- Most of us know where we are with button mushrooms – they are inoffensive, bland and fairly sturdy.
- You can stick them in a stew or a tomato sauce, or fling them across the top of a pizza without worrying about how much cooking is required.
- Increasingly, however, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fungi.
Supermarkets have long stocked an array of “exotic” or “woodland” mushrooms, often in mixed packs: shiitake, of course, but also maitake, enoki, oyster and king oyster. In season, specialty shops stock a range of fresh wild mushrooms, including girolle and chanterelle, while cultivated versions can be bought all year round.
Great News For Cooks
This is great news for cooks, particularly vegans or vegetarians looking to broaden their range, or omnivores trying to reduce their reliance on meat. But all that variety can be bewildering. Even the names seem almost deliberately deceptive, especially when you discover that chicken of the woods and hen of the woods are two different mushrooms, but hen of the woods and maitake are the same thing. “I haven’t cooked a button mushroom for a very long time,” says Jeremy Lee, chef proprietor at Quo Vadis and the author of Cooking: Simply and Well, For One or Many.
When choosing mushrooms, freshness should be your main concern. “Freshness is vital,” says Lee. “As soon as they’re cut, they begin to either rot or desiccate. So, a firm stem.” A mushroom in decent condition will keep for a few days in a paper bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge, but when it comes to storing fresh mushrooms, perhaps the best advice is: don’t.
Exotic mushrooms sold in mixed packs can be cooked together. “Usually, I will cook at least five varieties in the same pan,” Bebbington says. “You’ll find the right note to hit, the harmony between what is slightly overcooked and what is slightly undercooked,” he says. For his regular supermarket cooking demonstrations, Bebbington hands out bruschetta topped with mushrooms cooked with ginger, shallots and cream. Lets now have a look at different mushroom types.
The name comes from the shii tree, on whose decaying logs the mushrooms were often found, but shiitake have been cultivated in Japan since at least the 13th century. Those you find in shops may well come from, among other places, Southport, where Smithy Mushrooms produces them throughout the year. Its shiitake are grown on a sterile, human-made substrate – logs formed of compressed sawdust – which has been inoculated with spores. In the past, these raw materials were imported, but Smithy is expanding to produce substrates inhouse.
Smithy Mushrooms grows three kinds of oysters. “We do yellow oysters, pink oysters and brown oysters,” says Bebbington. “The base raw material for those oyster mushrooms is wheat straw.” Although the wheat straw is metabolized as the mushroom feeds on the organic matter, oysters are, like all mushrooms, gluten free.
Morels can’t be cultivated, at least not commercially. They grow wild and are harvested by foragers, and priced accordingly. As a spring mushroom, they are also among the few that will be in season in the coming weeks (you can get them now, as long as you don’t mind paying £100 a kilo). “ They’re one of the great early spring harvests,” says Lee. “They generally coincide with the first broad beans, and a very delicious fricassee of guinea fowl or chicken with morels and broad beans is one of the great dishes…”
These are those long, stringy white mushrooms with tiny caps that you find sold in bagged clusters in supermarkets. Enoki could be mistaken for beansprouts, and they are often featured in soups. “They’re a bit wormy and weird,” says Nozedar. “I don’t like the flavour of them, personally. But my partner absolutely loves them.”
Chicken Of The Woods
This is a wild, yellow fungus found growing on the trunks of trees, so-called because it really does taste like chicken. “I don’t eat meat and I haven’t done for years,” says Nozedar. “And the first time I had chicken of the woods, it felt really wrong – so like the chicken that I had decided I was never going to eat ever again. Part of me felt guilty.”
Hen of the woods and maitake are essentially the same. “The difference is one is cultivated and one is not,” says Bebbington. “Hen of the woods is the wild version.” The dense, frilly heads can be brushed with oil and barbecued, whole or halved.
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