Most of us relate the word "mushroom," with a pizza topping. But it means much more than that, and nowadays the word can refer to a host of different fungi, each of which has its own unique flavor and character. Many of these wild mushrooms are extremely expensive and not easily available in the market.
There is a wide variety of appearance, taste, and texture among all the species of edible mushrooms. They have a subtle and unique flavor, but they do not contain any calories or nutritional value. Although there are hundreds of varieties, only a few can be cultivated successfully. Many flavorful ones have to be "hunted" and cannot be cultivated, because they grow only in the forest. Forests throughout North America are filled with such mushrooms, but not many people know how to seek them out and appreciate them. There are only a few species that are poisonous, but they can be easily identified. The most popular ones are chanterelle, morel, cepe, and field. Other species that are popular with gourmet chefs include black and white truffles, oyster, and shiitake.
The typical white mushrooms that are commonly found on pizzas and in spinach salads, were first cultivated in the late 1600s, using horse manure, in abandoned quarries outside Paris. The ones we see today are their descendants, and they come in various forms. Brown crimini are related, but they are firmer and have a stronger flavor. Button mushrooms are small and have a deep flavor. Cultivated ones are best eaten when the skin connecting the stem to the cap is firm and intact.
Morels can be found in abundance in Germany and France, but in North America they are available only in the grocery stores. However, morels grow in Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and most of the states in New England. All types of morels can be cooked and eaten broiled, sautéed, stuffed, in casseroles, with meat, and egg recipes. They can also be frozen or dried.
The most popular mushroom in Japanese and Chinese cuisine is Shiittake. It is grown atop the stumps of oak trees, and is excellent for preparing salads or soups. Locally grown fresh shiitake are available in grocery stores too. European cooks prefer to have it sautéed in butter alongside steaks or braised beef, but Chinese cooks like to have them stir fried. Japanese cook them tempura style, coated in batter, and deep-fried.
One of the most expensive delicacies in the country is the black truffle, which grows around the roots of the truffle oak. They cannot be cultivated and can only be grown in moderately humid climates. They grow about 20-30 cm below the surface of the ground, so they cannot be seen and must be hunted by specially trained dogs. Gourmet chefs use truffles in pates, puff pastry, scrambled eggs, various sauces, or simply sautéed in butter with white wine. When purchased in upscale grocery stores, one pound black truffles can cost several hundred dollars. They are usually sold by the gram for only two months in the summer season.
They are usually very expensive, but their value as a gourmet delicacy is indisputable. The delicate nuance of flavor they give to sauces elevates the taste of an ordinary food to heavenly delights. People who hunt mushrooms happily spend those hours in the woods, because they are fully aware about the delicious rewards their efforts will bring them.