Mushrooms: Vital to Ecosystems
What speaks for the trees, has been used for medicinal purposes, and is delicious? Mushrooms! While it may seem unassuming growing on a fallen tree in the woods, most of a mushroom’s structure is hidden underground. Below the surface is a network of microscopic fungal threads, known as mycelium, which are vital to ecosystems around the world. Through mycelium, mushrooms help other plants share nutrients and communicate through chemical signals. For a deep dive into this interconnected arrangement, check out Smithsonian Gardens’ Habitat exhibit, “Life Underground”. I have always been a mushroom lover, but as I have discovered more about the roles they play in ecosystems I have become an even bigger fan of nature’s unsung hero.
Thousands of mushroom species grow all around the world. They have long been a tasty and nutritious food source to humans and animals, including squirrels, deer, slugs, and flies. While some varieties are edible to humans, others are extremely poisonous. Do not forage for mushrooms yourself; instead check out a local farmers market to purchase mushrooms that are safe for consumption.
As a vegetarian, mushrooms are usually a staple in my kitchen thanks to their versatility. From stirfrys to frittatas, or just a side dish for dinner, mushrooms are a delicious ingredient in many dishes. They can be grilled, sautéed, and even enjoyed raw. If you’re new to cooking with mushrooms, American cooking personality Julia Child can help you out. Her sautéed mushrooms in butter is a classic way to cook them. You can explore her recipe here on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History blog. When you’re cooking this recipe remember Julia’s famous words, “Don’t crowd the mushrooms!”
Mushrooms can also be preserved for use later on. Matt Burch, a construction manager for Smithsonian Facilities, recently shared a drying technique with me. He is no stranger to mushrooms as he started learning to forage for them as a kid. Since then he has become a seasoned forager, consulting many identification books and experts throughout the years. After a harvest, one of Matt’s most used ways to preserve mushrooms is through drying. For chanterelles, one of his favorites, he sets out large tables in an air-conditioned room and covers them in mushrooms. After a couple of days the mushrooms dry out and can be sealed in air-tight plastic bags or containers. Some mushrooms like morels will rehydrate after being soaked in water, while others like chanterelles can be crumbled up and used in place of seasonings. If you’d like to try these techniques, purchase your mushrooms at a grocery store or local farmers market–do not forage for your own.
In the warmer months, I often cook mushrooms by grilling them. Grilling stuffed portobellos is a quick and delicious way to prepare mushrooms. For my go-to recipe, check out this post. These mushrooms pack a lot of flavor and are a fun dish to share with others. Consider adding mushrooms to your next meal!