January 2004 Edition
Wild About Mushrooms

From the ancient forest floors to the sun-drenched mountainside meadows of Europe, mushrooms are nature's own flavour enhancers. From coast to coast, restaurateurs looking for the unusual and exotic are discovering the complexities of wild mushrooms.

That's because mushrooms go with just about anything, from tuna steaks, to New York strip loin steaks, to pigs' feet or pasta sauce, and everything in between. This wonderful food comes in over thirty eight thousand varieties, with over three thousand varieties that are grown on North American soil. From the exotic and rare to the common garden variety, mushrooms offer a host of textures and tastes.

Wild mushrooms are mushrooms that cannot be cultivated as they only grow wild in fields and on forest floors. They grow in 'flushes', (emerge and reach maturity during one key period each year) and then disappear until the following year. So getting fresh wild mushrooms is a matter of timing, complicated by the fact that the length of the growing season varies from year to year. For example in North America chanterelles are abundant in fall and early winter. However there are some wild mushrooms that only bloom for a week or two, so wild mushroom hunters have their work cut out for them.

Because of their scarcity and short growing season most wild mushrooms are sold dried and tend to be more expensive than their cultivated cousins. However, for most dishes you only need a small quantity of wild mushrooms as they are much richer in flavour than fresh cultivated mushrooms.

In fact, dried mushrooms should be treated as a spice that is being added to the recipe to impart flavour, as opposed to the foundation of the recipe.

If kept in a clean dry airtight container, the shelf life of a dried mushroom is about ten to twelve months. Although not all mushrooms can be dried, some mushroom varieties actually improve with drying - Morels, Shiitakes and Chanterelles for instance.

Morels are very sought after mushrooms and are often present on the menus at five star hotels. Their earthy taste goes well with beef, and is often used in combination with white wine or cream to make a delicious sauce.

Japanese for "Oak fungus", Shiitake mushrooms have a garlic pine aroma and are delicious fried or breaded. Chantarelles are also a traditional favourite and they're gaining ground with mushroom lovers. Morels have historically been more sought after by chefs, but Chantarelles are quickly becoming the new favourites since they’re more commonly available and lend themselves to a variety of cooking techniques.

Whatever the variety, you can’t go wrong with wild mushrooms. Their flavour can enhance most any food, and they're easy to prep and easy to add to your favourite recipe.¨

Dried mushrooms are convenient and easy to use and wild mushrooms in particular, because of their seasonal availability and scarcity, are most commonly dried.

Truffles

Truffles are an underground fungi that unlike mushrooms, remain underground after maturing. They are difficult to find as they are not visible to the naked eye. In the past, pigs were most commonly used to sniff out truffles. However, dogs are now used in the hunt for truffles. Truffles have a very complex flavour and this makes them ideal for use in sauces and dishes with a delicate flavour.

Dried Mushroom Prep

To reconstitute a dried mushroom, soak in water or simmer for approximately 30 minutes (The length of time may vary depending upon the thickness of the mushroom.) Save the soaking water as it will be flavourful and can be used for soup, rice or sauces.

Types of Wild Mushrooms

Morels

Hollow mushrooms with a convoluted, elongated cap. Ranging in colour from tan to black, they impart a rich, woodsy flavour making them very popular in veal and poultry dishes. They are also highly prized as an appetizer.

Porcinis

A mainstay in Italian cuisine for centuries. These thick stemmed, broad brimmed capped mushrooms have a firm dry texture and sweet nutty taste. Add to pasta sauces or sauté with butter for an starter that is sure to impress.

Cepes

The French version of their popular Italian cousin, Porcinis. Add to pasta, sauces, or simply sauté with garlic and olive oil for a sumptuous appetizer.

Chanterelles

Delicately ribbed, golden trumpet-shaped mushrooms. They have a slightly chewy texture like other wild mushrooms, and a nutty flavour.

Oyster

Oyster mushrooms are named for their resemblance to an oyster, not because they have the flavour of oysters. These dense mushrooms have a faint anise flavour. Great with poultry, dressing (stuffings), and Asian cuisine.

Shiitake

Large and very dense, shiitakes are dark brown with a rich, woodsy flavour. The caps are often grilled whole as an appetizer or as a "Veggie Burger." Use anywhere pronounced mushroom flavour is desired.