When asked what is my favourite vegetable sometimes I reply that it is a fresh porcino mushroom (boletus edulis), and I say this knowing very well that mushrooms do not classify as vegetables... they are fungi, neither fruit nor vegetable. But no one in New Zealand ever asks me what is my favourite fungi (they do in my village in Italy, for sure), only what is my favourite vegetable, and mushrooms are usually defined as a side vegetable (even eaten at breakfast! This thing still puzzles me).
The fact is that to me mushrooms rarely take the place of a side vegetable, but they tend to be the main player: pasta with mushrooms, risotto with mushrooms, polenta with mushrooms, mushroom fritters, mushroom burgers, mushroom dumplings, stuffed mushrooms...
For a vegetarian they substitute meat, and in the old days in my mountains in Italy they used to be called carne di bosco 'meat of the woods'.
We never bought mushrooms when I was a child, they grew all around us and we just foraged. We also dried them for winter, or preserved them in olive oil (more rarely, mushrooms may have been abundant, but olive oil was expensive).
Here in NZ only very occasionally I find field mushrooms, more rarely porcini (it happened in Christchurch once long time ago and I was the only one who ate them, everybody else watching me to see if I was going to die a painful death from poisoning).
As far as commercial varieties go, I use plenty of dried mushrooms (both porcini and different Asian mushrooms) and the usual button and portabello mushrooms that you find at the supermarket. Fortunately in recent years the interest in more 'exotic' types of mushrooms has increased and now you can find some types of fresh Asian mushrooms too, especially in Asian stores. So I was delighted when Meadows Mushrooms presented the members of the Guild of Food Writers a pack of lovely oyster mushrooms. I love oyster mushrooms and hope to find them in my local supermarket soon!
The only thing I did with these beauties was to put them in the skillet with vegetable margarine and sauté them on both sides. To make mushrooms easy to digest you need to cook them in a way that they 'loose' water, this is important with foraged mushrooms, if there is a toxic one in you mix making it 'loose water' made it edible (or lowered the risks of tommy ache). Button mushrooms and other varieties can be eaten raw, but personally I prefer them cooked. Of course if a mushrooms is deadly this cooking tip is useless, no matter how much you cook it, but this is not a problem we are facing with commercial varieties!
So, but back to cooking edible mushrooms: let them loose water, yes, but remember that generally mushrooms should not be cooked for too long or they will lose flavour too. So as soon as these oyster mushrooms looked ready to me (a few minutes) I added a drizzle of Japanese soy sauce and some lemon juice. Add more margarine too if you like, for a bit more fat, juice and taste. Serve piping hot on a bowl of plain short grain rice, drizzling the juices on top.
Photos and Recipes by Alessandra Zecchini ©