The mushroom is an odd affair. Neither fruit nor vegetable, they shy away from the light only to make an appearance when the exact moisture and temperature levels are to their liking. With over eighty varieties displaying some of the most bizarre attributes, colours and shapes, they have decided to only allow us a few of their breed to domesticate. Unlike many other shameless plants, many mushroom varieties just will not be breed in altered conditions for mass growing. It is an attitude I admire.
An architects dream, the mushroom is also an unusual beauty queen in the kitchen. I always have to take a moment before I cut them to appreciate the fine, intricate gills under their cap, their velvet like skin and remarkable texture.
Mushrooms aren’t just summery. They are, in my mind, all about wet, cold and damp. Sort of like a teenage boy, they appreciate being left alone in the dark to fester. They need to be enjoyed when the rain is falling, the heater is on and the possibility of a good movie is on the cards.
It seems a shame that with so many varieties available we tend to only see the boring old button and larger flat portabello mushrooms. Widely available, they were the varieties selected for mass cultivation due to the ease with which they grow. You can even grow them yourself at home in a bucket!
If you are not like my mother, who was quite happy to harvest the mushrooms that popped up on our lawn, then hunting out some interesting ones will bring something new to the experience of mushrooms on toast this weekend.
Selecting good quality mushrooms is a fine place to start.
A good friend of simple ingredients such as black pepper and cream, cheese, pasta and rice, they can have a robust flavour that is so unlike anything else.
The white button mushroom has a good shelf life. They stay nice and crunchy for a reasonable amount of time and keep their white caps right until they are about to disintegrate. Look for firm, unmarked caps, and nice stems that show no signs of dampness.
Portobello are the same. Look for those without damaged edges, nice colour and certainly not any that look like they are drying out around the edges.
Storage is best in paper bags rather than plastic as they like to have some air flow about them. In the plastic they sweat and get that rather awful smell about them that has been described as all sorts of interesting delights not commonly seen in many fridges.
The golden rule is not to wash your mushrooms. By washing them you are adding extra moisture that will need to be cooked off before the mushroom itself starts cooking. Just wipe them down, removing any visible dirt and woody fibres and gently trim the stem if needed.
There is a great selection of more interesting funghi available now and they are definitely worth some experimentation. Higher priced due to smaller quantities being cultivated, they need to be more delicately handled than your stock standard button and Portobello. What I love about them is they all have very different flavours and textures that can make a dish that little bit more exciting.
Enoki are the miniatures of the mushroom world. Having the smallest caps of all mushrooms, they look like a group of spore mould, with long stems, tiny pin prick hats and are stark white with darker, almost golden coloured stems at their base. They are very delicate in taste and need very little or no cooking. Best added right at the end of the cooking time and can be used as the ultimate in mushroom garnish. Cut off the clump at the base that holds them all together and gently fan them out to individual mushroom strands. As these little needles brown very quickly, they are the only variety I would suggest storing in cling film to keep their whiteness just a little longer. Fresh is definitely best for this variety.
Oyster are another mushroom like Enoki that is prized for its appearance and texture rather than taste. Stunningly beautiful fans, white on the underside with a blush of grey on top of their caps, they are also best added right at the end of your cooking time or eaten raw. Trim the clump that holds them together at the base to serve and store in paper.
Wood-ear and Honey Comb fungus are both very delicious but a little scary to those who haven’t seen them before. Wood-ear is easily identified as looking like a piece of dark brown leather.
A little trimming is needed to remove the base, and then it can be cut as required. I am a huge fan of this one stir-fried as it has a great crunchy texture.
The honeycomb looks more like something from the sea rather than the land. A fine network of intricate tunnels, it is also crunchy in texture that is best cut into bite size pieces and added to stir fries and soups.
Interestingly the Chinese are into these ones in a big way and both can be purchased dried from any Asian supermarket for next to nothing. They need to be re-hydrated in cold water for around an hour, squeezed out and cut as needed.
Classically Asian, the shitake is cultivated in mass numbers through out Asia and locally. As a fresh mushroom they are enjoyed for their meaty texture and a slight smoky, woody flavour. As a dried mushroom they really come into their own with intense, woody flavours and great chewy texture. An absolute necessity in my kitchen, they can take a very simple meal to a higher level with their flavoursome intensity.
For fresh mushrooms, look for those with creamy light brown caps and body with a full, undamaged appearance. They can get rather slimy quickly so store once again in paper.
For dried look for larger sized mushrooms with light brown and cream caps. The darker and smaller the caps, the lower the grade. These lower grades will still be fine for chopping up finely to add flavour but they do lack the subtlety in flavour of the higher grade as well as a better chewy texture. Lower grades can be very dry and can even remain tough after lengthy re-hydrating.
The Asians were not the only ones to have truly appreciated the versatility of mushrooms. The French and Italians certainly had no trouble in revealing the magic of the truffle, the porcini or cep and the oddly gnome like nature of the morel mushroom.
Porcini, meaning little pig in Italian, is also known to the French as Cep. Totally wild, they can be seen fresh in late Summer and early Autumn but it is their dried format that is more common here in New Zealand. Grading can make all the difference here and you will find all sorts from little, mean looking chunks through to gorgeous slices of whole mushroom. The flavour of porcini is extremely meaty and any typical kiwi bloke would be happy chowing down on a porcini risotto for this reason. Wonderful added to a simple dish such as risotto or Bolognese, they add a meaty extra dimension.
A few pointers with porcini will help you use them wisely as they are expensive.
Firstly, a few go a long way so I only use maybe six pieces for a single quite flavoured dish and maybe ten for a mushroom risotto using a mixture of varieties.
Re-hydrate them for a good twenty to thirty minutes in warm water and use this stock in your meal. It is full off flavour. You will always have a few odd gritty bits and even small stones in your soaking water so I recommend discarding the last little bit of liquid.
I like to chop them up finely as a large hunk in a dish can be overwhelming. This also means that you can get away with using a lot less of them.
Keep them somewhere dark and cool and check them for bugs as they are delicious to them also.
Look of those that don’t have any small suspicious bug holes or chunks out of them, lighter in colour and well sized.
Porcini powder is also very useful and much less expensive. Add to soups, stocks and stews or sauces. Look for one that is nice and fine in texture otherwise your dish can be ruined.
Morels look like they are subdivisions for gnomes. Oddly shaped like little conical hats and covered in a fine network of spores, the cap comes down over the body of the mushroom itself. Expensive and hard to come by they have a rich smoky flavour that incorporates the very essence of the forest floor. Again a little goes a long way and this is were the dried mushroom comes into its own as a cheaper way to sample and experiment.
The same rules apply here when looking for dried. Good whole mushrooms of a good even colour and very little or no dust in the packet.
The colder weather is on its way so enjoy the meaty delights of the forest floor as fresh as possible in any number of amazing creations.
Risotto is my favourite I think and I like to use a mixture of dried and fresh mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. While I am led to believe that mushrooms are full of vitamins and minerals, I wonder if that is cancelled out by the lashings of parmesan I put on top and the bottle of wine I have used in my stock.
1 brown onion, peeled and chopped finely
1 stick celery, trimmed and chopped finely
6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped finely
250g Arborio rice
1.5 litre chicken stock, keep hot
12 white button mushrooms, sliced
4 portabello mushrooms, sliced
8 porcini mushrooms, re-hydrated in cold water for 30 minutes
8 morels, re-hydrated in cold water for 30 minutes
1 honey comb mushroom, base trimmed and cut into bite size chunks
A pile of freshly shaved parmesan
Italian parsley, well chopped
1 lemon, zested
Melt the butter in a heavy based, deep pan.
Add the onions, celery and garlic. Cook for 2 -3 minutes on a low heat.
Add the button mushrooms, portabello, porcini and ceps, reserving the rehydrating water and mix well. Cook for 3-4 minutes till any excess liquid has been cooked away.
Add the rice and mix well allowing the rice to be toasted slightly.
Add a ladle full of hot chicken stock and stir well, gently massaging the starch from the rice. Add a second ladle and again mix well, reducing the heat to a simmer. Add the mushroom soaking water at any stage during the cooking process for more flavour.
As the liquid disappears, add another ladle full, mixing as you go, until the rice is tender but with still a little bite to it-20 to 25 minutes usually is about right.
A good risotto should be moist and be able to slide off your spoon with ease.
Right at the end, add the honeycomb mushroom, extra butter, lemon zest and Italian parsley and mix well through.
Serve immediately with parmesan sprinkled generously over the top.