Monday, September 15, 2014

UnRecipe: White Fungus Can't Jump (but it's a good noodle replacement)

Tis the season for using the stove and oven again. And not doing the mad dance of opening all the windows around 6pm to let some marginally cooler air circulate around the house, and then by morning, shut all the windows and close the drapes, turning your home into a dark Batcave to preserve what little cool air you collected the night before. Tis the season to be easing into that glorious time of year called FALL. That being said, let's talk about mushrooms -- not the typical autumnal chanterelle or earthy morel, but the lesser known white fungus/snow fungus/silver ear fungus/white jelly fungus. Or what I call, the paleo/low-carb noodle replacement fungus. 

There's a white fungus among us - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Yeah, I know it looks like one of those dried sea sponges that you buy at some overpriced fancy store, which you never actually use, it just sits as a decorative dust collector in your seaside/lighthouse-themed powder room. I promise you, this is a mushroom, albeit dried and not yet hydrated to edible goodness. White fungus is a traditional ingredient in Chinese cuisine. It's used in both savory and sweet dishes -- given its neutral flavor, it can be incorporated into anything. I never grew up with this ingredient, my dried mushroom of choice was typically shiitake, so this was a new one for me. The texture takes some getting used to -- "jelly" is included as one of its many aliases for good reason. It has a soft, gelatinous but slightly firm texture, almost cartilage-like. Imagine a thick rice noodle soaked/cooked to Italian al dente

That being said, it makes for a tender but sturdy low-carb/paleo-ish noodle substitution when cooking Asian dishes. It won't be exactly like noodles, but it's fairly close. You won't have the long, slurpable noodle experience, the mushroom needs to get chopped into chunks for it to disperse nicely throughout the dish. If you have an Asian grocery store, you can usually find it with the other dried mushrooms, bagged right alongside familiar dried mushrooms like shiitake. Just look for the package that looks like a bag of dried sponges -- it may have a generic "dried fungus" name on it, but the packages are usually transparent so you can see what's inside. If you're in the Seattle area, there's plenty of Asian grocery stores like Uwajimaya -- I picked up mine at Bellevue's Asian Food Center, which is my go-to when I don't want to wrestle with a busy Uwaji parking lot. 

Low-carb stir fry's new BFF, the generically-labeled "dried fungus" - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I can't read any kanji or Chinese characters so the writing on the package may have been written in Martian -- I went to the Interwebs to find out about preparing white fungus. It's usually made into sweet dessert soups, which people who grew up with it either totally love or hate. If you find one of those recipes, just look at the preparation notes -- I love Jennifer Yu's Use Real Butter blog. Her recipe for Chinese tian tang (sweet soup) was very helpful in the handling of the dried white fungus. I recommend spending an hour or twelve, marveling at her beautiful photos and recipes. 

You just soak the white fungus in cool water to rehydrate - easy as that. It doesn't take long, maybe 30 minutes. The tough base of the mushroom gets cut off and the jelly-noodle gills can be roughly chopped or torn into bite sized pieces. I drain off the water and lightly pat the pieces between paper towels to remove excess water. The mushroom grows to almost twice the size once hydrated. One package of the fungus tends to get split between two different meals. 

I've made smoky pork and vegetable stir fry, tossed with the hydrated white fungus pieces at the end, right before serving. The mushroom doesn't really need to be cooked, just brought to temperature with whatever you're serving it with. It coats nicely with a thicker sauce. I initially bought it as a noodle replacement when making Pad Thai -- I've tried using cabbage as a noodle replacement, but that can get watery and too soggy. I still haven't made the low carb mushroom noodle Pad Thai yet, but when I do, I plan on making the sauce a little thicker than usual, just to make sure it sticks to the chunks of white fungus.

Rice-less bi bim bap with white fungus mixed in - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I used the white fungus mixed with other cooked and pickled vegetables in a rice-free bi bim bap. While I've done rice-free bi bim bap plenty of times, the white fungus is a nice neutral-tasting filler and the texture goes nicely with all the other vegetables. In general, I would stick to using white fungus as a noodle/rice replacement for Asian dishes. I wouldn't try incorporating white fungus with mac n' cheese. But if you happen to see this item at your specialty store, give it a try. It was an impulse buy on my part and I had to figure out how I'd be using it after the fact, but it was a great way to introduce a totally new ingredient that I normally wouldn't have tried. Here's to grocery shopping without a safety net! 

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