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Why we love Mushrooms

a Hawk's Wing Mushroom found near Guanella pass.

Ok, so let’s talk about mushrooms. Love them or hate them, mushrooms have been a source of both medicine and food for much of human history. In some cultures they have been revered, while in others they are less valued, being closely associated with death and decay. Not everyone understands what a mushroom is, much less how valuable they are to us. Mushrooms are not plants but fungi, while this might seem obvious it is interesting to consider that a mushroom is more closely related to you and I than it is to broccoli. What we call mushrooms are simply the fruiting bodies of fungus, growing out of sight, either in the ground, dead matter, or whatever media they prefer.

Mushroom cultivation is extremely sustainable, requiring a fraction of the water needed for other produce, taking up less space, and utilizing upcycled agricultural waste such as compost, sawdust and manure for its growth. In perfect conditions, it is said that up to a million pounds of mushrooms could be grown on a single acre of land in a year. At Vi, of course we only use farmed mushrooms from a reputable source, but a walk around the property in the right conditions can reveal Wine Caps, Shaggy Manes, and other lesser known but delicious species.

Most of the mushrooms we eat are commercially grown and were developed from numerous wild varieties-some of which are still found in the wild. One of my favorite mushroom cultivators, is Hazel Dell in Ft. Collins, a local success story that seems to be growing in popularity faster than their ability to produce. Check them out if you ever get the chance.

Here are a few words about some of the more common mushrooms that we use here at Vi.

The common Mushroom, known to scientists as Agaricus Bisporus is so common that it's common name is simply "mushroom". This is the one you see most often. Unless a menu specifically states that a different species is used, you can assume that these are the ones. Mild in flavor, with a meaty texture and easily grown, these heroes of the culinary world are found in everything from a classic Beef Bourguignonne to a salad bar. In a stroke of marketing genius, mushroom growers started allowing their mushrooms to get larger and more exposure to the elements which resulted in a version what we know as Portobello and Cremini mushrooms. These three are the exact same species grown in different conditions, with different color and texture, as well as commanding higher prices.

Shiitake Mushrooms

Originating in Asia, Shiitakes were rarely seen in American markets before forty years ago. These are grown on the logs of oak trees and are one of the most popular “wild” mushrooms on the market. The popularity of this mushroom has led to some inferior products that are rushed to market and not properly cultivated. This is a shame because the full flavor and dense texture of a properly grown shiitake is a thing of beauty. Not surprisingly, Shiitakes pair well with ginger garlic, and soy, and given it’s heritage it is not uncommon to find in many Asian cuisines.

A wild Oyster mushroom found near Vi.

Oyster Mushrooms are (sometimes) easily found in the wild as well as heavily cultivated. Commonly found as beige or light brown, they can also range from brilliant pink to bright yellow in color. Typically grown on logs, the huge variety of this species a due in part to it’s adaptability and ability to grow in many habitats and surfaces. Oyster mushrooms are delicate in flavor, some say they are so named because of a slight oyster flavor. I have never followed this theory, I think the taste is woodsy and somewhat herbaceous, and the name probably comes from the fact that they grow in clusters like an oyster. One of the largest Oyster mushrooms I have ever seen was found by a resident in the open space near Vi, but of course the mushrooms we serve come from a reputable supplier....

King Trumpet

A close relative, the King Trumpet is the largest of the oyster mushroom genus and, unlike other oyster mushrooms, their stalks aren’t tough and woody to eat. Instead, they're hailed for their meaty texture and umami flavour. Native to the Mediterranean, they are perhaps most commonly used in Asian cuisines such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean; three countries where the mushroom is cultivated on a large scale.This impressive mushroom averages between 10–15 cm in length, has a long shelf life in the fridge (roughly one week) and doesn’t lose its shape when cooked. The texture is sometimes likened to abalone or scallops, which makes them an interesting option for vegetarians and are often billed as ‘mushroom steaks’ or ‘vegan scallops’.

Enoki Mushrooms

Another commonly used mushroom is the simple Enoki. Enoki mushrooms are a long, thin, white mushroom with a mild flavor and crunchy texture, They can be eaten raw, or cooked very quickly. They're typically sold in clusters and are used in soups, stir-frys, hot pots, salads, and other dishes. Enoki mushrooms have a mild, earthy, slightly sweet, slightly fruity flavor. Their texture is crunchy when fresh and when lightly cooked, becoming chewier the longer it is cooked. They pair well with flavors such as soy sauce, lemongrass, garlic, miso, ginger, and seaweed.

Lion's Mane

Lion's Mane is a variety of mushroom that was almost unheard of ten years ago but is now very popular. Tasting very mild, they look like a shaggy ball when growing on the side of a tree. Commonly found wild all along the east coast, they are now believed to have potential health benefits including improving memory function and reducing inflammation. One of our local growers of exotic mushrooms-Hazel Dell grows Lion's mane mushrooms that are quite delicious, but we have had trouble getting them lately.

Hon Shimeji or Beech Mushrooms are mild in aroma, but add interesting texture. The mushrooms tend to have a slight shellfish, fruity flavor. I love how they maintain their classic appearance while retaining a robust texture and standing up to cooking.oom appearance. These are grown in clusters and the thick stem is trimmed off. They are a beautiful mushroom, and are often overlooked. .

Yellow Morels

Less commonly used are Morels, the favorite of many chefs and the darling of French cuisine. These distinctive culinary champions come in many different varieties, but the main ones that we find are either Yellow or Black. Morels are very difficult to cultivate, and are therefore very expensive. The flavor is earthy like a truffle but much more subtle than that, I am always reminded of a walk in piney woods when I eat these, but for upwards of $30/pound for these seasonal beauties, perhaps I am allowed a few misty eyed chef daydreams. These mushrooms must be thoroughly cooked before eating and savored for their rarity.

Golden Chanterelles

Equally desirable and expensive, Chanterelle mushrooms are difficult to grow, as they have evolved to coexist with certain trees not usually found indoors. The good news is that when found in the wild they are abundant, but there are lookalike species that are not good for continued good health or life expectancy. As with all mushrooms served at Vi, these are purchased through a reputable vendor but are highly seasonal. The flavor reminds me of butter and thyme with a toasty, almost breadlike finish. In my experience dehydrated Chanterelles are actually better than fresh when used in stews or soups where they might be overshadowed by stronger flavors.

Just a few species of mushrooms are utilized in cooking, but mushrooms and fungi are increasingly important for agriculture, remediation, erosion control, and medicine as Turkey Tail, Reishi, and Cubensis varieties are being appreciated for compounds that may be as effective as penicillin was in the early 20th century.

Look for plenty of mushrooms on the menu, I have a particular fondness for them and I know I am not alone. As always, let me know your thoughts and if you have any dishes or varieties you would like to taste, don't hesitate to let me know.

Special Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Fessenden for the photographs and support!

Thank You!

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