Mushrooms: Conquering Fear of Fungi

by Larry Litt

I don't know about you, but I grew up (in the suburbs of New York City) with a maternal warning every time I went for a hike in the woods: "Don't eat anything you find in the forest," my mom would begin in deadly earnest, "especially mushrooms. You can't tell the difference between the ones that kill and the ones that don't. Only the experts can tell which ones are edible, and you're not an expert."

Fortunately for contemporary vegan chefs, a few mushroom experts have decided to share their know-ledge and appreciation of wild mushrooms with the culinary world by making those beautiful and strange, but certified safe to eat, mushrooms we were warned against available to the public. You donĂ¾t have to go into the woods if you want to try the best edible varieties. You can go to the gourmet green grocer, a natural foods store, some supermarkets, or order them by mail.

Overcoming fear of fungi is not an easy task considering the prejudices that most Americans have against the wild and exotic. But if you eat fresh common white button mushrooms available in most supermarket produce departments then you shouldn't have any trouble with the forest varieties.

Fungi, the name for mushrooms in most other parts of the world, taste good, are good for you, are completely vegan, and totally necessary for the perpetuation of life on Earth. As well, carefully prepared fungi can give you taste thrills like no other vegetable.

As far as shopping for fungi, the key issues are, "Which mushroom varieties should I buy, and what's the best way to prepare them?" For example, among the varieties currently available are chanterelles, creminis, porcinis, oysters, morels, shiitakes, maitakes, and portobellos. Indeed there's a growing list as small mushroom farms start popping up all over the United States. Why? Because once rare wild fungi are now in demand at chic "pricey" restaurants. Thus, most of the edible wild varieties have been cultivated to satisfy gourmet demands.

If you haven't as yet tried shiitakes, those meaty and rich-tasting mushrooms that were first cultivated in Japan hundreds of years ago, they are now more readily available. Fresh shiitakes come in four grades. The "A" Extra Large means the caps must be at least 3" in diameter. These can cost up to $10 a pound. A little less costly is the smaller "A" variety with the same quality and superior taste. The next are "B" and "B+" which are a little tougher, lighter in color, and smaller with broken or torn caps. Tough shiitake stems are always discarded before cooking.

Fresh porcinis (also called cepes), the so- called "king of mushrooms," are a rare find in American markets. They must be flash frozen to be handled properly. Large porcinis range around $15 a pound; smaller ones cost a bit more at under $20 a pound. But believe me, they are worth every penny. Take home a quarter pound, lightly sauté a few in a small amount of olive oil over high heat, add a pinch of salt if you like, and be dazzled at the overwhelming taste of both earth and heaven in your mouth. Be careful, these can be addicting for gourmet vegans.

Use porcinis in risotto, soups, and tomato sauces for a deep forest taste you can never duplicate with button mushrooms. Fortunately for us porcinophiles, they are available dried in many delicatessens and gourmet shops. Whole dried porcinis cost under $40 a pound; dried pieces and stems which are ideal for most recipes, except sautéing, grilling, and broiling, are a bargain at under $30 a pound. Reconstitute a few in warm water for 30 minutes to get the full flavor and aroma of the fresh porcini.

One of the best-tasting exotic mushrooms is the dried black Chinese type that is available at Oriental groceries in most big cities. The prices vary from $7 to $40 a pound depending on the size of the cap. Caps range from ½ inch to 2-½ inches. After soaking 30 minutes and destemming, these mushrooms are thick, meaty, and luscious either stuffed, stir-fried, or in soup. They will keep forever in a tightly sealed container on the shelf. Clean off any dirt with your fingers before using.

Please never soak fresh wild mushrooms in water. Instead, moisten a soft cloth or a paper towel, then gently and carefully clean off any little bits of debris. You can use your fingers just as well for the larger bits. Mushrooms are delicate and easily bruised, which leads to premature discoloring and softening.

Oh, by the way, if your mom sees wild and exotic mushrooms around your kitchen and starts warning you about the dangers, simply tell her "Mom, it's okay to eat them. I finally met one of those experts!"

One of the best sources of mail order information on fresh and dried wild mushrooms is from expert edible fungi farmer Hans Johansson. He's a grower and shipper to restaurants and gourmet shops, but will sell to individuals in bulk. He can be reached at

P.O. Box 532
Goldens Bridge, NY 10526


(Serves 4)

This sauce is very quick, very fresh tasting, and absolutely great on pasta. Once you've tasted it you'll never use canned tomatoes again. Try spreading it on warm Italian bread, too.

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ pound fresh porcinis stemmed and thinly sliced
    or ⅛ pound dried stems and pieces soaked 30 minutes
  • 2 fresh garlic cloves, peeled
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 4-6 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of fresh ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a saucepan. When hot but not smoking, add the mushrooms and garlic. Cook over medium heat, tossing the mixture until the mushrooms are slightly wilted and lightly browned (about 3-4 minutes). Pour in wine, raise heat to high, bring to a boil until reduced by half. Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Bring back to a boil, cook with an occasional stir until sauce is a little thicker, 3-5 minutes.

Total Calories Per Serving: 92
Fat: 4 grams


(Serves 10)

These make great hot appetizers.

  • ¼ pound fresh tofu
  • 1 medium chopped scallion
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon Oriental sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon liquid sweetener
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of black pepper
  • ¼ cup wheat germ or bread crumbs
  • 20 large cap Chinese dried black mushrooms, soaked
    (for at least 20 minutes), cleaned and stemmed

Crush the tofu in a bowl. Mix in all the ingredients except the mushrooms. When the mixture is thoroughly blended, stuff and top the mushrooms with it. Either grill the stuffed mushrooms for 3-5 minutes on a lightly oiled stovetop grill, or an oiled, very hot, thick- bottomed frying pan, or broil them for 7-9 minutes in the oven.

Total Calories Per Serving: 58
Fat: 2 grams


(Serves 4)

This salad goes well with hot garlic bread.

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ pound fresh cremini, button, and shiitake mushrooms,
    sliced and trimmed
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil or dried marjoram
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 3 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • ½ cup of water
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of fresh ground pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh chopped parsley or fresh coriander

Heat the oil on low in a frying pan, then gently fry the mushrooms for 2-3 minutes. Do not overcook. Sprinkle in garlic and basil, then toss the mixture for a minute or two so that mushrooms are well coated. Add the tomato, lemon juice, water, salt, and pepper. Stir together and cook until the tomato softens. Remove from heat and let cool. Garnish with chopped herbs.

Total Calories Per Serving: 56
Fat: 4 grams


(Serves 5)

Serve hot as a main course with a vegetable rice mixture.

  • 2 or 3 large fresh portobello mushrooms,
    stems removed and cleaned
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch of oregano
  • Chopped parsley for garnish

Quarter the caps. Place them on a broiler pan pre-coated with a little olive oil, bottoms up. Cover the mushrooms with chopped garlic, salt, and pepper. Drizzle half the olive oil over the mushrooms. Put under the broiler for about five minutes. Remove the mushrooms and probe with fork for softness. Sprinkle with oregano and parsley and return to oven, this time for another five minutes, checking every two minutes for the perfect tenderness. They should be soft on both tops and bottoms.

Total Calories Per Serving: 87
Fat: 8 grams


(Serves 6)

Excellent with baba ganoush (egg-plant dip) or hummus (chickpea dip) spread in pita bread.

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, well chopped
  • 1 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and stemmed
  • ¼ teaspoon each cumin, paprika, cayenne, dried thyme
  • 1 whole pimiento pepper, drained and coarsely chopped
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed frying pan. Add the onion and cook for at least two minutes or until golden brown. Add the mushrooms, spices, pimientos, salt, and pepper to the onions. Sauté over high heat for 5-7 minutes until mushrooms are tender but not soft. Serve garnished with fresh coriander.

Total Calories Per Serving: 46
Fat: 3 grams

This article originally appeared in the September/October 1994 issue of the Vegetarian Journal, published by:

The Vegetarian Resource Group
P.O. Box 1463
Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-VEGE