Friday, May 14, 2010

He's a Real Fungi

When I was growing up, my parents were of the mindset that simply warning a child of the dangers of society is not enough. No, a far better option is to create a phobia. I will only begrudgingly go into the ocean, as the potential for a jellyfish attack is so great. Don’t even ask about hitchhikers, although my mother will gladly tell you all about that if you’re truly curious. These dire warnings even extended to the foliage in the backyard. “Don’t eat the mushrooms! You could die!” I was an intelligent child, but I was still unable to make a distinction between the wild mushrooms that would lead to my horrible and mouth-frothing death and the canned mushrooms that my mother put in the spaghetti. Mushrooms are mushrooms. Why take chances? In France, autumn brings to the forest scavengers for the best mushrooms. They then take their hard-won selections to the pharmacist, who tells them which are toxic and which are not. No, thank you. Everyone, be it a passing acquaintance or a dear friend, knows that I do not eat mushrooms. As I sat picking the mushrooms out of the above-mentioned spaghetti, my father would say, “I hope you don’t do that in public!” Well, Dad, if I’m given mushrooms in public, I will, in fact, still pick them out. If Thomas Keller handed me a plate of mushrooms that he’d sauteed especially for me, I would take a bite out of politeness. One bite. And I would probably spit it into my napkin when he wasn’t looking. I know many people who feel the same way I do, and many more who think I am crazy for the disdain I feel towards mushrooms.

I would like to clarify my true feelings toward the fungus. I am not generally offended by the taste of mushrooms. I am offended by the texture. I imagine an eyeball would have the same textural qualities. I do not eat eyeballs, therefore I do not eat mushrooms. I often make mushroom gravy to accompany meatloaf. While my dinner companions are raving about the gravy, I am busy pushing the mushrooms to the side of my plate. You know, where the parsley used to be. (Maybe I’m dating myself with that statement, but anyone my age or older remembers the sprig of parsley, and sometimes a lemon wedge, that was sitting at either 1 o’clock or 11 o’clock on the restaurant plate.) Beef bourgignon would not be the same without the mushrooms. But I don’t have to eat them. Stuffed mushrooms are delicious—I can often be found eating the stuffing and leaving the base.

“Have you ever actually eaten a mushroom?” I get asked this all the time. Yes, I have eaten a mushroom. The cause of this is usually someone who feels that they alone have the power to change my mind and cause me to love something that looks and feels like a small, spongy hat. They tell me that they can make me love a mushroom, that they have the recipe that will cause me to shout “Eureka!” and bless them and their mushroom strudel. To that I respond, “Better people than you have tried and failed.” In a battle of wills over mushrooms, I always win.

I wish I liked mushrooms. The variety is overwhelming. Wild mushrooms. Cultivated mushrooms. Dried mushrooms. Chinese mushrooms. The list goes on and on. The vegetarian option at most restaurants invariably involves mushrooms in some form. Even fast food restaurants are beginning to offer portobello “burgers”. That’s not a burger—it’s a salad on a bun. I just can’t do it. I have been told that your taste buds change every 7 years, so you may now enjoy foods that you detested a few years ago. While this may be true in some cases, my taste buds have gone through many revitalizations, and still I cannot eat mushrooms. With one exception.

I was flipping through a Japanese cookbook a few years back, when I came upon an odd-looking creature wrapped in bacon. It looked a bit like a space alien, or maybe an anemone like you would see on the Discovery Channel in a program about the weird and wonderful species living on the bottom of the Marianas Trench. But it was a mushroom. An enokitake mushroom, to be exact. I had never seen anything like it. They were so intriguing. I knew I had to find some immediately.

The enokitake get their name from the tree (take) on which they grow, the enoki (hackberry). In Japan, wild enokitake may still be found in markets. These look similar to the cultivated variety, but the caps are a darker color. In the US, wild enokitake are rarely available. The cultivated variety are much more common, with a flavor that matches the wild variety. Enokitake mushrooms are, in fact, very subtle in flavor. While often cooked in Japan, in dishes such as shabu-shabu, they are frequently eaten raw in the US. I have occasionally seen enokitake mushrooms in the supermarket, usually on the top shelf of the produce section, with many other foreign and infrequently-purchased items. They are more easily found in Asian markets. This is where I first was able to find the mushrooms. I bought them, as well as a package of bacon, so I could make obimake enoki. This is a wonderful and unusual dish that is great for parties. The unusual appearance will appeal to your guests, and the ease of preparation will appeal to you. I guarantee that even die-hard mushroom-haters will be impressed!

Obimake Enoki
Enokitake Mushrooms with a Sash
Makes 24
Adapted from The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Japanese Cooking, by Emi Kazuko (Anness Publishing Ltd., 2002)

1lb fresh enokitake mushrooms
6 strips smoked bacon
lemon wedges and ground pepper, to serve

Cut off the root part of each enokitake cluster ¾ inch from the end, making sure that you do not separate the stems. Cut the bacon strips in half lengthwise.

Divid the enokitake into 12 bunches. Wrap one halved strip of bacon around the middle of the enokitake, so you have an equal amout of mushroom showing on either end of the bacon. Tuck any short stems into the bacon . Secure the ends of the bacon with a toothpick. Continue wrapping each bunch with one halved slice of bacon. You should have 12 wrapped bunches when done.

Preheat the broiler to High. Place the enokitake rolls on an oiled wire rack. Broil for 10-12 minutes, turning as needed, until the bacon is crisp and the mushrooms begin to burn.

Remove the enokitake rolls from the rack. Cut each roll in half in the middle of the bacon belt. To serve, arrange the top half of the enokitake bunches standing up, with the lower half lying on the platter. Serve with lemon wedges and ground pepper.
Why is the mushroom the life of the party?  Because he's a real fungi!

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