Thursday, November 28, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Several Unusual Mushrooms

     The mushroom has to be my favorite fungus.  Well, with the possible exception of penicillin, which probably saved my life on more than one occasion.  But as beneficial as penicillin has been to humanity, I think we can all agree that mushrooms almost certainly taste better.
     To fit in with the blog topic, I sought out a few, slightly off the beaten path varieties.  I figure pretty much everybody has tried the regular commercial type (called, among others, the common, the button, or the table mushroom) as well as portabellos and the amusingly named shiitake.  The kinds I’ll discuss here are the chanterelle, morel, straw, and nameko mushrooms.
     Mushrooms as a food are, of course, a double-edged sword.  On the positive side, nutritionally they’re very sound—low in calories, fat, and carbs, yet high in B vitamins, potassium, selenium, and copper.  The downside is that some varieties can kill you.  In very bad ways—painfully, with various organ shutdowns.  Some are even sneaky about it, as it can take up to twenty days after eating before the victim succumbs to their poison.  Other kinds don’t kill you, but can cause significant gastrointestinal distress.  So, as an important safety tip, don’t consume mushrooms you’ve picked yourself unless you really know what you’re doing.  Some poisonous types look very similar to harmless kinds, and most of the folk sayings (that the deadly mushrooms all taste bad, or are brightly colored, or stain silver, etc.) are tragically wrong.  (One risky kind is known as “The fugu of Finnish cuisine,” after the puffer fish that’s delicious, but if prepared even slightly incorrectly can kill you.  While I don’t think I’d take the chance myself, I do find this expression funny.  I almost wish every country had examples of these—“The fugu of Liechtensteiner cuisine,” “The fugu of Djiboutian cuisine,” and so on.)
     As is my usual practice, I’ll review worst to first.  I should state that I’m a big fan of mushrooms overall—either on pizza, mixed in other meals, or by themselves.  So none of these were bad, but some were better than others.
     Chanterelles were once associated with European royalty, as they were often on the menus of noble families.  I found these dried, in my favorite grocery store, Wegman’s.  Their appearance is like yellowish-brown broccoli spears—thin with an atypical head, or cap.  I sautéd them for about twenty minutes, added some salt and pepper, and then ate them plain, then, with condiments (Worchestershire Sauce and ketchup).  They were okay, but a bit bland.  Oddly, some people maintain that chanterelles taste better dried, that it makes their flavor improve.
     The straw mushrooms I had canned, with no preparation.  They were similar to the typical common mushroom in shape, but a little thinner and lighter.  They’re most popular in Asian cuisine.  They were slightly more flavorful than regular mushrooms.
     The nameko mushrooms are, as the names suggests, a favorite in Japan.  Here in the U.S. they’re sometimes called butterscotch mushrooms.  Like the straw kind I had these plain, out of the can.  Their shape was also like regular button mushrooms, only smaller and skinnier.  And they were better than the straws, noticeably tangier.
     Now we get to morels.  If I can mix a metaphor here, these are the White Whale of mushrooms.  They’re found mostly in the Midwest portion of the U.S., and in a tight time frame, in early spring (April and May).  I first heard about them while digging on a project in Iowa in the late 90’s.  Several landowners, when they cleared us to go onto their property, only did so after confirming that we weren’t after their morels.  They weren’t threatening, exactly, but they were firm about this.  (As an aside, we archaeologists do sometimes get threatened.  One old lady threatened to bash my boss’s head in with a baseball bat.  Another guy told some friends/colleagues of mine that he had a backhoe, and lots of land, so that no one would ever find their bodies.  And finally, one woman threatened another boss of mine right in front of the police officer who was mediating their discussion.  The trooper was reportedly amazed and almost amused by her casual stupidity.)  For the morel is said to be the most tasty mushroom, yet apparently it’s rarely if ever commercially cultivated.  Among its other charms, it’s evidently one of the easier mushrooms to gather, as it has a distinctive shape.  It has a slightly amorphous, oval cap, which is very spongy-like, with giant holes in it.  Kind of ugly looking, to be honest.
     Anyway, I’d heard so much about it, but never had the chance to really try it.  Until a few months ago, when I found it, in dried form, along with the chanterelles in the Wegman’s.  I cooked both together, so the morels also were sauted, seasoned, and eaten first plain and then with condiments.  Their texture was markedly different—chewy, and almost meaty.  Certainly very good, and the best of the four types I’m rating today.  But here’s the thing—I wasn’t dazzled.  With all the hype, and the difficulty in getting them, and the absurdly high price ($9 for half an ounce!), I expected to be blown away, and wasn’t.  To be fair, they were dried, and as I’ve noted, my cooking skills are primitive at best.  So I would eagerly eat them again, but if/when I do they’ll be fresh, and obviously picked by someone who mycology skills I respect.  Oh, and be forewarned, morels should always be cooked, as raw they tend to cause digestive issues (non-fatal ones, but still).  Finally, the morel goes by many names, some of them weird and entertaining.  Dryland fish, Molly moochers, and hickory chickens, to list three.
     I guess to be technical, truffles are a type of fungus, so they’re also on my “to try” list.  Alas, their price makes morels look cheap in comparison.  A hamburger topped with them will set you back $150 in a posh New York City restaurant, and a pound is going for up to $3600 (depending on the subtype).  A two pound specimen was auctioned off for $330,000 a few years ago.  I think that’s more expensive than cocaine, or heroin!  (Not surprisingly, organized crime has begun to get involved in the truffle trade.)  So unless I win the lottery, or my books start selling like crazy I doubt I can justify purchasing them.
     Oh, and to those that celebrate, have a great Thanksgiving!

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