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Alimentary, My Dear

Mad About Mushrooms

By Tamia Nelson

November 21, 2006

A cautionary note: What you don't know CAN kill you. If you're thinking about picking up a few wild mushrooms for dinner, you'll have to look elsewhere for advice. There's just no substitute for expert, hands-on instruction, and you won't get that here. Moreover, harvesting wild food of any kind is illegal in many parks and reserves. And anyway, well-mannered guests don't steal from their hosts' pantry, do they? Not where I come from.

Every fall, as the retreating sun sets the hills ablaze with cold fire here in Canoe Country, the woods grow fragrant with the heady scent of rot and renewal, of wet leaves and rich duff. The subtle musk of mushrooms also contributes an unmistakable note to the seasonal perfume. This year was no exception. As the needles on the tamaracks were turning gold, I walked along the portage trail around The River's Silver Staircase, marveling at all the mushrooms I could see. And I wasn't alone. The caps of many succulent fungi bore the toothmarks of mice and chipmunks, while a red squirrel eyed me scornfully from the top of the tall hemlock that overlooks the highest step in the Staircase. My binoculars revealed the unmistakable red-wine-colored crown of a russula mushroom gripped tightly in the little squirrel's jaws. Nature's bounty was obviously being put to good use.

Of course, not everyone shares the red squirrel's tastes. Where mushrooms are concerned, most folks fall into one of two camps: they love 'em or they hate 'em. I don't need to say anything to the mushroom-lovers. Just the thought of sautéed morels or shaved truffles will send them into raptures. Let's be clear about one thing, however. It's not an abstract interest in natural history that feeds the mushroom-lovers' frenzy, let alone the solemn advice of some diet guru. It's flavor, pure and simple.

The mushroom-haters are probably beyond the reach of any of my words, too. For them, all mushrooms are toadstools, the slimy spawn of darkness and decay. It doesn't matter to them that these "toadstools" are in fact the fruiting bodies of complex organisms, vital components of an intricate web that circulates and recycles the globe's finite store of nutrients. Nor does it matter that they're rich in many trace elements essential to human well-being. Natural history and nutrition aren't any more important to the mushroom-haters than they are to the mushroom-lovers. To the mushroom-haters all mushrooms are toadstools and all toadstools are evil. Case closed.

Let's suppose, though, that you're one of those rare folks in the middle ground, neither mushroom-lover nor mushroom-hater. And you're not adverse to experimenting. What does your local HyperMart have to offer that might entice you to give mushrooms a second look? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

So Many Mushrooms!

Gone are the days when grocery stores stocked only canned white "button mushrooms." Today, you'll find a wide choice even in many rural communities. The button mushrooms are now fresh, not canned, and they've been joined by shiitake, portobello, and crimini. Large urban markets — and specialty stores everywhere — go further. Here you'll find fresh chanterelles, enokis, and morels, cultivated counterparts to the wild fruits so highly prized by mushroom-lovers. You're also likely to see these same mushrooms in dried form, along with such exotic-sounding varieties as porcini (an Italian favorite), "tree ear" — also called "wood ear" — and "cloud ear." (The latter two are essential ingredients in many Eastern recipes.) Drying mushrooms has long been a way of preserving them, and it offers a happy bonus to backcountry travelers. Mushrooms are mostly water, so a pound of fresh mushrooms weighs only three ounces after drying. How's that for saving weight, eh?

Canned mushrooms can still be found on the shelves, of course. Look in the specialty or ethnic-food aisle for the greatest choice, including such Asian treats as "straw mushrooms." And what about that old standby, the canned button mushroom? It's still around. To my mind, it's the mushroom of last resort, too bland and rubbery to suit me. But some folks like them.

Whether mushrooms are fresh or dry, though, they're fragile. If you want your selection to survive the rigors of pack and portage, they'll need…

Special Handling

There's one exception. Canned mushrooms are nearly bombproof. They're also very heavy, and in many parks no canned goods of any sort are permitted. Check before you go. Dried mushrooms? They're most often sold in airtight plastic bags. Stripping away excess packaging is one way to reduce bulk and save weight, but don't go overboard here. You want your dried mushrooms to last, and you'll need to keep the original bag intact as long as possible. If you find loose dried mushrooms for sale, however, just seal them in doubled, Ziploc®-type bags, expelling as much air as you can. Or pack them in a rigid plastic container with a tight-fitting lid.

The bottom line? Dried mushrooms travel well if they're properly packed and not crammed deep in the depths of your food bag. Fresh mushrooms are a whole 'nother story, though. After all, their delicate textures and high moisture content challenge even cooks who never leave their home kitchens. So there's no way you can take fresh mushrooms on an extended trip. Still, with a little care you can bring them along on a weekend adventure. Dig out the same rigid plastic containers with tight-fitting lids that I mentioned in the last paragraph. They're just the ticket. And be sure, too, that you choose a good traveler from among the fresh mushrooms on offer in the HyperMart's produce department. Plump button and crimini mushrooms and the freshest shiitakes will cope fairly well on the trail if kept dry and protected from crushing.

Fresh or dry? It needn't be either-or. There's a middle ground here, also. Buy fresh mushrooms and dry them yourself. Squirrels do it all the time. You can, too. Select clean, sound mushrooms and string them up in a warm, airy place. Use a needle to push stout thread through the stems or caps, maintaining space between them to allow air to circulate. Then, when the mushrooms have dried — the length of time will depend on the relative humidity and the mushrooms' size — pack them in plastic bags. That's all there is to it, though you can pulverize the dried mushrooms in a coffee grinder if you want.

Has all this talk about mushrooms whetted your appetite? Good. You'll be happy to know that there are almost as many…

Ways to Prepare Mushrooms…

As there are varieties in nature. First things first, though. If your fresh mushrooms are particularly dirty, you can wash them, notwithstanding popular belief. Simply drop the mushrooms in a bowl of cold water, gently swish them round, and lift them out onto a clean towel. Then gingerly brush off any remaining soil and pat dry. Don't wash mushrooms before storage, however. Wait until you're ready to cook.

Now we're getting somewhere. If you're a mushroom-lover, you already know how you like them. But if mushrooms are a new addition to your menu, you'll need to experiment. Many folks sauté mushrooms with meat. That's simple and good. Slice them or leave them whole, as you prefer, and cook them in a skillet with steak or sausage. Because fresh mushrooms are loaded with water, however, they'll steam rather than sauté — unless you give them plenty of room in the pan, that is. When I'm in my kitchen at home, I'm fussier about this than I am in camp. Luckily, the flavor is good whether or not they're cooked by the book.

Fresh mushrooms can also be threaded on a skewer and roasted directly over coals. Alternate them — either whole mushrooms or large slices — with other vegetables and meat. If the mushrooms are marinated in advance and then basted during cooking, they'll be succulent and delicious when it's time to serve them up. Eat them on wedges sliced from a crusty boule or fold them into flatbread. Not sure how to marinate mushrooms? It's best done at home. Wash the mushrooms of your choice and pat them dry, cutting them into thick slices if they're large. (Small, whole button mushrooms save you the trouble.) Now place the mushrooms in a bowl with your favorite oil-and-vinegar dressing and allow them to steep for at least one hour at room temperature. Next, lift them from the marinade using a slotted spoon and pack them in a rigid, waterproof box that fits them closely. Pour enough of the marinade into the box to cover the mushrooms and cap tightly. You say you're not planning on roasting meat on skewers? No matter. Marinated mushrooms are delicious when eaten straight, too, or sliced over salads as a sort of garnish.

Looking for something special to jazz up one-pot meals? Mushrooms are the answer — fresh, canned, or dried. If you're adding dried mushrooms directly to soups and stews, however, remember that they're…you guessed it…dry. Be sure to increase the amount of liquid a bit. To reconstitute dried mushrooms before cooking, just put them in a pot and cover them with hot water, hot stock, or other hot liquid. Then keep the pot warm while the mushrooms soak. When they're plump and juicy, lift them out of their warm bath. (If you're careful, any grit from the dried mushrooms will remain on the bottom of the pot.) And whatever you do, don't discard the stock. It's full of flavor. Decant it slowly into a cup, leaving the grit behind.

Need some more ideas for tasty one-pot meals? Piece of cake. Cook packaged chicken soup, adding mushrooms right at the start. Toss some prunes into hot cream-of-leek soup along with canned chicken and mushrooms and call it cock-a-leekie. Add reconstituted dried, chopped mushrooms to rice and water — soup is better still — and then simmer. You now have mushroom pilaf or risotto. (Which one it is depends on whether you use long- or short-grained rice.) Tired of stews? Then try cooking some fresh mushrooms in the pan you use to scramble eggs. Eggs and mushrooms are a natural team. You can also sprinkle ground, dried mushrooms over almost anything: soups, stews, or eggs. Use a light hand, however, especially with ground, dried porcini. It really packs a punch.

So many choices! Still, you can only have a single favorite, right? Here's mine:

Tamia's Favorite Mushroom Meal

Lured by the large, meaty portobello mushrooms in the HyperMart — actually, these are nothing more than button mushrooms that have been allowed to grow up — I stumbled on a hamburger substitute for those short trips when carrying meat isn't possible or desirable. Allow one portobello cap per serving. Using the side of a knife, crush a large clove of garlic for each cap, then drop the crushed cloves into a drizzle of olive oil in a cool skillet and heat over a medium-high flame (or fire) while preparing the mushrooms. The prep is easy. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and place each cap, gill-side down, on top of a crushed garlic clove. (Save the stems for another meal or cook them alongside the caps as a treat.) Cover the skillet and heat for a minute or two. Next, turn each cap, making sure that the garlic stays inside. Sprinkle with salt and crumble a generous helping of goat cheese over the exposed gills. Now cover the skillet and reduce the flame (or move the skillet to a cooler part of the fire). Slice some crusty rolls in half and keep them ready at hand. (You may want to toast the cut sides on a grill if you have an open fire.) Cook the mushrooms until they're soft and the cheese has started to melt — it shouldn't take longer than two to three minutes — then place the cooked caps in the sliced rolls, gill-side up, and serve. Any juices left in the skillet can be spooned over the gills. Enjoy!

Happy Squirrel

Mushrooms are nutritious and delicious, and there's an almost infinite variety to choose from. They enhance almost any dish, they're as easy to carry as dried soup mix, and they can even make a meal in themselves. So how can a backcountry cook go wrong? What's that? You're not sure you like mushrooms? Well, OK. If you say so. But why not give them another try? You might be pleasantly surprised. After all, ten million red squirrels can't all be mistaken, can they?

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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