This month, we're really into mushrooms. They're versatile (have you tried mushroom tea!?), plentiful, and flavorful, yet complementary to other flavors. We love that you can find them in most cuisines - whether that be a hearty pasta or a light Japanese soup.
To boost our mushroom IQ, we spoke with Harrison Shulman from Poplar Foods, a specialty food distributor based in Boston, MA. They deliver wild mushrooms, truffles, caviar, rare wild vegetables, and other hard to find edible products to restaurants across New England. Despite Harrison's modesty on mushroom matters, he's an encyclopedia of mushroom knowledge. We knew Harrison would have the answers to our burning questions:
I was an Environmental Studies major undergrad. I was in the seafood business after college, working for a few of the younger, more progressive distributors in the Northeast. The hours were tough, the product WAY too perishable, and the ethics occasionally challenging. Wild mushrooms have significant similarities to seafood: highly seasonal, wild products held in high regard by chefs and gourmands. The conversation I have with a chef about why striped bass should be on their summer menu is the same as why a chanterelle should be on their summer menu.
First- I'm not a mushroom expert! I'm reasonably successful at the buying and selling side of things-- when it comes to mushroom ID and other ancillary knowledge, I'm weak. With that said, different mushroom species vary- some are distributed globally, others might occur within a specific microclimate in a specific locale. If you find a white chanterelle, you know it was found proximate to the Pacific coast between San Francisco-ish and Vancouver, BC-ish. If you find a hen of the woods, you know it was found near an oak tree (most of the time). Different mushroom species (like any living thing) need certain environmental conditions to make them thrive-- In general, as long as you have the climate and host species, you can have the mushroom.
Sure- some mushrooms, like hen of the woods grow under oak trees- they will certainly take on an oak-y quality. There's a crop of matsutake mushrooms in the late fall that grows in coastal sand dunes in Oregon- when you taste them raw, you certainly get a beach-y flavor.
It's certainly not the same as Burgundy, but place certainly matters when it comes to quality and flavor.
I'm a new world wine, Japanese car kind of guy- I like high function and great value. In the US, Kennett Square, PA is the mushroom farming capital- if it's Fungi, they cultivate it, and do it well. With that said, I've been pulling a lot of wild mushrooms from Nova Scotia, and I've been FLOORED by the freshness and flavor.
I'm fascinated by their diversity, and how cultures across the globe hold them in such high regard in their cuisines and sometimes, spiritual qualities. As far as being "in love" with mushrooms, I'm not. Once you get into a car at 6am and it smells like matsutake, it's hard to turn back. That said, if you have a quartered white button mushroom on your crudite platter, you're ok with me.
I think mushroom aversion is 70% psychological, and 28% a texture (not a taste) thing, 2% may genuinely be a taste aversion. Assuming you're in the second category, modifying the toothsome texture some find offensive is the ticket.
One of my favorite things to bring to a party is a mushroom pate- I roast white button mushrooms (likely the root of a mushroom hater's aversion!) and make a not so classic, French-y pate in the Vitamix- armanac, white pepper, and Neufchatel cheese make one think of foie gras, but it's totally vegetarian. Because it's been pureed the texture has disappeared.
Second is to roast hen of the woods petals in the oven until crisp- umami kale chip kind of thing. When eating it, your mind goes more to beef jerkey and less to mushrooms.
When my wife and I host a dinner party, we want to put out delicious food but are also focused on managing dirty dishes. Last time we had a few people over on Friday night, I roasted a spatchcocked chicken and added some oyster and maitake mushrooms to the sheet tray 20 minutes before the chicken was done. They got nice and crispy, and the chicken fat and other drippings gave great flavor to the mushrooms.
It's a myth that you shouldn't wash mushrooms- they're about 92% water, so a little more water won't hurt them. BUT, if it's a cultivated mushroom and looks dirt free, go for it- no need to wash. Cultivated mushrooms come from the store pretty clean. If I purchased a dirty pack of crimini at the supermarket, I'd slosh them around in a bowl of water until all the dirt came off- wiping individual mushrooms with a brush is nonsense.
I think the real aversion to washing mushrooms with water stems from the fact that most people would throw soggy mushrooms in a saute pan after they washed them, and end up with a limp, unappetizing product. Make sure any product is dry before you put in the pan.
My wife and I have a Lagotto Romagnolo- an Italian Water Dog named Mayonaise (Mayo). Lagotti are the most ancient of water retrievers- they were historically used as bird hunting dogs. Now, they are used in lieu of pigs for truffle hunting, both in Europe and here in the Pacific Northwest. We're working with him to sniff out maitake mushrooms in the woods here in New England. This fall is his going to be his first shot at mushroom hunting, so we have our fingers crossed. If he isn't good at mushrooms, he's an excellent swimmer.