It’s late fall and, yes — the perfect time for mushroom hunting. Apparently, the sultry heat of the summer followed by frequent autumn rainfalls provides the perfect humid conditions ideal for mushroom growth. Myself, I do my mushroom foraging at Fortino’s or Longo’s, occasionally Sobey’s — although I understand that some people actually like to go out in the woods and search for the elusive fungi lurking under tree trunks or peeping up through fallen leaves.
Well – to each, his own, I say. For me, the point of the exercise is the product: that earthy, pungent ubiquitous comestible that finds its way into the most high end restaurants as well as scattered across the lowly take-out pizza. Besides, my knowledge of mycology is equal to my understanding of quantum physics and I’ve heard that making mistakes with mushrooms can lead to all sorts of serious conditions — such as death.
Anyway, the supermarkets have a great variety available. Here’s just a sampling for those who are befuddled by botany:
White button mushrooms — These are just what they sound like — the worker bees of mushrooms, the type that we use for everything. They may be white, or a creamy to tan colour, are fairly firm and have a delicate flavour.
Cremini mushrooms — These are like the white mushrooms, but with a sun tan. Cremini’s are supposedly more flavourful than the white mushrooms, but I think that they just look a little more intense. They are a bit firmer so that they hold up better in soups or stews.
Portobello mushrooms — These are mature creminis — the large sometimes plate size mushrooms that are often used in lieu of steak. They have a firm, meaty texture and are great grilled or stuffed.
Oyster mushrooms – Fan shaped, beige colored and smooth-capped, they have a biting and sharp flavour if sampled raw. When cooked gently they offer an elusive savour and exceptionally melting texture. They are very fragile and delicate and are great with butter, cream and stock rather than fats or oils.
Shiitake mushrooms — Native to Japan, China and Korea, golden-orange shiitakes have a subtle scent, sensuous texture and great culinary versatility. They are now grown commerically in North America and are widely available. The shiitake is often used as a red meat substitution due to its meaty texture, rich flavour and dark color. Dried shiitakes can be soaked in boiling water and the liquid can be used for a bouillion or added to soups.
Enoki — Asian mushrooms, very pale, with long-legs and little tiny caps. Available all year long, now, they should not be slippery or slimy looking. Trim off the base before using. Can be served raw in delicate broths, or sandwiches or salads.
King Oyster mushrooms — Notable for a light tan cap and very thick stem. A good firm mushroom which stands up well to sautéeing, grilling and stir frying
Then, there are chanterelles, morels and cèpes which are only occasionally available. Chanterelles are shaped like a furled, trumpet flower and are generally apricot/gold in color — as befits their price, when you can find them. An elegant mushroom particularly beloved in French cuisine. Morels are shaped like rounded, hollow Christmas trees. Cèpes, most often available dried, are widely used in Europe in soups, pastas and risottos.
And, of course, there are also “magic” mushrooms. I’ve never tried one since a fellow told me about his experience in Mexico. Apparently after eating some, he saw huge waves of insects emerge in clouds, hissing and rustling and whispering and covering every surface in sight. When he sobered up, he said, he didn’t know whether a huge bunch of insects had actually descended and lit on everything (it was the tropics …) or he had just imagined it. (Perhaps he had been so drunk that he couldn’t remember — ahem — ) Anyway, it was an experience that I have never been keen to emulate.
But mushrooms are rather strange creatures in themselves, actually, not quite animals, but not vegetables either. (Do vegetarians eat mushrooms?) The most ambiguous advice I’ve found is in how to clean them, i.e., to wash or not to wash. All instructions tell you not to put them in water, but to wipe them off with a damp cloth. Well, suit yourself, but with wild mushrooms, I’m definitely going to give them a rinse. Maybe with commercially grown mushrooms which supposedly have been sterilized, the damp cloth method is okay? And no, you don’t need to peel them.
And here’s a recipe for my very favorite mushroom soup. This is not a cream of mushroom soup, it’s a very intensely flavored broth.
from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook
- 6 tbsp/75 g butter
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 12 ounces/340 g button mushrooms
- 4 cups/900 ml light chicken stock or broth
- 1 sprig of flat parsley
- Salt and pepper
- 2 ounces/56 ml high-quality sherry (don’t use the cheap grocery-store variety; it’s salty and unappetizing and will ruin your soup)
1) In the medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons/28 g of the butter over medium heat and add the onion. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent, then add the mushrooms and the remaining butter. Let the mixture sweat for about 8 minutes, taking care that the onion doesn’t take on any brown color. Stir in the chicken stock and the parsley and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat and simmer for about an hour.
2) After an hour, remove the parsley and discard. Let the soup cool for a few minutes, then transfer to the blender and carefully blend at high speed until smooth. Do I have to remind you to do this in stages, with the blender’s lid firmly held down, and with the weight of your body keeping that thing from flying off and allowing boiling hot mushroom purée to erupt all over your kitchen?
3) When blended, return the mix to the pot, season with salt and pepper, and bring up to a simmer again. Add the sherry, mix well, and serve immediately.
Serves 4. You could slice a few mushrooms and float them on top — or, soak some dried wild mushrooms and add. A sumptuous addition would be a drizzle of truffle oil on top. This is very rich, even without the usual cream.