A friend of mine once told me a story about a restaurant that he had worked at. Though part of a chain, the restaurant was old and it was one of those “fix as you go” type of places. There was always something leaking, plugged up, breaking, or catching fire. The restaurant was destined to be closed in a couple of years, and though overall sanitation wasn’t that bad, the owners weren’t all that eager to spend money on the joint.
There was a small hand sink in the corner by the kitchen that had a continually leaking faucet. Not a gusher, just a little drip, drip, drip; hardly a priority. If you looked real hard underneath the sink, way over in the right hand corner, you could see that a mushroom had sprouted in the damp, partially rotted wood. The employees left it alone, and pretty soon it was huge. They even named it Frank. Frank the Fungus. Supposedly, it was about the size of a baseball when he left, and fortunately, as far as he knew, no one had ever chopped it up and served it.
The ancient pharaohs of Egypt had a pretty high regard for mushrooms too. They believed that they held the secret of immortality and wouldn’t let any of the common folks eat them. The ancient Romans considered them the “Food of the Gods.” Mushrooms came to the United States from France in the late 1800’s. They were primarily a side business for florists who used the dark underside of their potting tables as an ideal habitat. Today, commercially grown mushroom consumption nears 750 million pounds annually. Here’s a little bit about some of the favorite kinds:
White Mushrooms: White mushrooms vary in color from creamy white to a light brown, and in size from small buttons to jumbo. They have a mild, woodsy flavor that intensifies when cooked. White mushrooms have closed caps that fit closely to the stem. More mature whites have open caps or veils, darkened caps and have a richer flavor. Whites can be used raw as a garnish in salads, sautéed in soups and sauces, or stuffed with just about anything and used as an appetizer. They should remain fresh in your refrigerator for 5-7 days stored in a paper bag.
Shiitake Mushrooms: Shiitakes range in color from tan to dark brown, and have broad, umbrella-shaped caps. Shiitake caps have a soft, spongy texture. They have a rich and meaty texture after they are cooked. They add flavor and texture to stir-fry’s, soups, entrees, and side dishes. They should last 14 days if kept refrigerated in a porous paper bag.
Oyster Mushrooms: Oyster mushrooms range in color from soft brown to gray. They have a delicate mild flavor and a velvety texture. They are best when cooked and are excellent with chicken, veal, pork or seafood. Try sautéing with butter and onions and add to your favorite soup. Store refrigerated 5-7 days.
Portabella Mushrooms: The Portabella mushroom is a large, hardy cousin to the white. They are large, sometimes reaching up to 6″ in diameter. They have a deep, meaty texture and flavor. Serve by themselves grilled, baked, or deep-fried. They are excellent stuffed or used as a substitute for meat in an entrée or a sandwich.
Morels: Morel mushrooms have short, thick and hollow stems and sponge-like pointed caps. They may be tan, yellow or black in color. They have a rich, nut-like flavor. They are very popular in French cuisine and can be cooked and used to flavor gourmet soups and sauces. You can keep morels refrigerated in paper bags for 10-14 days.
Enoki: Enoki mushrooms have long slender stems and tiny caps. They have a mild, light flavor with a slight crunch. They can be used raw in salads and sandwiches or as a garnish for salads and soups.
When buying mushrooms look for a fresh, smooth appearance free from blemishes and a dry surface. Remember that a closed cap indicates a mild flavor while an open one has a richer flavor. All mushrooms are best stored in a paper bag and should be used as soon as possible. If you must freeze them, sauté first and then freeze in a plastic bag and be sure to use them within a month. You definitely don’t want them hanging around long enough to give them a name.