A Multitude of Mushrooms

By Zel Allen

Mushrooms have been prized since ancient times. Historically, they were revered, hoarded, and even kept from the peasants in some regions of the world. Hippocrates used mushrooms as both food and medicine. Hieroglyphics incised on Egyptian temples 4,600 years ago seem almost surreal with writings that say pharaohs believed mushrooms were "magic food" that could assure them immortality.

Today, mushrooms can claim many fans, from home cooks to professional chefs. Mushrooms belong to the family of fungi and are sources of protein, fiber, potassium, niacin, and phosphorus.

While some knowledgeable foragers may hunt for mushrooms in woodsy areas, inexperienced gatherers should be aware that certain wild mushroom look-alikes can deliver a deadly dose of toxins. Most people make the safer choice and shop for commercially cultivated mushrooms in grocery stores. Asian markets may offer a wider variety of mushrooms and at better prices than chain stores.

As you make your way through the world of mushrooms, make sure to explore these possibilities:

  • Button mushrooms can be eaten raw, marinated, or cooked, and they are delicious sliced into salads. Toss them into stir-fries, layer them in lasagna, or serve them over pasta.
  • One of the most familiar of mushrooms, criminis are simply older versions of common white button mushrooms. Firmer and with a slightly fuller flavor than their younger kin, criminis are often dark brown and have smooth, rounded caps. This versatile variety may be prepared raw and added to salads, or they may be boiled and stuffed with filling for a savory appetizer. Criminis hold up well in high temperatures, making them ideal selections for baking, roasting, or stewing.
  • Portobellos are just mature criminis and make a sensational entrée when simply grilled, broiled, or sautéed. Marinate, grill, and slice them, along with grilled onions, to create a mouth-watering sandwich filling. Mince raw portobellos in the food processor and combine them with cooked grains to form tasty patties that can be baked, broiled, or fried.
  • Shiitakes are fun and ultra-versatile with their soft, satiny texture. Something magical within the shiitake produces the strongest umami flavor when cooked. Cut off and discard their tough stems, and then slice and sauté the mushrooms. Stir-fry the caps whole and fall in love with their captivating texture. Include shiitakes in noodle dishes, risottos, and salads.
  • Oyster mushrooms are the most delicate in flavor and texture. They are best prepared separately, as cooking them with other foods may overshadow their silky, melt-in-the-mouth texture, and light, almost elusive flavor. Enjoy them simply stir-fried with a little garlic.
  • Unlike delicate oyster mushrooms, king oyster mushrooms are brazen with succulent flavor and a pleasantly chewy, "meaty" texture. Their thin, deep brown caps and long, plump stems can be sliced, stir-fried, and added to almost anything, from soups and salads to pasta and rice dishes. Use king oyster mushrooms when assembling vegetable skewers for the grill. Asian markets are the best place to shop for these mushrooms, which are easy to recognize with the distinctly plump, bulbous shape at the base of their stems.
  • Enoki mushrooms, with their long, toothpick-thin stems and tiny rounded caps, are often served raw as a garnish in soups or salads. Enokis have two distinct personalities. When used in raw salads, they are crisp and offer a delicious nutty flavor. When cooked into soups, stir-fries, and stews, they turn delightfully soft and chewy.
  • Beech mushrooms are native to East Asia and are known as bunapi, buna shimeji, or hon shimeji. Available in Asian markets, they often come packaged in a tight cluster of long, thin stalks and small, puffy-looking white or brown caps. Their flavor is unpleasantly bitter if served raw but mellow when cooked. Cut off and discard the firm base to separate the stalks, and enjoy them either whole or chopped into stir-fries.
  • Maitake mushrooms, also called 'hen of the woods,' are native to northern Japan. This capless variety grows in brown leafy clusters that suggest an attractive, flower-like appearance. They hold their shape well during cooking, and their meaty texture makes them stand apart in soups, stir-fries, and other dishes.
  • Dried mushrooms have the most intense, somewhat smoky flavor and make the best cream of mushroom soup. Before using, cover dried mushrooms with boiling water and soak them for 30-60 minutes to soften. And don't discard the soak water! Strain it and use it to make delicious soups and sauces.
  • Mushrooms are very low in calories and fat yet have a way of perking up a dish by contributing their unique, fusty, and sometimes mossy flavors. To cut calories even further, switch from sautéing in oil to sautéing in water. For extra flavor, add a touch of balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, or a hint of soy sauce, along with herbs and spices, when water-sautéing. Follow in the footsteps of Apicius, ancient chef of Imperial Rome, and cook mushrooms in wine and chopped cilantro and season with pepper and a drizzle of vinegar.
  • Join the mushroom aficionados who embrace the humongous fungus family of mushrooms. You'll easily find their irresistible, savory umami flavors deliver heightened pleasure and dining satiety. Pair them with flavors bold or delicate. Combine them with grains, pastas, or legumes. And eat them with a rainbow of vegetables to have the feast of your life!

MARINATED BUTTONS

(Serves 6-8)

Boldly flavored and richly colored, these pungent marinated mushrooms are especially appealing because they are fat-free. Without the traditional oil base, this marinade easily penetrates the mushrooms and flavors them within a few minutes rather than several hours.

  • 1 pound white button mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 small Persian or Japanese cucumber, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon maple syrup
  • 2-3 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 5 scallions, divided

In a large serving bowl, combine the mushrooms, cucumbers, lemon juice, water, vinegar, garlic, syrup, soy sauce, and cayenne. Chop four scallions, add them to the bowl, and mix well.

To garnish, trim off and discard the root end of the remaining scallion. Slice the white portion and sprinkle over the center of the dish. Cut the green portion into long, thin slivers, leaving them attached where they are joined. Poke the attached end into the dish's center, leaving the tops standing upright, to add a finishing touch to the dish. Serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 49 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 68 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

SHIITAKE WALNUT PÂTÉ

(Makes approximately 12/3 cups or thirteen 2-Tablespoon servings)

Shiitake mushrooms have a personality all their own, and they lend extraordinary flavor and pleasing texture to foods. This recipe features them in a savory, ultra-creamy pâté I like to serve as an appetizer spread. Deliciously rich-tasting, the pâté is easy to assemble and can quickly morph into multiple creations. Serve the pâté with whole-grain crackers or toasted pita, or try one of the suggestions below.

  • 1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and then caps coarsely chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon water
  • Additional water as needed
  • 1/2 cup raw walnuts
  • 2 Tablespoons unsweetened soymilk, vegetable broth, or water
  • 1 Tablespoon nutritional yeast flakes
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 small sprig of fresh herbs like parsley, basil, mint, or tarragon

In a large, deep skillet, combine the mushrooms, onions, garlic, and water. Water-sauté over high heat for approximately 10 minutes or until the onions are transparent. Add small amounts of water as needed to prevent the mushrooms from sticking or burning.

Transfer the cooked ingredients to a food processor and add the walnuts; soymilk, broth, or water; nutritional yeast; lemon juice; and salt. Process until the mixture is smooth and creamy.

Spoon the mixture into an attractive bowl, garnish with fresh herbs, and serve warm or chilled. If refrigerated, any leftover pâté will keep for 3-4 days.

Pâté Serving Suggestions:

  • Spoon it into celery ribs.
  • Spoon it into celery ribs.
  • Serve it on a large platter surrounded with colorful raw veggies and crackers.
  • Spread it on crackers and top each with a sliced green olive.
  • Simply slather it on bread.
  • Use it as a sandwich filling.
  • Stuff it into raw or cooked mushroom caps.
  • Fill pasta shells with it.
  • Spread it over cooked polenta.
Total calories per serving: 41 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 2 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 92 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

SPINACH AND SHIITAKE LOVE NEST

(Serves 4-5)

Serve this dish with a tossed salad and a side of steamed broccoli or kale.

  • 3 large onions, sliced and then halved
  • 1 Tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place the onions on a jellyroll pan, heaping them close together. Roast for 15 minutes. Turn the onions over with a spatula, heap them together again, and roast for another 15 minutes.

Turn the onions once more and spread them out on the pan. Roast for 10 minutes. Add the soy sauce and balsamic vinegar, mix well, and roast for 10-15 minutes longer to caramelize thoroughly.

Steamed Rice

  • 2-1/4 cups water
  • 1 cup basmati brown rice
  • Salt to taste

While the onions are roasting, combine the water, rice, and salt in a 2-quart saucepan. Cover the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and steam for 35 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest, covered, for 15 minutes to absorb any remaining liquid.

Spinach Shiitake Sauté

  • 1/2 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and then caps thickly sliced
  • 1/2 small carrot, diced
  • 3/4 cup water
  • Additional water as needed
  • One 12-ounce package baby spinach
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 11/2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 11/2 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Sprigs of fresh herbs, such as parsley or cilantro
  • 4-5 cherry tomatoes

In a large skillet, combine the mushrooms, carrots, and water. Water-sauté the ingredients over high heat, stirring frequently, for approximately 3-4 minutes or until softened. Add small amounts of water, if needed.

Add the spinach to the skillet, a little at a time, cooking briefly, just until wilted. When the onions are done, add them to the skillet, mixing well to distribute evenly.

Add the peppers, vinegar, soy sauce, and mustard and cook 1 minute longer.

To serve, place a portion of the steamed rice on each plate, forming a nest. Spoon a serving of the mushroom-spinach medley into the nest. Garnish each with a cluster of herbs and nestle a tomato on top of each.

Total calories per serving: 261 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 55 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 547 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

GOURMET MUSHROOM STROGANOFF

(Serves 5)

Stroganoff has altered courses multiple times since the original version appeared in an 1861 Russian cookbook. Traditionally made with beef, mustard, and a small amount of sour cream, it contained no onions or mushrooms, both of which are central to this gourmet vegan version. Paying homage to the original recipe, I've retained the mustard and sour cream and exalted the earthy dish with a devastatingly rich cashew sauce. Serve over rice or wide noodles.

  • 3 medium onions, sliced
  • 1 cup water, divided
  • 1 pound button mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1-1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 2 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed
  • 1 cup finely ground raw cashews
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, optional
  • 1/3 cup vegan sour cream
  • 1/3 cup minced parsley
  • One 3.5-ounce package enoki mushrooms

In a large, deep skillet, combine the onions and 1/2 cup water. Water-sauté the onions over medium-high heat for approximately 5 minutes, stirring often and adding small amounts of water. Do not allow the skillet to run dry. Lower the heat to medium and cook for approximately 20-25 minutes until the onions begin to caramelize and turn golden. Stir frequently and add small amounts of water, as needed.

Add the mushrooms and garlic into the skillet, along with 1/3 cup of water. Cook the mixture over medium heat for approximately 4-5 minutes or until the mushrooms are softened.

Add the vegetable broth, soy sauce, and dill weed and bring to a boil. Add the cashews and stir frequently for approximately 3-4 minutes until the mixture thickens. Add the mustard, and season with salt and pepper, if desired.

Before serving, stir in the sour cream, mixing only briefly so some is visible. Garnish each serving with some parsley and place a few enoki mushrooms into the center.

Total calories per serving: 221 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 403 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

SHIITAKE AND CRIMINI RISOTTO

(Serves 6-7)

*Pictured on the cover. This hearty risotto uses brown rice in place of the customary Arborio rice. While Arborio rice produces a soft, creamy-textured risotto, brown rice will retain its nutty flavor and pleasingly chewy texture.

The mushrooms combine deliciously with the dried herbs and vegetables, offering a robust dinner dish elegant enough for company dining. Include a tossed salad and steamed vegetables on the side.

  • 6 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-1/2 cups chopped green cabbage
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 4-7 cups water, divided
  • 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, optional
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 3/4-1 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and then caps sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed in a mortar and pestle
  • 1-1/4 cups short- or medium-grain brown rice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 Tablespoon minced fresh parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon minced fresh chives

In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the tomatoes and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes or until the tomatoes have begun to break down. Turn off the heat and set aside to add at the end.

In a large, deep skillet, combine the cabbage, onions, celery, carrots, 1/4 cup water, oil, and garlic. Cook the mixture over high heat, stirring frequently, for approximately 5 minutes or until the vegetables are softened. Add small amounts of water as needed to prevent burning the vegetables.

Add the mushrooms, thyme, and rosemary to the skillet and cook for approximately 2 minutes, stirring frequently and adding water as needed. Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the rice, salt, pepper, and 1 cup water. Keep the pan simmering, stir frequently, and add 1/2 cup water at a time as the liquid is absorbed. The process of cooking down and adding water may take 30-40 minutes. Taste the rice for tenderness after 30 minutes.

When the rice is tender, add the tomatoes, stirring to distribute them evenly. Cook another minute to warm them. Adjust the seasonings, if needed, and garnish with a sprinkle of herbs.

Total calories per serving: 202 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 42 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 424 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

PORTOBELLO MUSHROOM PATTIES

(Makes twelve 3-inch patties)

Portobello mushrooms form the ideal base for a hearty burger that's got enough attitude to stand alone without a bun. To enjoy these patties as an appetizer, make them no more than 11/2 inches in diameter and serve them warmed or at room temperature with a sauce of your choice. The patties are especially tasty and attractive when topped with Cashew-Mushroom Bruschetta Spread. (Recipe follows.) You can prepare both the burgers and the spread in advance and refrigerate them. Then, assemble them and warm at 350 degrees for approximately 15 minutes before serving.

  • 2 Tablespoons water
  • 1 Tablespoon flaxseed meal
  • 2 or 3 giant portobello mushrooms (approximately 3/4 pound)
  • 1 cup cooked barley, buckwheat, or short-grain brown rice
  • 1 cup chopped sweet onions
  • 1/2 cup almond or hazelnut meal
  • 1/3 cup whole wheat flour or old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon nutritional yeast
  • 1-1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a large jellyroll pan with parchment paper. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the water and flaxseed meal and stir well. Set aside to thicken.

Coarsely chop the mushrooms, put them into a food processor, and process until they are finely minced. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add the barley, buckwheat, or rice; onions; almond or hazelnut meal; flour; nutritional yeast; salt; and pepper. Mix well with your hands to distribute the ingredients evenly.

Stir the thickened flaxseed meal and add it to the mushroom mixture, mixing well with your hands to incorporate it throughout.

Form the mixture into patties and place them on the parchment. Press lightly on each patty to flatten to a 1/2-inch thickness. Bake for 25 minutes. Turn the patties with a spatula and bake 10-15 minutes longer.

Total calories per patty: 221 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 403 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

CASHEW-MUSHROOM BRUSCHETTA Spread

(Serves 4-5)

This is a recipe from my cookbook, The Nut Gourmet. Serve the spread in an attractive bowl accompanied by toasted pita wedges, or serve over mushroom patties.

  • 1/2 pound sliced button or crimini mushrooms
  • 2 Tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped raw cashews
  • 3 ounces soft tofu
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Paprika

In a deep, 10-inch skillet, combine the mushrooms and water and cook over high heat for approximately 2 minutes or until softened.

Put the cashews, tofu, garlic, and lemon juice in a food processor and process approximately 1 minute, just long enough to break the cashews into smaller bits. Add the cashew mixture to the mushrooms in the skillet and heat gently to warm throughout. Season the bruschetta spread with salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of paprika.

Total calories per serving: 123 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 7 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

HUNTER'S MUSHROOM SAUCE

(Serves 5-6)

You may not find maitake and beech mushrooms in large chain groceries, so look in Asian markets. Their definitive shapes, delicate earthy flavors, and springy texture make these mushrooms stand apart.

Serve this sauce over pasta or cooked grains and relish the delicious ensemble of sweet and savory flavors.

  • 6 ounces brown beech mushrooms
  • 3-1/2 ounces white beech mushrooms
  • 3-1/2 ounces maitake mushrooms
  • 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 cups water, divided
  • 1 large onion, cut lengthwise into half-moons
  • 5 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 4 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons cornstarch

Cut off the bottom 1/2- to 1-inch portion that holds the mushroom clusters together, and separate both the maitake and beech mushrooms. Cut large maitake fronds in half lengthwise.

In a large, deep skillet, combine 1/4 cup water and onions and water-sauté over high heat for approximately 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and 1-2 Tablespoons of additional water as needed to prevent burning. Cook for 1 minute.

Add the sweet potatoes and 1-11/2 cups water and cook for 6-8 minutes or until the potatoes are fork tender. Add 1-11/2 cups more water, along with the mushrooms. Cook for 1 minute, stirring frequently, and season with the soy sauce and vinegar.

In a small bowl or cup, combine the cornstarch and 3 Table-spoons water and stir with a spoon to form a runny paste. Reduce the heat under the skillet to medium-high and add the cornstarch paste, a little at a time, to the bubbling mushroom sauce. Cook, stirring continuously, for approximately 1 minute or until the sauce has thickened to desired consistency. Adjust the seasonings, if needed, and serve.

Total calories per serving: 110 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 516 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Zell Allen is author of The Nut Gourmet, which can be purchased from The Vegetarian Resource Group. To buy the book, call (410) 366-8343 or go online: www.vrg.org/catalog.