Becky Selengut thanks a hideous can of limp mushrooms for setting her on the path to her latest cookbook.
She was 8 years old, trying to imitate TV chef Graham Kerr’s sautéed mushrooms on toast points. She did her best with watery button mushrooms, margarine and Wonder Bread from the pantry, and her father did his best to choke it down.
As a professional chef and cooking instructor who worked at the acclaimed Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington, Selengut eventually learned just how good mushrooms can be. She celebrates their earthy complexity in Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms, a collection of recipes and basic techniques suffused with Selengut’s wit and eagerness to share kitchen skills.
The book offers a “What Shroom Are You” quiz, “nerdy factoids” and a lively introduction to basic mushroom types. One class of parasitic mushrooms survives by attempting to alter or suck the life force out of a host plant. “These sound remarkably like some people I’ve dated,” says Selengut.
She began the project to help readers navigate the broad selection of wild mushrooms now available in many groceries. She found that existing cookbooks tended to focus on cultivated varieties like button and crimini. They also leaned toward French styles heavy on butter and cream, and she wanted to offer recipes that drew on all of America’s multicultural influences.
“I love cream and butter, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “But I wanted to make a cookbook that reflects what people are seeing in their local supermarkets and what America looks like now and is eating now.”
So, along with Old-World variations like Oysters Rockefeller with oyster mushrooms, the book includes Bahn Mi Sandwiches with Red Curry Roasted Portobellos and Pickled Vegetables. And Hedgehog Mushrooms and Cheddar Grits with Fried Eggs and Tabasco Honey.
Selengut tested many recipes with her students at Bastyr University, where she taught culinary arts classes over the past several years. Her 2011 book, Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, takes a similar approach of equipping readers to enjoy simple wild ingredients.She views her books as extensions of her teaching, in which she’s invested in helping students succeed.
“You have celebrity chefs coming out with cookbooks, and I don’t think the goal is necessarily to make home cooks successful,” she says. “It’s more of an art piece. Cooking teachers who write books are in the business of making people successful. If someone tries my recipe and it bombs, that’s a huge failure to me.”
Shroom begins with a few simple techniques. Selengut says the most common mistakes for pan-cooking mushrooms are overcrowding the pan and not using enough heat, producing sad, watery results. If your pan is too small, work in batches, or roast at 400 degrees.
“Roasting can even be better than the skillet,” she says. “You get more all-around heat and better browning. And you’re not tempted to move them all the time, which slows the process down.”
The book is organized into 15 chapters that each introduce a mushroom, beginning with cultivated varieties and progressing to wild types: morels, chanterelles, maitakes, hedgehogs, porcinis, truffles and on.
Each chapter has five recipes, starting with beginner-friendly and progressing to advanced. Most cookbooks are geared to either beginners or advanced cooks, so Selengut had to convince her publisher to let her address both at once, she says.
“It’s important to me, because so many beginners want to get better and want to move on,” she says. “And sometimes chefs love doing simple recipes. I’m a professional chef, and I don’t always want to spend four hours in a kitchen.”
Through her research, Selengut learned that no mushrooms should be eaten raw, both because the taste is inferior and because they have tough cell walls that are essentially indigestible. Beyond such basics, she didn’t delve into nutritional qualities, although she learned about some from her Bastyr nutrition students. (Bastyr offers a Food and Medicinal Mushrooms course open to the public. The University is also conducting clinical trials on turkey tail mushrooms, a traditional Chinese medicine believed to have cancer-fighting properties.)
Selengut clarifies that Shroom is not a guide to foraging wild mushrooms (nor is it about hallucinogenic mushrooms, despite the title). Instead, it’s a celebration of an especially diverse group of foods, designed for both fans and fungi-phobes who may have been turned off by a sad, watery can of mushrooms.
These recipes, Selengut says, might just “convert mushroom haters and subtly, devilishly, subvert their biases through one delicious bite after another.”
Selengut shares two recipes with Bastyr:
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