Exotic Mushrooms

Exotic Mushrooms

Remember when the only mushrooms you could buy were those little white buttons in the produce department of your local food market?

There’s nothing wrong with button mushrooms, of course, but these days, shoppers are just as likely to pick up specialty Shiitakes, Porcinis or Oysters for that homemade risotto, paté or ragu.
It’s all part of the specialty food movement that’s revolutionized home cooking. Consumers can’t get enough of these deeply flavored fungi. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sales of commercially grown specialty mushrooms in 2003-04 were $40 million, up 16 percent from the 2002-03 season.

Malcolm Clark could not have foreseen this revolution when he started cultivating the Shiitake in Toronto in 1976, the first North American to do so. Nor could he have known what success awaited him and his business partner, David Law, when they created their new company, Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc. (GMI) in 1977. The Sonoma company has boomed, riding not only the specialty food wave, but the crest of fine wine, too. Being located in the heart of Russian River Valley and Green Valley Pinot Noir country hasn’t hurt, nor has the support of many local winemakers and wine country chefs.

A visitor to GMI’s headquarters in Sebastopol might expect to see long, narrow beds of mushrooms growing inside vast barracks-like sheds, but that’s not the case. Instead, the morsels are cultivated in small plastic jars, which are filled with sawdust ground from used wine barrels. After the sawdust has been sterilized in a hot furnace, it’s packed by machine inside the plastic jars. Then, gloved workers seed the jars with one of several types of mushroom spores. Each variety is raised in a separate room, so it can have the exact temperature and humidity level it likes. When the mushrooms mature, which can take several weeks, they’re cut out by hand by workers, packaged and sold.

This is the method that Clark, a biologist and Japanophile, observed during a visit to Japan in the early 1970s, where he first became interested in mycology, the brand of botany related to fungi. The Shiitake is native to China, where it has been cultivated for as many as 1,000 years. But it was the Japanese who developed an indoor process of growing them in sawdust, under controlled conditions, and it was this technique that Clark, who is now retired, brought home and improved upon. So secretive were he and Law, at first, that it was not until recently that they allowed visitors inside GMI’s main building.

"Specialty mushrooms are unusual varieties of cultivated mushrooms," Law explains, guiding a visitor through the center’s warren of rooms. "Everything we produce is a specialty mushroom." He uses the term "exotic mushroom" to refer to mushrooms that can be harvested in the wild, but he emphasizes that not all exotic mushrooms can be cultivated in the manner that GMI has developed. There are some highly prized, wild mushrooms that will probably never be cultivated: Porcini, Chantelle, Black Trumpet and Matsutake are mycorhysal, meaning they need to grow in association with the roots of specific living plants. "That’s why mushroom foragers look for certain trees," Law adds. "They know, if they got something there last year, maybe it will be there again this year." For example, truffles—the most prized fungi in the world—grow in the presence of hazelnut trees.

Varieties of Specialty Mushrooms
The varieties of fungi that GMI cultivates and sells include Alba and Brown Clamshells, Baby Oyster Clusters, Trumpet Royales, Cinnamon Caps, Forest Nameko, Hen of the Woods (Maitake) and Pompon Blancs. Company scouts are always on the lookout for new exotics. Back in 1996, Clark went on an expedition to Nepal to collect live specimens of the Caterpillar mushroom to tinker with. Ironically, GMI no longer cultivates the mushroom that launched it, the Shiitake. Chuckling, Law explains why. "Back in ’85, there was a comic strip in the San Francisco newspaper, a family sitting together at dinner. The little girl looks at her plate, looks up at daddy, and says, ‘Shiitake again?’ That’s when Malcolm and I decided it was time to move on."

Among GMI’s clients are some of the country’s top chefs, including Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck and Charlie Trotter. Bob Engel, a former professional chef and now GMI’s liaison to chefs and vintners, says, "Mushrooms are like white meats. If you poach a chicken and put it with lemon and tarragon, it’s a white-wine chicken. If you make a coq au vin, it’s a red-wine chicken. You can move its flavor, deepen it. Same thing happens with mushrooms, which is why chefs love them."

Versatility of Cooking With Mushrooms
For example, a Trumpet Royale, brushed with butter and olive oil and grilled on the barbecue, will stand up to a big Zinfandel or even Cabernet Sauvignon. Take the same mushroom, sauté it in olive oil, then top with shaved Parmesan and serve over polenta, and it makes a nice companion to a lighter red, such as Grenache. But if you sauté it in butter and garnish with parsley and lemon juice, the Trumpet Royale will pair well with a crisp, tart Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.

Be that as it may, many chefs feel the most inspired wine pairing for mushrooms is Pinot Noir. "Mushrooms and Pinot are a wonderful combination, one to explore with abandon," declares the vintner Merry Edwards. Mushrooms have an earthy, smoky, meaty, pepper-and-herb flavor that plays well against Pinot’s silky texture and spicy-berry fruit. Indeed, "mushroom" is often a flavor descriptor used for Pinot Noir. Then too, "The subtle taste of oak enhances a mushroom’s appeal," Edwards declares. Heavier red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, seem too tannic for a delicate mushroom, unless you’re making a rich, heavy tomato sauce. And when you use bridge ingredients—such as soy sauce, oyster sauce, bacon or balsamic vinegar, that complement both the mushroom and the wine—the result can be sublime.

Every exotic mushroom has its own subtle flavor and character. Engel describes Alba Clamshells as "nutty," Trumpet Royales as "meaty" and Forest Namekos as "fruity." Winemaker Edwards once prepared a multicourse mushroom-focused dinner in which she paired each course with a different single-vineyard Pinot Noir.

This is fun, but can be overly precious for most home cooks. Even Engel emphasizes, "The mushrooms [in the recipes below] can be substituted in any recipe."

Since foraging for wild mushrooms is an activity for thoroughly trained individuals (and extremely dangerous for everyone else), the best way to explore is in the kitchen. Here are some recipes that incorporate the exotic mushrooms and wines of your choice. 

Braised Lamb Shanks with Trumpet Royale Mushrooms and Zinfandel
Braising, or cooking with moist heat after browning, is a great way to infuse flavor and  tenderize tougher cuts of meat. And there is plenty of flavor to be found in the interplay of rosemary, spice powder and assertive Zin in this recipe from Chef Bob Engel of Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
4 lamb shanks
4 tablespoons peanut or grapeseed oil
4 cloves garlic, minced (about 2-1/2 tablespoons)
2 large shallots, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 cups Zinfandel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound Trumpet Royale mushrooms, sliced
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped

Combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the five-spice powder into a paste and rub over lamb shanks. Cover with plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator and marinate overnight or for several hours.
In a large skillet, heat peanut or grapeseed oil until almost smoking. Place the lamb shanks in the oil and brown, turning as needed. When shanks are browned, transfer them to an ovenproof casserole or Dutch oven. Lower heat, add garlic and shallots to the skillet and sauté until limp. Add canned tomatoes, Zinfandel, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, and then remove from heat and pour around lamb shanks. Cover tightly.

Preheat oven to 325°F. Bake lamb shanks in oven for two hours. Check occasionally and stir in a half-cup of water at a time, as necessary to keep sauce moist. 

Meantime, slice, quarter or halve mushrooms, depending on their size. Sauté mushrooms in the remaining olive oil over medium-high heat, adding rosemary, and cook for five minutes or until tender. Add mushrooms to the sauce around the lamb shanks. Continue braising for an additional 30 minutes or until lamb is very tender.

Serve with couscous or soft polenta. Serves 4.

Wine recommendation: Since two cups of Zin are used in the recipe, there is only one ideal choice to sip with this hearty dish: A dry, balanced Zinfandel such as Optima 2003 Zinfandel, Quivira 2002 Wine Creek Ranch Zinfandel, or Sausal 2002 Century Vines Zinfandel.

Mushroom Risotto
Recipe courtesy Bob Engel of Gourmet Mushrooms. Good varieties for this dish are Trumpet Royale, Baby Oyster or Forest Nameko.

2 tablespoons shallots, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup arborio rice
4-8 ounces mushrooms, finely diced
3-1/4 cups hot chicken stock
3 ounces dry white wine
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Sauté the shallots in olive oil over medium heat for one minute, then lower heat and add the rice and mushrooms. Cook five minutes, stirring often. Do not brown shallots or rice. Meantime, heat the stock in a separate saucepan. Add the wine to the rice and mushrooms, followed by the stock, about a half cup at a time. Stir frequently as stock is added. As the risotto becomes creamy, test a grain of rice now and then. Stop adding stock when the texture is smooth with just a hint of al dente firmness at the core of the rice. Stir in the Parmesan cheese, remove from heat and serve promptly. Serves 4-6.

Wine recommendation: Try a rich, medium-bodied Sonoma Pinot Noir, not too fruity, with
an earthy, forest-floor character: MacPhail 2003 Sangaicomo Vineyard Pinot Noir, Dutton Estate 2003 Thomas Road Pinot Noir and Marimar Estate 2003 Don Miguel Vineyard Earthquake Block Pinot Noir are all fine choices.

Wild Mushroom Hunter’s Soup
This recipe is adapted from John Ash’s Cooking One-on-one: Lessons from a Master Teacher (Clarkson Potter, 2004). The original recipe was actually tossed together on a canoe trip using foraged ingredients. Do not pick wild mushrooms unless you’re an expert.
This version works equally well with store-bought exotic mushrooms.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-1/2 cups thinly sliced onions
2 tablespoons garlic, slivered
1-1/2 pounds fresh, cleaned Trumpet Royale and Alba Clamshell mushrooms, sliced thickly 1-1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, diced (or canned diced tomatoes in juice)
6 cups rich chicken or mushroom stock
1/3 cup amontillado Sherry
2 tablespoons lemon zest, finely grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Parmesan or Asiago cheese, freshly grated
Parsley, chives, basil and/or chervil, chopped

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep saucepan and cook the onions and garlic over moderate heat until they are lightly golden. While onion mixture is cooking, sauté the mushrooms in remaining olive oil in a separate sauté pan over high heat until they are cooked through and lightly browned. Add mushrooms, tomatoes and stock to onion mixture. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes. Stir in Sherry and zest and correct seasoning with salt and pepper just before serving. Serve in warm bowls or mugs, garnished with a good sprinkling of cheese and chopped fresh herbs. Serves 6-8.

Wine recommendation: The combined assault of high-acid tomatoes, lemon zest and Sherry calls for a fresh, zesty white, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. Avoid overly oaky wines. Try Etude 2004 Pinot Gris, MacMurray Ranch 2004 Pinot Gris or Selene 2003 Hyde Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. You might also enjoy drinking the same Sherry you cook with, such as Bodegas Dios Baco NV Amontillado Sherry.

Grilled Mushroom and Citrus Salad with Bucheret
This recipe is adapted from John Ash’s Cooking One-on-One: Lessons from a Master Teacher (Clarkson Potter, 2004). Any flavorful cultivated mushroom such as Shiitake, Oyster, Hen of the Woods, Portabella and the like could be used. Mushrooms can also be broiled. For the dressing the chef suggests toasted hazelnut oil, though any fragrant, toasted nut oil such as walnut, almond or pecan could be substituted. You can use any soft ripening cheese you like, but we suggest Redwood Hill Farm’s Bucheret. Good cheese shops may carry it, or you can order directly at 707.823.8299 or www.redwoodhill.com.

For the salad:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons shallots, finely minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1-1/2 pounds Alba Clamshell and Baby Oyster mushrooms
2 quarts lightly packed savory greens such as a combination of frisée, arugula and cress 
4 cups orange, grapefruit or pomelo sections
1/2 cup hazelnuts or pecans, shelled and lightly toasted
6 ounces Bucheret, sliced into 6 wedges
Savory sprouts such as daikon, corn, lentil or fenugreek, if desired, for garnish.

For the hazelnut vinaigrette:
1/3 cup toasted hazelnut oil
1/3 cup grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon brown sugar, or to taste
1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped
Drops of hot sauce, to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To prepare the mushrooms: Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, shallots, thyme, salt and pepper.  Thread the mushrooms on thin metal or soaked wood skewers and arrange on a baking sheet. Brush with the olive oil mixture and grill over moderately hot coals on both sides until tender and golden brown. Remove mushrooms from skewers and slice, if desired.

To make the vinaigrette: Whisk the oil, grapefruit juice and sugar together until sugar is dissolved.  Stir in mint and add drops of hot sauce, salt and pepper to taste.
To finish the salad: Toss greens with the vinaigrette and arrange on plates with the citrus, mushrooms, toasted nuts and cheese.  Scatter sprouts over if using and serve immediately. Serves 6.

Wine recommendation: This dish is so complex, it will stand up to a variety of wines. Put out a dry, earthy Pinot Noir, a crisp Fumé Blanc, a brut-style sparkling wine, and a rich, cool-climate Syrah, and let your guests find their favorites.

Published on November 1, 2005

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