Whenever I stroll through the bustling food markets of Chinatown in Manhattan, I’m excited and intrigued by the variety of mushrooms for sale. Mushrooms offer so many options to experiment with when I cook, and they evoke dreamy visions of far-off lands and foods. In addition to their tantalizing flavors and textures, their health benefits boost their appeal even more for me.
My mushroom awakening was a gradual one. I have to admit, before I started cooking with mushrooms, I didn’t realize all the flavor and texture they could add to a dish. Plus, there are lots of health benefits attributed to them.
Like many, my exposure to mushrooms had been pretty much limited to some of the less tasty, not-so-fresh varieties. My introduction to mushrooms came during childhood in the form of the rubbery texture and salty flavor of canned mushrooms baked into a homemade green bean casserole, which I hated. As a teenager, I found the cold, musty variety found on salad bars were no better. Happily, my mushroom awakening led me to a path of culinary enlightenment.
I began my mushroom mission by learning a basic fact the hard way. And the undeniable understanding I came to was that it’s not a good idea to put raw mushrooms on pizza. It might not have been the most delicious outcome, but it made me want to know more about how to prepare this fabulous fungus.
When I first started cooking, one of my time-pressed go-tos was to use a can of mushroom soup to make a sauce for chicken dishes. Then a friend in college introduced me to the beauty of using fresh oyster mushrooms instead, and I fell in love with their slightly sweet, nutty taste. She also showed me how to sautée mushrooms and steered me in the direction of chanterelles. She taught me how tasty these fleshy, flavorful mushrooms with a somewhat fruity fragrance are when sautéed in butter or baked with onions in chicken broth. And like many varieties of mushrooms, they’re high in iron and fiber.
Since then, I’ve nurtured a deep appreciation for the wide variety of mushrooms and the many different ways they can be used and eaten. I was sold when I learned that besides having a superb smoky, meaty flavor, shiitake mushrooms also have potential health benefits like boosting the immune system and fighting colds and the flu.
My first experience with shiitake mushrooms came when I had a nasty cold. It was also raining, so I ducked into a nearby Japanese restaurant to warm up with some hot soup. I ordered a clear soup full of shiitake mushrooms, and after my meal, besides feeling like I’d consumed something incredibly nourishing, I also felt much better. I ordered more soup to go, eating it gratefully over the next few days, feeling healthier with every spoonful.
The first time I cooked roast duck, I decided to experiment with adding shiitake mushrooms and also made a delicious soup with the leftovers. Now when I’m feeling under the weather, I add shiitake mushrooms to my homemade chicken noodle soup for an immune-system boost.
During my early experiments with vegetarianism, mushrooms were one of my go-tos. Now, if I’m having a meat-free moment, big, tasty portobello mushrooms often come to the rescue. I’ll grill a portobello mushroom (or two) in lieu of a beef patty and pop it on a bun with toppings like avocado, tomato, and cheese. It’s a low-fat meal, and the portobello is packed with nutrients like potassium, niacin, and B vitamins. Or, I’ll roast portobello mushrooms filled with ingredients like goat cheese, marinara sauce, and sautéed spinach and serve them at parties and dinners.
My first risotto was one made with porcini mushrooms that I ordered at a little Italian restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side. I marveled at the flavor and texture the porcinis added to the rice. It was a deeply satisfying meal of elevated comfort food that also packed a healthy dose of iron.
I found that a little goes a long way with black truffle mushrooms — which is a good thing, because they’re typically on the expensive side. The first time I cooked with black truffle mushrooms, I thought that because they were so delicious, using more would be even more delicious. I went a little crazy adding black truffles to an omelet, not realizing how strong the flavor would be. Two ounces would have been plenty for four servings. But I used four ounces for one serving. And silly me, I didn’t stop there. I also added truffle oil, which gave the eggs the taste of gasoline. Because I didn’t just add an ounce of truffle oil. I added three ounces.
Now, because I know from experience that overdoing it with the rich flavor of truffles can be disastrous, I use a truffle shaver to help me control the amount I add to the dish. I like to use them to ramp up the flavors of foods like pastas, cheeses, and scallops, while remembering that less is more. Whenever I need a taste of luxury, black truffles are the ticket. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re high in protein, carbs, vitamins, and fiber too.
I’m excited to think about all the mushrooms I can cook with. I’m looking forward to trying the mildly peppery pioppini mushroom and the slightly briny lobster mushroom in sauces, lasagnas, and terrines both sumptuous and simple.