Taming of the 'Shrooms

For true mushroom lovers, the recent taming of many wild mushrooms is bittersweet.On one hand, the notion of mushroom hunters decked out in sturdy boots and sensible hats foraging around forest floors to unearth delicate chanterelles, morels or porcinis carries with it a certain romance. It's easy to visualize them squealing with delight at a good find and digging in on bended knee to fill their baskets. And wild mushrooms have long been revered as an organic indulgence largely unreproduceable by man -- thus preserving their status as exotic, specialty items.For wild mushrooms are, after all, wild. They thrive in moist, compost-rich soil, springing to life under rotting logs and leaves in areas where sunlight rarely penetrates. Earthy and complex in flavor, they have, until recently, defied our best efforts to cultivate them for mass production.The only real exception has been familiar white button mushrooms (agaric), on which many Americans unwittingly judge their entire mushroom experience. While readily available and much more affordable than wild mushrooms, whites are flavorless in comparison, with nary a tinge of the great, rich earthiness of their wild cousins.In Food, a history of foods of the world, author Waverley Root notes that the first mushroom cultivation in the Western world probably took place in France. Oliver de Serres, agronomist to Louis XIV, began experimenting with mushrooms using the same white mushroom that's still grown today.The novelist Colette, for one, wished he'd have left well enough alone. She's quoted as declaring: "I am in revolt against the mushroom of Paris, an insipid creature born in the dark and incubated by humidity. I have had enough of it, bathing chopped in all the sauces it thickens. I forbid it to usurp the place of the chanterelle or the truffle; and I command it, together with its fitting companion, canned cock's combs, never to cross the threshold of my kitchen."Indeed, despite its ease of cultivation, the white button has never come close to usurping the chanterelle or the truffle in France or other food-savvy countries. But in the U.S., it's only recently that mainstream consumers have had ready access or exposure to anything but buttons.Happily, newly domesticated specialty mushrooms are sprouting up all over. While a bit of wild mushrooms' richness of flavor is lost in the translation, commercial growers' success in taming previously unruly varieties has made them readily available and more affordable, attracting new fans among chefs and home cooks.Giant portobellos, earthy criminis, meaty shiitakes, silky oysters and delicate enokis can now be found year-round on many supermarket shelves. And restaurants well beyond the realm of fine dining are helping to initiate consumers."Over the past couple of years, the volume of specialty fresh mushrooms we're selling has more than doubled," says Bob McQuade, owner of Herbs, Spices & More, a distributor based in nearby Eagle. McQuade, who sells to restaurants and supermarkets, says his biggest movers are shiitakes, portobellos, criminis and oysters -- all of which are now available both wild and cultivated.From summer through early winter, wild apricot-tinged chanterelles, whose flattened, trumpet-shaped caps grow up to six inches, are also popular. Black trumpets (January and February) and morels (late spring through early summer) are other seasonal wild favorites.Perhaps by sheer virtue of its size, the giant Frisbee-shaped portobello has made the biggest commercial splash. A terrific meat substitute, portobello caps average four to six inches in diameter. Grilled or broiled, they have the flavor and texture of steak and, with a light marinade and some mixed greens, stand alone as an appetizer, vegetarian "burger" or entree. Produced from the same spore as criminis, portobellos have a longer growing period, becoming larger and developing a chewier, meatier texture.Criminis resemble white buttons in shape, but are cocoa-colored and larger, with more intense flavor. They can be substituted in any recipe calling for white mushrooms and, because of their larger size, are ideal for stuffing. "Baby portobellos," sighted recently in a local supermarket, are really just criminis riding on the coattails of the portobello trend, according to McQuade.Woodsy, smoky shiitakes have large, tawny, parasol-shaped caps and creamy insides. They're rich and meaty, and are excellent in sauces, soups, stir-frys and mixed mushroom preparations. Their tough, fibrous stems, however, must be trimmed off before use.Milder oyster mushrooms have a silky texture and an undulating shape that stands out among cultivated varieties for its gracefulness. They cook up like button mushrooms, and are a great addition to creamy soups, sauces and gratins.Among yet-untamed mushrooms, morels are a true harbinger of spring, with good supplies found throughout the Midwest. Get to the Farmers' Market early, and you'll find beautiful morels at prices around $10 a pound. Cone-shaped and hollow, they have a spongy, honeycomb-like exterior that's perfect for trapping buttery sauces. Their flavor is nutty, and goes well with other spring vegetables, as well as with pasta and in meat sauces.A note of caution: Unless you really know what you're doing, don't be tempted to save a buck and forage around for your own. Many varieties are toxic, and some are deadly.Where to sample specialty mushroom creations locally? Many Madison restaurants feature single mushroom varieties or blends of specialty mushrooms in saut­s, sauces, pasta dishes, appetizers and sandwiches.At the Opera House chef Eric Rupert offers "Carpaccio" of portobello mushroom. "We rub the mushroom with olive oil, garlic, thyme and rosemary and roast it, slice it thin and lay it out on a plate like wheel spokes," Rupert says. "In the center of the plate is arugula, julienned endive and shaved parmesan." The entire ensemble is drizzled with a vinaigrette made with chive oil, balsamic vinegar, porcini oil and mushroom juices from the roasting pan.A top-selling filling for tacos, enchiladas and the like at Taqueria Gila Monster marries specialty mushrooms with cactus and hominy. "It's a mixture of shiitake, portobello and crimini mushrooms that we saute with onions, garlic, serrano chilies, tomatoes, cactus, hominy and lime juice," explains chef-owner Jill Watson. "It appeals to vegetarian and nonvegetarians alike."[RECIPES]Sauteed Fresh Morels5 ounces morels, halved or quartered 2 large shallots, finely chopped 1 small clove garlic, crushed 1 tbs. olive oil 2 tbs. unsalted butter 1/2 cup white wine salt and pepper lemon juice 2 tbs. parsley, finely choppedClean the mushrooms with a brush or wash briefly; drain well. Heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a saut­ pan. Add shallots and garlic and cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shallots are translucent. Add morels and wine, season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking, until the wine reduces by half. Cover and simmer 2 to 3 more minutes. Uncover, add the remaining butter and increase heat slightly. Cook about 3 more minutes, until the mushrooms are tender and very little liquid is left.Turn off the heat, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over the mushrooms, adjust seasonings and toss in chopped parsley. Serve on toast, with pasta, or as a side dish. Yield: 4 servings.Roasted Mushroom and Vegetable Sandwich2 tbs. olive oil 2 tbs. balsamic vinegar 1 shallot, minced fresh herbs, finely chopped, to taste salt and pepper 1 4-inch portobello mushroom 3 fresh crimini mushrooms 1/4 each red bell pepper, yellow bell pepper 1 medium carrot cut lengthwise in 1/4 inch slices 1 medium zucchini cut lengthwise in 1/4 inch slices 2 tbs. goat cheese sliced red onions or scallions 2 large slices multigrain breadCombine the oil, vinegar, shallot, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables in the marinade reserving any extra marinade, and roast uncovered in a 425-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, toast the bread. To assemble, slice the mushrooms and peppers into 1/4 inch slices. Spread goat cheese on the toasted bread and add the roasted vegetables; top with onion or scallion slices and drizzle on reserved marinade. Yield: 1 sandwich.

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