Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom…Thomas Carlyle
Of all the smells of fecundity, of earth, of whispered dawn, of darkness at a somewhere depth pushing through to light, one of the most binge-worthy of harbingers (in my opinion) is that of mushrooms sautéing in butter, grind of pepper, sprig of thyme. A crush of garlic wouldn’t be unwelcome.
An elemental recipe and, more often than not, counter-melody in some larger work. Simple, humble ingredients, alchemizing, releasing odors profoundly complex: soil, and rain, and leaves, and warmth, an underlying spiciness, the memory (the premonition?) of autumn, and the promise, always and reliable, that butter whispers, round and unctuous.
In late summer we have an advantage here, in the open air markets, an embarrassment of choice: Chanterelles, girolles, cepes, bolets, pied de mouton, pleurottes, trompette de la morte, morilles, lactaires, Portobellos, and basic champignon de paris. Some I can’t recognize, but am happy to try nonetheless. All of them smelling, tasting of earth (in a good way), the way the salty, faintly sweet and metallic brine of an oyster holds the essence of the sea. But even in the spring, there’s a decent variety.
There are over 120,000 species of mushroom on the planet. About 20% are poisonous, 1% deadly, and 1% are psychoactive – the remaining 78% are non-toxic, with about 1800 species worth considering as food. Of that there are roughly 100 species that are eaten with any regularity in various cultures, and/or cultivated.
You can haul out your Larousse, Escoffier, or Julia Child, or whatever tome is usually propped up by your blender, and there are countless recipes, dictates, and admonitions about this and that, but really, all you need is butter, pepper, thyme, and time. Cast iron is satisfying – it seems to add a ‘something’ to the mix, fits in with the theme of solidity, but any old pan will do, just make sure it’s big enough so the mushrooms aren’t over crowded. This usually means the largest skillet I have, because, well, you can never have too many mushrooms, and they’ll shrink a bit (a lot) as they cook, and I always, always end up wishing I had made more. Stir them slightly, flip with the wrist, until they start to tremble and almost jump (In French, ‘to jump’ is ‘sauter’, the origin of sauté). They’ll absorb the fat, then start to ‘weep’. At some point they actually squeak a bit as you nudge them with a wooden spatula, and that’s how you know you’ve evaporated enough of the liquid – this is when the alchemy happens. As you push past 300ºF/150ºC or thereabouts, you start getting a Maillard reaction, a browning caused by the reaction of amino acids (something mushrooms are rife with) and reducing sugars. Push it a little further, 330ºF/165ºC say, and you get carmelization of residual sugars, and….you don’t really want to push it much further than that. What happens is kind of complex, but those aminos are deprotonated, that sugar is oxidized, the butter releases diacetyls and butyric acid, and the thyme and pepper dance a jig in the rising saturated steam, triggering a Pavlovian response in anyone within 100 yards. And if there’s garlic, well…the combo could probably lure sirens from the rocks. Literally hundreds of new flavor compounds are created, earthy, meaty, savoury, rich, peppery, dark, and compelling. Glutamates (in the form of guanylate) spread out across the taste receptors like a savoury army, shuffling their feet slowly, giving a lasting sensation of ‘deep flavor’. Mushrooms are champions of ‘umami’, the Japanese concept first identified in 1908 and now accepted as one of the basic flavors, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, and which can be translated pretty straightforwardly as “delicious taste”. This is serious profile, not transient, it lingers on the tongue, and develops the longer it lingers. Tastes lead to after tastes lead to after-after tastes. Not something to rush through, an exploration, crush them with the tongue against the palate, close your eyes for a moment. Enjoy.
A friend of mine, after hearing me wax pedantic about it, offered up a much more concise and equally accurate assessment, “Mushrooms get happy in the pan.”
They’re quite good on pizzas, in quiches, over pasta, tossed with grilled asparagus (another elemental flavor of Spring), or just in a bowl by themselves.
And although mushrooms do not for the most part come in the brilliant greens, purples, and reds we associate with superfoods – the vast majority tend towards pale white or shades of grey and brown, a few golden yellow, notable exceptions generally falling into the 20% poisonous to deadly category – they do pack a nutritional punch. Low in calories and fat and cholesterol-free, they contain over a dozen vitamins and minerals including copper, magnesium, potassium, zinc, a handful of the B vitamins, and selenium. They also are the single highest dietary source of ergothioneine and glutathione, two antioxidants that show promise in decreasing the likelihood of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
Not bad for something that grows in the dark.