Monday, November 30, 2015


Seriously, I do. The fungal sponge-y growth that someone, somewhere, some time ago, thought it would be okay to eat, is one of my favorite ingredients. Especially the wild varieties, like oyster, chanterelle, lobster -- all the names that don't evoke the idea of mushroom. They're fun ingredients to work with, and while each type of mushroom has its own level of earthy flavor, it's never so overwhelming that you'll ruin a dish in the name of experimentation. So here's to mushrooms, an easygoing, fun guy to cook with. Har har.

Holy Shiitake! It's mushrooms - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I was getting my fresh mushroom fix from the summer farmers markets, namely the small producer that's right near Duvall. They farm versus forage, but you can get a nice variety like shiitake, oyster, and unusual ones like lion's mane. And they sell mushroom growing kits, which can be a fun project or a frustrating one, depending on how you are with directions and the conditions for growing. I had mixed luck with a mushroom log kit, which apparently was more fussy than the sawdust block kits. It was from Williams Sonoma. Of course it was fussy and impossible. I was able to get a few harvests of shiitake mushrooms from the log, but not before getting so disgusted by its lack of fungal growth and chucking it out into the yard. I let Mother Nature take over, aka Forgot About It, and lo and behold, we got mushrooms. Apparently my gardening style is success by willful neglect.

I've shrugged off dreams of mycological farming and just buy the fresh mushrooms when they're available and the price is right. Getting them from the farmers market, straight from the grower has its advantages. Along with a nice basket of fresh mushrooms, I always ask if they have any "seconds" to sell -- the less photogenic, but perfectly edible shrooms that don't display as nicely. They're typically half off and taste just as good.

Spicy yet refreshing -  meet ja jian mein/zha jiang mian - Photo by Wasabi Prime
You can't go wrong with shiitake mushrooms. Rich, meaty flavor, a more chewy and dense texture than typical button mushrooms, they'll happily satisfy any carnivore. I don't mind using dry shiitakes, but when you really want to showcase the freshness of the mushroom, a hearty, spicy noodle dish is nice tribute to this earthy flavored fungus.

If you go to a real Chinese restaurant -- no not the ones that sell the chicken drowning in hazard cone-orange colored sauce -- you'll likely see ja jian mein or zha jiang mian, a popular noodle dish that's a wonderful mix of spicy heat and raw vegetables. It's oddly refreshing, mostly because it usually has fresh cucumber as one of the veggies. A hot, spicy meat sauce, typically pork, gets mixed with the thinly sliced raw vegetables and a tangle of fresh noodles, and you get a simple, satisfying meal.

Mushrooms made better with lemon cucumbers - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I mixed rough-chopped fresh shiitakes with ground beef for my version of the dish. Pork is preferable, but we had a lot of beef handy at the time, and it's a fine substitute. While being an UnRecipe, the sauce or gravy is a simple mixture of meat, vegetables, aromatics, and spicy chili oils and pastes found at Asian markets. You can use this recipe from Chine Sichuan Food as a guideline, if you want to make it. When I made this batch of ja jian mein, it was summer, so I had access to seasonal vegetables like lemon cucumbers, which are especially nice if you can get them. It's more look than taste, but the light yellow skin is very tender, no need to peel it, and it's got an abundance of that cucumber freshness. Mixing that with a spicy meat and mushroom sauce, along with some crunchy carrots made me pretty much eat this all week long, damn the 90+ degree temperatures.

Pesto with oyster mushrooms and rigatoni - Photo by Wasabi Prime
So maybe that sounds too exotic or spicy for your tastes. Or you just don't like stronger-tasting mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms are delicate in texture as they are in flavor. They look like pale cream-gray velveteen UFOs. Or maybe that's just how I see them. And the underside, covered with gills, reminds me of a sand dollar. But way more soft. They're delicious, just eat them.

Eat your greens with your shrooms - Photos by Wasabi Prime
These oyster mushrooms were especially ginormous. With a light cleaning and snipping off of just the bottoms, I did minimal chopping, as I wanted them to be as whole as possible in the final dish. Sauteed with broccoli rabe and given a final toss in fresh-made pesto from a variety of garden herbs (I just use whatever I've got with a bunch of olive oil, garlic and parmesan cheese), this was a light, ladies-who-lunch kind of pasta dish. The pesto gave it great color, the oyster mushroom flavor is very mild, and it's a delicious way to eat your veggies. Even if you think you're not a fan of the fungus, give oyster mushrooms a try. They're not as toothy as shiitakes and there's no strong earthy flavor.

I love the ability to cook such diverse meals with mushrooms, you can have something from one end of the earth to the other, and your dinner table will never get boring.

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