For Every person who enjoys the earthy, velvety quality of edible mushrooms, there’s probably another who won’t touch them because they can’t get past the idea of eating fungi. The well-meaning often try to convince such picky eaters that mushrooms are comparable to vegetables, but while they make take root in the earth and are a natural addition to salads, fungi are closer to animals in their evolutionary history.
The common ancestor of animals and fungi was a single-celled creature called a protist. To this day, mush- rooms inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide as we do, and they get their energy by consuming other life forms rather than through plant photosynthesis.
There are an estimated 140,000 mushroom species on the planet, with 200 believed to be potent enough to have been used in traditional Chinese medicine practices.
New research is showing that mushrooms do have medicinal value. Four key nutrients in mushrooms—selenium, vitamin D, glutathione and ergothioneine—are antioxidants that are key to healthy aging. Food scientists are studying mushrooms as a way to prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, building on studies in Asia that have shown that ergothioneine in blood declines with age, and that those who ate more mushrooms had less incidence of dementia.
That is ample reason to add more mushrooms to your plate. Then there is simply the gourmet factor. Mushrooms are prized for their rich, meaty and spongy textures that absorb sauces and help to intensify flavors in a dish.
Here are a few that are easy to find at grocery stores and restaurants:
BUTTON: These smooth, firm white mushrooms are the most common type you’ll find in the supermarket. You’ll find them everywhere, topping salads and pizzas, or sautéed and layered over burgers and steaks. Although their airy, water-filled quality makes them seem insubstantial, like most mushrooms, these are high in protein and packed with B vitamins, selenium, potassium and other vitamins and minerals.
CHANTERELLES: These French delicacies are known for a striking golden color, delicate texture and subtle fruity flavor. When in season, they can be found on the menu at Chef Mavro, where one of his signatures is a risotto of wild harvested chanterelles with carnaroli rice and Parmigiano Reggiano.
CREMINI: These are just a more mature white button mushroom, also sold as baby portobellos. They are similar in shape to the button mushroom, with a brown cap and slightly deeper flavor than the younger white mushrooms.
ENOKI: These Japan natives grow in a clump of long stems and pinpoint-size caps. Their crisp texture holds up well in soups. An enoki mushroom sauté is one of the specialties at Yanagi Sushi, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. These mushrooms also make a great addition to any hot pot, such as at Little Sheep at Ward Centre.
KING: This fleshy, mild-flavored mushroom is well known in Hawai‘i as the Hamakua or Ali‘i mushroom. Outside of the state, this variety is also referred to as the Royal Trumpet or King Oyster mushroom. There’s a reason for the grandiose names. The mushroom measures at a colossal six inches in the stem with a flat cap. With its nutty flavor and firm, meat-like texture, it can be sautéed, grilled, braised, stewed or broiled as a meat substitute. One of the best presentations I’ve had of this mushroom was at Vegan Hills, where the Coco Mari is a ringer for deep-fried calamari. The organic mushrooms are breaded in a gluten-free coconut flour batter, fried and served with a home- made dill mayo.
MORELS: The caps of these mushrooms look like withered honeycombs. That wrinkly, pitted texture adds to their chewiness and those recesses are great at holding onto sauces or brown butter when lightly sautéed.
OYSTER: This mushroom was named because of its resemblance to mollusks. It’s common in Chinese cuisine because it’s known for its subtle anise flavor.
PORCINI: These meaty mushrooms are most often used in Italian cuisine. Light brown in color, porcinis can range from one inch to 10 inches across, with a silky, but firm texture and slightly nutty flavor. Bernini restaurant offers a pasta of porcini paired with chanterelles in a light cream sauce. In addition to Italian restaurants, you’ll find their presence in some unlikely places, such as Goma Tei, which has been experimenting with such new menu specials such as tan tan with homemade porcini noodles.
PORTOBELLO: This mushroom’s size is deceptive. While it may appear to be another variety, this mushroom is simply a white button mushroom at its most mature stage, with its cap fully grown out. The portobello is mild in flavor but has a meaty texture that makes it popular as a meat substitute when grilled.