More mushrooms please

mushroom_bouquetFor anyone who knows me even a little bit, this post won’t come as a shock. I am a big fan of mushrooms – huge, in fact. Any types, raw, baked and stewed, a good squiggy mushroom soaking up all the flavours is all I need on a menu to make me happy. And the more unusual the better; I don’t care about the almost inevitable bit of dirt and even eat the weird and wonderful looking fungus chicken o’ the wood. I know.

It all started looking for puff balls with my mum, gran and cousin on the land by the sewage weir (see, nothing puts me off) in Worcester when I was 7 or 8 years old. We would do it every year, then cook up our findings that night. Puff balls are miraculous when you find them – huge and pure white, they are sturdy to cook with too and great just fried in butter with a cooked breakfast. Anyway, as I went about my working life and a trip to Leckford Mushroom Farm, which supplies Waitrose with its perfect little button mushrooms, grown in traditional darkened sheds in Hampshire, followed by many outings to the mushroom-packed grotto at New Covent Garden Market’s Mushroom Man, where you can find every wild and cultivated mushroom throughout the year, helped develop the obsession. Recently, a good uni friend questioned me not answering her tweet – asked if it was definitely me. She said, “it’s you: it’s all about mushrooms and feminism”. I am taking this as a good thing.

So, when the Mushroom Bureau’s Just Add Mushrooms campaign put on a mushroom masterclass with the very experienced food writer, recipe developer and food stylist, Sue Ashworth at cookery school L’Atelier des Chefs, I was there in a second. Ashworth is the hands behind all the Weight Watchers’ recipes and puts health first, but says there is no need to cut out foods (apart from reducing your red meat intake) as long as you eat often and well but don’t overindulge. “Eat food; mainly plants and not too often,” she told us, as she passed round punnets of closed-cup, chestnut, button and Portobello mushrooms picked on a farm in Shropshire that day. We set about cleaning them with our new nifty mushroom-shaped brushes (of which mine, I now have a habit of leaving in the fridge to confuse everyone, including me). Mushrooms are terribly absorbent, so washing them in water will affect how they taste, look and the way they are cooked later.

It was great having them that fresh, which has actually pushed me to another mushroom level (I’ll come to that later), and the fresher they are the more of those perk-you-up B2, B3 and B5 vitamins you’re going to get out of them. Then we set about making some ridiculously low-fat and quick 15-minute Mushroom, Garlic and Parsley Soup (also tasted great – not always a given with these things) and Oven-baked Cod on Hot Mushroom Salsa.

The Just Add Mushrooms campaign is concentrating on the types closed-cup, chestnut, button and Portobello, because they are the mushrooms mainly grown in the UK, and therefore by the Mushroom Bureau members (one day, I must be part of this almost spy-sounding venture). It seems a shame to me to miss out many of the 50 or so wild and cultivated mushrooms there are out there, to concentrate on what I would call the very run-of-the-mill types. But, according to the campaign’s research (of 1,000 people), despite consuming more than 121,000 tonnes a year here, over a third of people can’t tell the even basic mushrooms apart. Also, only half of women surveyed and nearly two thirds of men didn’t know that mushrooms count as one of your five a day and almost one in ten believed mushrooms cannot be eaten raw. I guess, until there’s a demand for more interesting mushrooms, the likes of the very puff-ball like king oyster (pictured, right, griddled with pink peppercorns and drizzled with white truffle oil) or wild trompettes, the UK producers won’t put money into getting them on the shelves. If you are lucky enough to have access to a wholesaler like Mushroom Man or a well-stocked food market, like Borough, the possibilities are endless and all mushrooms are as healthy as the next. But if you’re not that lucky, there are ways around it.

Inspired by the freshness of the Shropshire mushrooms, I got onto Sutton’s Seeds and ordered a mushroom growing set (about £10 each) for both shiitake and pink oyster mushrooms. I’ve already had my first crop of shiitake and expect 4-5 more batches, whilst the oysters have been camping out in my bathroom (concealed), as they need a little more incubation. There are lots of companies supplying all sorts of mushroom growing kits – some even in coffee substrate. My next adventure.

In the meantime, this is a healthy but full-of-flavour mushroom recipe to beat those January blues… Portabello breakfast