Wild for mushrooms? Learn more about your favorite fungi

Catharine Kaufman


Marvelous mushrooms — 40,000 species in all — were once feared by the ancients as a poisonous foe. Many Roman emperors allegedly were victims of death by mushrooms, including Tiberius and Claudius, along with Pope Clement VII, Alexander I of Russia and Abe Lincoln’s mom, Nancy Hanks, who succumbed after drinking tainted milk from the family dairy cow who ruminated toxic mushrooms.

But the cultivated species of the mighty mushroom, 200 in all, approximately 20 commercially grown, is an immune-boosting powerhouse with remarkable healing properties.

Here’s the scoop on these sensational ‘shrooms.

Grey Around the Gills

The complex mushroom has a simple two-part anatomy: the underground mycelium that scouts for food for the fungus, and the familiar umbrella-shaped body or fruit called the sporophore.

A series of small gills form under the cap containing the spores that allow the mushroom to reproduce by wind scatter. In a rudimentary form, mushrooms more closely resemble animals than plants as they “inhale” oxygen for metabolic functions and “exhale” carbon dioxide as waste.

The fungal protein also mocks animal protein in its “beefy” texture and taste. Although some species are Technicolor, most come in neutral shades of cream, brown, yellow and mousy grey.

The Boons of ’Shrooms

For thousands of years, traditional Chinese healers brewed certain mushroom species as a tonic or tea to alleviate everything from migraines to sore throats. Today East meets West as modern scientists have learned to appreciate the assorted “ancient” benefits and put them into healing action. Considered “immuno-modulators” mushrooms contain bioactive compounds that regulate the immune system. They can amazingly dial-up a weak immune system compromised in its ability to fight infections, or whittle down an over-active, haywire one that causes a smorgasbord of auto-immune disorders including allergies and arthritis.

Some species have also been linked to maintaining metabolism for weight loss, shrinking tumors and putting the skids on high blood pressure.

They are anti-fungal, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial.  Mushrooms, like people, when exposed to sunlight have the ability to produce Vitamin D. So if you’re Vitamin D deficient, load up on these divine delicacies to replenish your anti-cancer Ds. They’re also packed with potassium to maintain fluid balance and healthy heart rhythm, Vitamins B1, B2, C, selenium and fiber.

Cap Care

Since mushrooms are so porous they suck up water like a sponge, so don’t wash them. Slough off any dirt with a damp cloth or a soft mushroom brush. And avoid peeling that’ll strip away nutrients and flavor. Simply trim straw-like stems and damaged spots.

Pick a Winner

Grill a beefy, buttery soft Portobello, dressed with your favorite condiments and do burger-style. Slice the pedestrian, yet popular, white button or brown Italian, aka Crimini, and top veggie pizzas, frittatas or savory tarts. Toss them in marinara sauces or salads, or skewer with chicken or shrimp.

You can sauté or roast earthy and piney Shiitakes. Oysters, Maitakes or funnel-shaped Chanterelles jazz up omelets, risottos, veggie stews, stuffings, polentas or sandwiches.

Toss tiny capped, long-stemmed Shimejis in stir-fries or soups. Fruity-flavored Enokis add a crunch to dishes or can be enjoyed raw as crudités. Rich and woodsy Porcinis do well roasted like Portobellos or diced with potatoes.



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