Garden to Table
September 28, 2008
Often lumped in with vegetables and fruits, mushrooms are actually fungi, with their own distinctive flavors, uses and health benefits. Low in fat, with no cholesterol and virtually no sodium, mushrooms may even help reduce daily caloric intake.
In fact, according to a recent John Hopkins University study, formulating foods with mushrooms (instead of meat), not only provides an acceptable, palatable substitute for meat, but also reduces daily energy intake by an average of 420 calories.
Mushrooms are indeed a unique food. There are over 10,000 species growing in North America, and about 250 of those are edible. Most commercially grown mushrooms begin their life in a lab, when the microscopic spores (or seeds) of the mushroom are incubated into “spawn,” and then later, planted in compost.
Mushroom compost is a complex medium consisting of nutrient-rich materials like corn cobs, cotton seeds and nitrogen supplements, and it takes about 15 to 25 days to prepare. During the preparation period, compost ingredients are repeatedly mixed, wetted and pasteurized, resulting in an environment that is perfect for fungi growth.
Once mushroom spawn is layered into the finished compost, the growing environment is carefully monitored through temperature and humidity controls. It takes about a month for the first harvest to appear, but mushrooms mature at different times, so hand picking continues over the course of six to 10 weeks. Size is no indication of a mushroom’s maturity.
These days, mushroom growing is a technical process, requiring computerized monitoring systems. The entire growing course, from garden to table, takes about four, highly-monitored months. Once harvested, the mushrooms are refrigerated, packaged, and shipped to various markets and processors. Pennsylvania accounts for 61% of total U.S. production, which amounted to about 827 million pounds in 2007.
Mushrooms can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week, and kept in their package until they are ready to be used. Once opened, mushrooms should be stored in a porous container, as a sealed container will promote spoilage. Before use, mushrooms should be brushed off with a damp paper towel, or rinsed under water briefly (but never soaked). Choose mushrooms that are firm, plump and smooth.
Mushrooms range in size from small buttons to large caps. They range in taste too. Some of the best-loved mushrooms include meaty, grill-able portabellos, which are actually mature criminis (the button mushrooms with a brown cap), buttery shiitakes (perfect for sauces), crunchy, salad-loving enokis, earthy, potassium-rich porcinis, and elusive (pricey) white truffles.
“Fungus is a unique category that sparks curiosity,” says Amy Farges, owner of Marche aux Delices, and author of The Mushroom Lover's Mushroom Cookbook and Primer. “When it comes to mushrooms, there are so many different shapes, flavor profiles, colors and seasons.”
Farges says that retailers can cross-promote mushrooms with just about anything, thanks to the endless recipe possibilities mushrooms provide. Mushrooms are cooked by just about every technique, and they taste great with fish, meat, starches, and other vegetables.
“Mushrooms are a great way to turn an ordinary dish into an extraordinary meal. They add mystique, glamour, and a sense of well being,” she adds.