Growing up, mushrooms were mushrooms. There was only one kind in the store: small and round, bland and boring. Button mushrooms, they were called. Or champignons, if you wanted to sound classy. A lot of people liked them, but nobody loved them. Nutritionally, they provided minor amounts of protein and fiber, vitamins and minerals. But nothing special.
So today, it’s a pleasure to see all these upstart growers bringing new varieties to market, varieties that emerge from the dark in which they’re grown in a profusion of whites and pinks, yellows and blues; amorphous and architectural, variegated and cascading, with (and without) delicate tendrils that make you want to stare in fascination, or pet them like a kitty cat.
These exotics are beautiful, they’re delicious, and they’re easy to cook. Some of them are strongly healing as well.
This article is going to focus on mushrooms that are both medicinal and culinary. In other words, we’re not going to talk about healing stalwarts like Reishi – great for you, but nobody wants to chew on a chunk of wood. The focus here, instead, is on three mushrooms you’d be pleased to see on your plate, even if they weren’t medicinal superstars.
LION’S MANE: Lion’s mane is a fantastic-looking mushroom! It does look sort of like a lion’s mane – if the lion was albino and had dreadlocks. In reality, it looks more like a sea anemone than anything else. Or the world’s tiniest balloon animal. Or Cthulhu’s pet tribble.
Lion’s Mane is one of our most profoundly restorative tonics for the brain and nervous system. In the body, Lion’s Mane stimulates production of Nerve Growth Factor, which in turn tells our nerves to heal themselves. We’ve seen evidence that Lion’s Mane may prevent and even reverse symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetic neuropathy, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative states. For example, I’ve seen it work wonders (in pills, in high doses) for post-herpetic neuralgia (the pain that lingers after a case of shingles). It may help recovery from concussion. We also see evidence that Lion’s Mane promotes wound-healing and skin health, reduces cholesterol, helps the liver, supports immunity, and lowers inflammation.
And on top of all that, it tastes like scallops.
Lion’s Mane in the Kitchen: Lion’s mane is delicate to the touch, and delicate in flavor. So be careful not to overpower it. It’s sponge-like, in the sense that it absorbs a prodigious amount of butter, if you let it. Perhaps the simplest way to cook Lion’s Mane is to slice it into flat slabs a little thicker than a pencil, and then sauté first on one side, then on the other, in butter, with a little fresh parsley or thyme. It pairs well with a lot. In particular sautéed alongside tart apple slices. Or in cream sauce, over pasta. Or in place of fried fish, in fish tacos.
You can also make Lion’s Mane Scrambled Eggs:
- For every two eggs, coarsely chop or crumble an amount of Lion’s Mane equal in size to one egg (give or take; this is very imprecise!)
- In a buttered skillet, sauté Lion’s Mane until just starting to soften and brown.
- Meanwhile crack and beat your eggs, seasoning like you normally would
- Add eggs to pan, and scramble until done.
MAITAKE MUSHROOMS are sometimes called “hen of the woods,” because they taste a little like chicken. Meanwhile in Japan, maitake means “dancing mushroom.” Looking closely, each mushroom is actually composed of clusters of dozens, even hundreds, of little caps, most of them smaller than a pinky-nail, all shuffled together like leaves dancing in the wind. Maitakes can grow as large as 100 pounds.
Maitakes are one of our deepest immune tonics. In particular, they strengthen the “hand-to-hand combat” kind of immunity that fights viruses and cancer. Maitake mushrooms have also been shown to help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol, and have mild but significant benefits for the liver.
Maitake in the kitchen: Maitakes crumble when you handle them – sometimes whether you want them to or not. This makes them an ideal addition to any recipe that would normally use ground beef or turkey. Like a Bolognese sauce, rice and beans, or cheesy enchiladas. I like to make a vegetarian “chicken soup” by adapting whatever recipe I have at hand, and replacing the chicken with equal parts chick peas and maitakes, plus a little extra oil or butter, and a little extra salt. I’ve also seen recipes that use them in place of crab, in vegetarian “crab cakes.”
You can also make Golden Roasted Miso-Maitakes
- Preheat oven to 425
- Make miso butter: combine 6 Tbsp butter with 4 Tbsp white miso paste. Set aside. You’ll have more than you need for this recipe. Save the leftovers for later!
- Toss 5 pounds whole maitakes gently with a healthy drizzle of olive or sunflower oil, and a little salt and pepper, in a cast iron skillet or other heavy-bottom oven-safe pan.
- Arrange in a single layer, dot with 3 Tbsp of the butter mix, and roast, basting every 10 minutes, until golden-crispy, about 30 minutes. Serve with even more butter if you like, and some sprinkled pine nuts.
SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS are getting so commonplace, they’re hardly even “exotic” anymore. A little thinner, a little more toothsome than standard buttons, they can be used in place of buttons in almost any recipe. You usually just have to cook them a few more minutes.
Shiitakes are another immune-strengthening mushroom, ideal to include in the diet of anyone with weakened immunity, or who just gets sick a lot.
Shiitakes in the kitchen: I like shiitakes sautéed with lots of garlic, and a sprinkle of pecorino Romano cheese. Whatever you do with them, take the stems off – they’re too woody to eat. And then save them in the freezer. When you have enough saved up, make broth.
- Add 4 quarts water to 1 quart mushroom stems. Let simmer over low heat for at least two hours. Salt to taste.
- Of course it’s much nicer if you add onion, a carrot, some thyme, other vegetable scraps, and/or some leftover chicken or beef bones.
- Strain, and enjoy, on its own, or as a deeply nourishing base for any soup or grain dish.
… Adam Stark