produce for the best restaurants on the Gold Coast and had a connection in customs at Kennedy Airport. He needed to go personally to Italy to procure them. He had enough for me and his commercial customers too. Joe Saint-Pierre, who owned the first northern Italian restaurant on Long Island, “Saint Pierre’s” was an elegant connoisseur and fine chef, experienced at table-side service. I met him often at Cove Fruit, along with other chefs who used the same ingredients and enjoyed the community of our local produce market. Joe was Godfather to both my daughters, and was grateful that I had prompted Tony to get the portobellos. I started grilling them in olive oil, with garlic and black pepper. Joe and I traded recipes. I told him that the texture was perfect and that I didn’t want to wash them. He said, “You know what these mushrooms grow in?” I looked at him with a straight face and didn’t answer. After a few seconds, he said to me, mirroring my straight-face, “Wash them with water and a soft brush. Pat them dry. Trust me. You have to wash them.”
I said, “But Joe. I am cooking them at such high heat. It would kill any germs.”
He said, “Wash them.”
I said, “But any germ that could survive that heat, deserves to live.”
He smiled, nodded a bit and silently let me read his lips repeating good advice.
Shitake were hard to find and I didn’t have a connection to procure them so I had to grow my own. I bought a kit by mail order. It included an oak branch, and starter spores. I had to keep it in my closet and mist it twice a day. I got a small crop that was very expensive and labor intensive.
The gourmet trends for food and wine grew into a craze in the eighties and I started finding shitakes in local markets. I learned how to wash them, slice them, and sauté them with oil, garlic, sesame seeds and a spritz of soy sauce. My cooking became more sophisticated and I learned to make them with garlic and ginger, tossed with buckwheat soba noodles, topped with chopped scallions and black sesame seeds. That was the dish I prepared for my wife on our first date nearly thirty-seven years ago, and every time I put a tender piece of shitake in my mouth to nibble and chew, I remember that great night.
One of my favorite ways to eat mushrooms, nearly any kind, is sliced and sauteed, served on pasta with garlic, olive oil, sundried tomatoes, hot peppers, crushed anchovies, and fresh herbs, when available, like basil, oregano and parsley. I am enthusiastic for peppers and herbs. I add some grated pecorino, and drink a little Pinot Grigio. That’s the way I like it.
I even had psychedelic “magic mushrooms” when I was trout fishing in the Grand Tetons. My host took them out of the freezer wrapped in aluminum foil. It looked like a lump of bear scat, but we picked it apart and ate a few pieces each, sauteed in our omelets with onion. The flavor was funky as old smoke, very adult, with a moldy aftertaste like microbial blue veins in English Stilton. It required mind over matter to fully appreciate it, but, after a while, when I had forgotten everything else, I did find it invigorating in other ways. The experience had me feeling at one with nature, or as D.H. Lawrence might say, I was “man alive.”
Nowadays my local food store has at least a dozen kinds of mushrooms for eating and even more in teas, chocolates, energy bars and supplements. The health benefits are impressive, but I still eat mushrooms for taste. Many varieties are grown locally where I live in the Hudson Valley of New York State. We eat lion’s mane, which people say tastes like crab when sauteed in butter and garlic. I recommend them because they are delicious, but if you expect them to really taste like crab you might not be satisfied. The mouth-feel is similar, but the subtle flavor of brine is absent and it isn’t fishy at all. Delicious yes. but only somewhat like crab. We eat oyster mushrooms and blue oyster mushrooms, which we call “Blue Oyster Cult” mushrooms for fun. They are grown locally and so was the band. I just bought some black oyster mushrooms for tonight. We recently discovered black trumpets which are close cousins of oyster mushrooms, but denser and meatier. Some of the hairy varieties that resemble dendrite models have not gotten into my cart yet. There are so many kinds, and I often keep eating the same favorites over and over again.
A Taste for Dried Mushrooms
Lately I discovered a new way to eat dried porcinis. I used to buy them in kilo bags from Tony, but after I left Long Island I found them sold at at a Korean chain of super-stores. Dried varieties are great to keep in your cupboard; you will be glad you have them when you need them. At first a kilo seemed like a lifetime supply, but for us is enough for about a year.
Dehydrated mushrooms are nearly weightless and require rehydration. I have used water and wine to rehydrate and then used the infused liquid in soups and sauces. Why waste it? The word porcini comes from the same linguistic root as porcine and pork. Porcinis taste hammy and smokey, like prosciutto. We love them in split-pea soup instead of hambone. I was cooking pea-soup in a pressure cooker and tried putting the dried mushrooms in without hydrating them. Cooking did the trick. A hand blender made them creamy. I had a brilliant idea of chopping them to put in a red sauce stew, sort of like the ragu I had in Rome, but when I tried chopping the hard stems, they bounced off the cutting board and flew around the kitchen. For easy convenience, I took out my old rotary coffee grinder, brushed out all the old coffee, filled it with a couple handfuls of porcinis, closed the top, pressed the switch, and before you could say Martin Scorsese, the mushrooms became as fine as espresso grind. I threw them into some red sauce and a star was born. After they rehydrated into little bits they added a meaty mouthfeel, like a fine carbonara. The hammy flavor was strong and satisfying and could stand up well to a fruity dry red wine.
My wife and I love mushrooms so much we eat them almost every day. Mushrooms are, for us, one of the major food groups. We add them to brown rice, volcano rice, wild rice mix, and many other grains. We love them with any bitter green sauteed with garlic, oil and black pepper, as well as beans. Soy beans and little red chili beans, cooked in apressure cooker, are our new favorites.
Our life is simple, but at least three times each day, we sit down and eat wonderful food.