This is the time of year when, if you hear that I got arrested and thrown in jail, it was probably for stealing some of the exquisitely gorgeous golden chanterelle mushrooms blooming on my neighbors' side yard. Now, before you say "Eww, yuck, slimy, NO!" please breathe and take a moment to release your childhood trauma related to those pathetic little canned slices they snuck into your food. Fungi, culinary and otherwise, have a lot to offer the grown-up you.
Let's try a reframe. Recently I was at a conference and met a fellow named Paul Stamets, a mycologist from Washington State. He wore a hat made out of dried mushroom slices and baggy blue jeans. He's one of those really cool brilliant people who is so deeply absorbed in his field, so dedicated and passionate that you get infected by it too. Appropriately enough, the talk he gave was in a windowless room in the basement of our fancy resort hotel.
Stamets describes the fungi as "ancestral beings." They've been around literally almost forever, and they are everywhere. Among the first life forms to appear on our dear planet, fungi can turn sawdust into soil (you find them on fallen trees in the forest, right?) but they themselves do not like to rot, so they produce an abundance of natural enzymes and anti-biotic/anti-viral substances, which you can access when you consume them.
You are probably already familiar with the consciousness-altering capabilities of mushrooms utilized in shamanic traditions around the globe. But did you know that it is possible to use mushrooms to clean up toxic waste spills? This is called mycoremediation. Fungi hyper-accumulate toxins, heavy metals, PCB, petroleum products, and chemicals and break them down into carbohydrates. After mycoremediation, there's no toxin residue left in the soil or in the
mushrooms themselves well, that's practically magic! In fact, in one charming demonstration project, where a variety of cleanup techniques were used side by side on heaps of petroleum-saturated dirt, not only did the mushroom-inoculated heap clean up best, it produced a bumper crop of oyster mushrooms, which rotted and attracted bugs, which attracted birds, which dropped seeds on the pile of dirt, which grew into little plants, and the heap became a little green oasis, and
the lifecycle started again. Stamets thinks mushrooms can save the planet and I think he might be right. How is it that you have probably never heard about this technique?
OK, so mushrooms are medicines too. Particularly the Reishi and Shiitake mushrooms (most rigorously researched, so far) and the turkey-tail mushroom that you may have noticed while walking in the woods. Used for many years in traditional Chinese medicine, extracts of these mushrooms have powerful immune-enhancing effects and show promise against a variety of types of cancer. One important feature of mycomedicinals is that they have few if any of the toxic side
effects of conventional anti-cancer chemotherapy agents and in fact, mushrooms are being studied for their apparent capacity to reduce those very side effects. Fungi are the subject of much excited scrutiny in cancer research centers around the world, with the largest body of work in China, Korea, and Japan.
Although mushrooms are quite commonplace in the cuisine and medicine of the Far East, in the United States and Europe many people are scared of them because some mushroom species are poisonous and who wants to get those by mistake? Be assured that currently the overwhelming majority of mushrooms used for food or for dietary supplements are commercially cultivated, not gathered in the wild. Because of the way that mushrooms reproduce, the offspring are
genetically identical to the parent strain not something we can say about the other plants we might consume. Please don't prance off into the woods with a baggie and collect your own unless you REALLY know what you're doing! Do consider a grow-your-own kit a wicked fun project for kids.
OK, so now let's talk food. Mushrooms are low in fat and calories, high in fiber, and are about 1/3 protein by weight. To get the health benefits of mushrooms, you need to cook them, so add your mushrooms to soup, not salad. Consider Portobellos, marinated for 15 minutes or so in your favorite olive oil vinaigrette, and then grilled or broiled for about 5 minutes per side; eat them just like a burger. Or try My Mom's Awesome Mushroom Dip (below) to grace sticks
of zucchini or celery or carrots at your next Event.
Seriously, the world of fungus has a lot to offer that is not in the least bit slimy. To learn more about Stamets, mycoremediation, or mycomedicines, check out www.fungi.com. They have mushroom art, cookbooks, playing cards, hats, T-shirts, and even a "Mushroom of the Month" club. Make friends with a mushroom there's more to them than meets the eye!
My Mom's Awesome Mushroom Dip
1 pound fresh mushrooms, chopped very fine
1/3 cup butter or mixed butter and olive oil
1/2 cup sweet-ish white wine
1 cup sour cream or 2% fat Greek yogurt
1 T minced shallots or garlic
Couple shakes of soy sauce
1/4 tsp cayenne or hot sauce (i.e. Tabasco)
Salt and pepper
Melt butter/oil and sauté the shallots/garlic. Add mushrooms and mix in the soy sauce. Cover and steam about 5 minutes till the juice comes out of the mushrooms. Add the wine and simmer till almost all the liquid is gone. Remove from heat, and stir in the sour cream/yogurt and cayenne/hot sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill to store, but serve at room temperature.