Friday, January 3, 2014

Jen's Initiation into the Gorgeous World of Mushrooms

Well, not really a story so much as a fact about me: I love eating mushrooms. I've been fascinated by them since I was a little kid. I used to pick them out of the backyard and collect them in baby food jars, and leave them lined up in the little fort part of my swingset above the slide. Someone probably should have stopped me.
I was smart enough to never eat them, or I was taught well enough, but that didn't stop me from wanting to. My favorite dish when I was little was Swedish Meatballs. I also ate Cream of Mushroom soup like it wasn't something you were supposed to mix into dishes. No lie I had a thermos of the stuff for lunch like once a week for a while there.
I was obsessed with beef stroganoff. Any time I could put mushrooms on anything, I did. And when I went out to restaurants, if there was something on the menu with mushroom anything, I was all over that shit. I've had mushrooms on pizza, mushrooms on burgers, in my spaghetti and stuffed in chicken... I keep a little Styrofoam box of mushrooms in the fridge for snacking.
Image Source: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. See Also: my brain.
The problem with this mushroom love is that I've only ever had a great deal of experience with your typical, white cap button mushrooms (see? they even have adorable names. what's not to love?), but I knew there was a whole wide world of edible fungi out there somewhere, waiting for me to gnash away on it.
Enter Chronicle Books and A Cook's Initiation to the Gorgeous World of Mushrooms.

Don't call it a cookbook. 

Yes. There are recipes in this book. However, there is so much more, and the recipes are SO not the point. Calling it a cookbook would be doing this title a serious disservice. First, there's sciencey stuff. The biology of a mushroom has a lot to do with a lack of chlorophyll. In fact, mushrooms are somewhat like icebergs in that the cap is simply the fruit of a much larger living organism underground. 
Whatever you call them, mushrooms of all shapes and sizes are fascinating to look at, to study, and to 
test out in new cooking styles (so long as they aren't toxic, obviously).
Somewhat on that note, the authors are careful to warn amateur mushroom hunters against...being amateur mushroom hunters and to instead leave the finding and the harvesting to the professionals. Everyone will be significantly less dead that way.
From Amazon, A selection of the mushroom porn found within.
The concept behind the book is to chronicle the world of mushrooms, both raw and cooked, in a collection of photographs. While there are 100 recipes included in this book, there are also tons of photos, as well as cooking tips in general, and photos of tools and cleaning techniques recommended. The next section of the book is a visual index of the mushrooms primarily used in the recipes. Not only is this a beautiful collection of photographs, but it will also ostensibly come in handy while picking out specimen for the recipes themselves.
Once you've picked out your mushrooms (at the market, or the store. NOT the forest.), it's time to get cooking, and the recipes walk you through how to Choose, Cook, and Clean the mushrooms before you begin the dish proper.

These Guys Just Don't Know When to Stop...and I Love Them For It.

If this is a cookbook, then I want to see more cookbooks like it. After the recipes that have been separated by the type of mushroom found within, there are two additional sections, titled "Outdoor spores" and "Street-Style" food. The book continues on into the history of mushroom cultivation, as well as how to dry mushrooms, make preserves out of them, how to properly use truffles, and on and on and on. Somehow, even when I got to the end of this 280 page tome, instead of feeling like a newborn expert, I feel as though my training has just begun. I suppose, then, the book holds up to its titular promise of "initiation" rather than "complete lexicon". 
The included bibliography is doubly appropriate, as it serves to show where some of the research came from, and as a launching pad for my continuing trek through the "Gorgeous World of Mushrooms".

Chronicle Books' Gorgeous World of Mushrooms