Into the Wild

Solo act or starring ingredient, these types of mushrooms are plentiful for the picking

Twenty years ago, the mushrooms most commonly found in the walk-in were the same ones sold at the supermarket: the ubiquitous white buttons; darker, tastier criminis and humongous portobellos stacked helter-skelter like driftwood, their broad caps mainly destined to be grilled as vegetarian burgers.

Today, improved cultivation methods and a growing following have made once rare varieties of these spore-bearing fungus fruit widely available. 

Enoki and shiitakes are now as standard as the old-school button. Elite chanterelles, crinkly cloud ears, thumb-shaped royal trumpets and the smaller black trumpets are also finding their way onto menus. Chefs are high on lobster mushrooms and the meaty hen-of-the-woods (also known as the Japanese maitake). A full spectrum of oyster mushrooms has sprouted, clusters in shades of pale yellow, fawn gray and rose pink, looking like beautiful sonic sculptures with their hornlike fruiting bodies. Add cheesy-tasting trompettes, highly coveted morels and dried mushrooms—Italian porcinis (cepes to the French)—to the repertoire, and there’s enough variety to keep everyone interested.

“Mushrooms have limitless possibilities,” says Geoff Rhyne, chef de cuisine at Mike Lata’s The Ordinary in Charleston, S.C. “They can complement and accentuate the flavors in a dish or be the main ingredient.” 

The Mushroom Effect

Where there’s a menu, there’s usually a mushroom. Eighty-one percent of all restaurants feature dishes with mushrooms, including 98 percent of fine dining concepts and 63 percent of fast casuals, according to market research firm Datassential. 

Mushrooms pop up more often in appetizers and side dishes than entrees, according to Datassential. Oyster mushrooms receive the most love of the bunch, increasing in use by 150 percent from 2006 to last year. Harold Dieterle of Perilla in New York has featured a king oyster mushroom carpaccio as an appetizer and uses blue foot mushrooms in his fingerling and Amish cheddar pierogi starter with bacon, garlic scapes and sour cream.

Oyster mushrooms, along with maitakes and shiitakes, are marking their territory at Stars Restaurant Rooftop and Grill Room in Charleston, S.C., where the trio comprises the wood-grilled mushroom bruschetta with feta and truffle vinaigrette. This appetizer is so popular that it’s become a signature item.

“Mushrooms can be good for food costs if they are used appropriately,” says Stars Chef Nathan Thurston, adding that the bruschetta appetizer priced at $9.25 provides an above-average profit. “They can range from $4 to $50 a pound, so chefs must make sure they are considering the application.”

Pleasing Vegetarians

Mushrooms have long been a stand-in for meat, a trend that’s evolved beyond the portobello burger. 

At Philadelphia vegan restaurant Vedge, Chef-owners Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby sear whole maitake mushrooms and present them with celery root fritters and smoked leek remoulade. Mushrooms also inspired their riff on the Northern Italian standard veal tonnato, using portobello carpaccio instead of sliced veal and coarsely pureed garbanzo beans in place of the canned tuna usually found in the dish. 

No longer bit players or fallback meat substitutes, mushrooms have become menu superstars, especially in winter, when other vegetables are pricey or simply unavailable. Even devout carnivores are warming up to mushrooms dolled up in an appetizer, side dish or entree. 

“Mushrooms are very complementary to a diverse array of many popular flavors,” Thurston says. “When roasted or grilled properly, they can easily steal the show.”

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The Magic of ’Shrooms 

Mushrooms lure diners with both nutrients and timeless flavor

Nearly all mushrooms are cultivated by growers in a sterile indoor environment, which means they rarely face the contamination issues that plague other segments of the food supply. The “dirt” brushed off fresh mushrooms isn’t soil, but a germ-free growing medium. Chefs like Geoff Rhyne, chef de cuisine at Mike Lata’s The Ordinary in Charleston, S.C., who have worked on a mushroom farm inoculating logs for the fungus, can engage diners with intel about the ingredient’s backstory.

Nutrition is as important to diners as storytelling, and mushrooms are packed with a ton of it. They’re naturally low in calories and bursting with nutrients such as riboflavin, niacin, selenium, copper and potassium. A boon to hypertensives, they’re virtually salt-free. Taste varies by species, but is invariably woodsy and earthy, with notes reminiscent of barley, blue cheese and broccoli.

Chef Kevin Adey of Northeast Kingdom, a modern farm-to-table spot in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., braises orange chanterelles to form a ragu, beds them on pureed carrots and tops them with local herbs and greens to create an appetizer that reads as a both hearty salad and solid starter. “I make this recipe with the best-quality fresh mushrooms currently in the market,” Adey says.

On the West Coast, Thomas McNaughton of Flour + Water—a modern Italian restaurant emphasizing pizza and pastas in San Francisco’s Mission District—unearths an old Florentine recipe for sformato, a jiggly mass that’s like a cross between a flan and a spoonbread. While this molded dish is most commonly made with tomatoes or cauliflower, McNaughton uses hedgehog mushrooms, depositing the sformato in a Parmesan brodo (stock). At his new restaurant Central Kitchen, he uses black trumpet mushrooms to make croquettes stuffed with truffle-flecked Sottocenere cheese. 

Robert Sietsema, a longtime New York-based writer, can often be found foraging for mushrooms at the city’s many farmer’s markets.