Next to fresh eggs, fresh mushrooms might well be the most fragile cargo you can bring along on a paddling expedition. But there is an easy way to bring your favorite fungi along with you: simply pack them dried.
Mushrooms have a mythical, almost magical quality to them. There's always something special, when I'm out walking in the woods with my dogs and we come across a patch of mushrooms that literally popped up overnight. Now I'm no mushroom expert, and for me, part of the mystique is knowing that they could be either delicious or deadly.
A fungus among us
A mushroom is a fungus, not a plant. Unlike plants, which rely on photosynthesis, mushrooms grow by feeding on organic matter. There are thousands of species of fungi in the world. Some people speculate that there may be more variety of fungi than there are species of animals, birds and plants combined. Only a few are edible, but if you know how to find those, the rewards are real. Mushrooms have a unique, earthy taste that adds flavor to almost any dish.
Humans have been harvesting mushrooms for thousands of years. The pharoahs of ancient Egypt thought mushrooms bestowed immortality. The Chinese considered them medicine as well as food. And since drying mushrooms is relatively easy, they were a year-round staple in many diets.
It may be tempting to pick some of the wild mushrooms you find when you are out walking in the woods to add to your favorite recipe. But since some fungi are deadly or extremely hazardous when eaten, hunting for wild mushrooms is an art or a science best left to experts. Dried wild mushrooms are readily available now in whole food stores, supermarkets or on the internet. The dried varieties have advantages over fresh mushrooms. The fresh ones only last a few days before going bad, but dried mushrooms can be kept for up to a year in an airtight container. Since most varieties are only available fresh during a certain season the drying process makes them available year-round.
A super food
The nutritional and health benefits of mushrooms are well documented. They are made up of more than 80% water, contain no fat or cholesterol, and are low in calories, carbohydrates and sodium. On the other hand, they are packed with vitamin B, and, with about 4% protein content, are among the best sources of non-animal protein available. Mushrooms contain powerful antioxidants known to eliminate free radicals, responsible for chronic diseases such as diabetes and high cholesterol, and their beta-glucans have a positive effect on the body's immune system. Research also shows that mushrooms may have potent anti-cancer activity, to help counter both breast and prostate cancer.
Cooking with 'shrooms
But the best reason to use dried mushrooms might well be for the flavor and texture that they add to your meal. When cooking with them it’s important to remember that a little goes a long way. So while they may seem expensive, keep in mind that one ounce can produce up to 10 ounces when they are reconstituted. Since their flavor is so concentrated, dried mushrooms should be treated as a spice rather than one of the main ingredients in a recipe.
It's important to wash dried mushrooms before soaking them to remove any grit. Soaking times will vary, but generally you should bring water to a boil, then place the dried mushrooms in the water for 20 to 30 minutes while the water cools. You can always check the consistency before you use them. Set aside the soaking water once you drain the mushrooms, since it is full of flavor, and can be used for cooking rice, soup or sauces.
Many varieties, one good taste
There are many varieties of dried mushrooms available. A few of the most prized include:
- Porcini: They have been a staple in Italian cooking for centuries. Great with pasta, sauces or sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Some people prefer using dried porcinis because their nut-like, earthy meaty flavor is even more concentrated. Once reconstituted, sauté for about 5 minutes, then use them in any recipe that requires mushrooms.
- Morel: Highly prized by mushroom hunters, morels provide an earthy taste just right served with beef, game or wild rice. Sauté reconstituted morels over medium-high heat in butter for about 5 minutes. Serve up warm as a side dish to meats, or on crackers as an hors d’œuvre. Many chefs like to serve morels up with cream or white wine sauce, but they are so delicious on their own that they don't really need embellishment.
- Chanterelle: With a firm, fleshy, almost rubbery texture, chanterelles are sought after for their nutty taste. Excellent as a side dish served with chicken, pork, rabbit or veal, they are also excellent with starches, grains or nuts. Once they are reconstituted, start chanterelles at medium heat, then turn to medium-high to sauté, for about 5 minutes.
- Shiitake: Often referred to as the "fragrant" mushroom because of its pronounced mushroom flavor. Great added in Oriental or vegetable soups. Also delicious in a stir fry, rice dishes, casseroles and grilled with meat. Grilled or broiled, shiitakes need a generous amount of oil for cooking.
Cream of wild mushrooms for paddlers (4 portions)
- ½ cup mixed wild dry mushrooms
- 3 cups hot water
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 cups Uht milk
- 3 tbsp olive oil (or butter)
- 3 tbsp flour
- 1 cube chicken or vegetable
- dry parsley to taste
- salt and pepper to taste
In a bowl, pour hot water over mushrooms. Let stand 20-30 minutes. Drain and keep the soaking water for the stock. In a pot, sauté the onion in the butter or in olive oil until translucent. Add mushrooms and garlic and cook over medium-high heat, 5-7 minutes. Add flour, mix well and cook 2 more minutes. Add mushroom soaking water and mix well, until it makes bubbles. Add milk and the broth cube. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with bread and cheese for a complete meal.
Dry morels and cheddar scrambled eggs (4 portions)
- ½ cup dry morels, soaked in hot water 20 minutes and drained (keep liquid for a soup or a nice grog, mixed with some broth and red wine)
- 2 dry shallots, finely diced
- 1 red bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 celery stalk, finely diced
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil or butter
- 8 eggs, beaten with 4 tbsp water or milk
- 1 cup grated cheddar
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a skillet, sauté mushrooms 5 minutes in oil or butter. Remove from pan. Add salt and pepper and let stand. Add the other vegetables to the pan and sauté until shallots are translucent, about 7-8 minutes. Pour in the mushrooms and the eggs and mix well. Don’t overcook. Add cheddar, salt and pepper, mix well and serve with toasted English muffins.