Monday, August 10, 2009

There's a fungus among us — and we like it

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 10, 2009)

My husband is a fungi. I know - it’s a (s)poor joke, (there I go again…) but the truth is, my sweet partner of almost 40 years happens to be a big fan of edible mushrooms. That’s why he was so excited when a package arrived last week.

"What've you got there?" I asked after seeing the contents of a large box sprawled haphazardly across the kitchen counter.

"The dried mushrooms I ordered arrived!" he said with unrestrained enthusiasm.

"Oh, yeah," I responded with a tinge of skepticism. "How many mushrooms did you get?"

He handed me the invoice. On it were listed a dozen varieties of fungus with intriguing names such as matsutake, chanterelle and candy caps as well as a few suspicious culinary monikers, including one called "yellow foot."

"What kind of mushrooms are these?" I asked while examining one of the many 1-ounce packages of what looked like small pieces of brown cardboard.

"I don't know," he responded with a giddy smile. "I ordered an assortment so we could try lots of different types. Which ones do you want to taste first?"

"You pick," I said, aware that this particular pleasure was mainly his to enjoy.

We settled on a random assortment, but before any cooking could commence, the dried mushrooms had to regain their lost moisture. Ralph submerged the flat slivers in a small amount of water. Within minutes, the liquid was absorbed and cooking could begin.

He then coated a large cast-iron pan with a small amount of olive oil and added a spoonful of crushed garlic before placing the rehydrated mushrooms in the sizzling oil. A heavy, woodsy smell permeated the air. Using a spatula, he stirred the heady mixture until the mushrooms were soft and well-coated with garlic oil.

"What do you think?" Ralph asked as we began our taste test.

"Interesting," I remarked. "They're a little chewy and tough, but flavorful, too. Which ones are these again?"

We were sampling a mixture of maitake, black trumpet and lobster mushrooms.

Of the three, maitakes were the only ones we had previously tried. Ralph discovered maitakes — also known as "hen of the woods" — after reading an article about them by medical doctor and author Andrew Weil one of my husband's favorite sources of health information. His Web site,, says that "maitake has anti-cancer, antiviral and immune-system-enhancing effects and may also help control both high blood pressure and blood sugar levels."

Weil's endorsement motivated Ralph to purchase a supply of dried maitakes to incorporate into our diet. Much to the chagrin of my 17-year-old son, small pieces of the meaty, nutty-tasting mushroom were soon appearing in omelets, stir-fries, soups and just about any other appropriate (or, from Toby's perspective, totally inappropriate) meal.

Ralph's fascination with mycology more than compensates for our son's lack of interest.

Back in the 1980s, while still living on Cape Cod, Ralph traveled to Washington state to attend a weekend mushroom cultivation seminar with Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti. Stamets is a pioneer in edible and medicinal mushroom cultivation. After returning home, Ralph began growing his own crop. About six months ago, my husband repeated the process in Florida by inoculating shiitake spores into a stack of freshly cut oak logs. Thanks to the recent delivery from Oregon Mushroom, we have no shortage of other mushrooms to sample while waiting for the shiitake spores to produce edible fungi.

So far, in addition to maitake and shiitake mushrooms, Ralph and I agree that morels have the nicest texture and most pleasant taste. After working our way through each type, we'll probably reorder only our favorites.

"This was just a sampling," Ralph explained while he reorganized the remaining packages. "I just wanted to try a few different types to see how they taste."

I guess that makes him a sporadic spore-addict. Sorry, the temptation to poke fun(gi) was just too hard to resist.

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