Most people are familiar with the edible mushroom (fungi) varieties such as cremini, portobello, oyster, morel, porcini or button mushrooms. But did you know that in addition to imparting unique flavors to rich and savory dishes, fungi also have a range of vital roles, from recycling nutrients and helping plants draw nutrients from the soil to the development of medicines that can lower blood cholesterol or enable organ transplants? In fact, penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, is derived from the penicillium ascomycetous fungi; a mushroom.
And yet, despite these obvious benefits—penicillin has been lauded as one of the most important scientific discoveries in recent history, saving millions of lives—the mushroom is often misunderstood and even maligned. Mushrooms have been the source of fear and superstition in many cultures. In the British Isles, rings of mushrooms were traditionally thought to be fairy rings, which came with the belief that any animal that grazed there would be struck with disease. In parts of Africa, mushrooms were sometimes regarded as souls of the dead and, in New England folklore, a fungus called the “death baby” growing in the yard was considered a harbinger of imminent death in the family.
Perhaps these superstitions and darker lore are due to the fact that some wild mushrooms are, in fact, extremely poisonous. But many other mushrooms have incredible health benefits and, while often too small to be easily seen, have been critical to life on earth.
Mushrooms have been around for a long time, with scientists estimating that land fungi evolved about 1,300 million years ago, about 500 or 600 million years before plant life evolved on land and having a role in helping that evolution. And mushrooms are so densely packed with nutrients that some large animals feed on fungi as their primary source of nutrition, such as the caribou, which relies almost exclusively on tree lichens for food during the winter months when no leafy foods are available.
Mushrooms seem to finally be getting their due in recent decades as the field of mycology, the discipline of biology devoted to the study of fungi, continues to grow. In 2011, Yale students made headlines with the discovery of a fungus in Ecuador that has the ability to digest and break down plastic, and mycologists are exploring ways that mycelium (the vegetative part of a mushroom or fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments, or hyphae) can trap bacteria in contaminated drinking water, acting as a micron filter. Mushrooms are also used as the foundation for many critical drugs besides antibiotics, such as statins used to treat high blood pressure. But the importance of consuming mushrooms for everyday health still seems to be a bit slower to catch on.
To gain insight into how mushrooms can be added into everyday meals and recipes for their health benefits and immune-boosting properties, we turned to Michelle Russell and Camille Degabrielle, two Idahoans who are passionate about this powerful fungi.
Chef Russell and Degabrielle joined together to bring an expanse of mushrooms and regions of flavors to readers in a new book that is both a treatise and an homage to the mighty mushroom. Their book, Just Mushrooms: Celebrating the Future of Food, released this past November 2020, features a collection of recipes for all culinary experience levels.
“Our intention is to demystify mushrooms, while providing recipes that are fun and accessible,” said chef Russell, citing recipes ranging from American comfort food to authentic Mexican dishes. “This collection aims to inspire you with all the creative ways mushrooms can be used. The mushrooms selected for this book are generally easy to source and offer medicinal benefits.”
“Mushrooms can help with many of our most pressing issues: preventing and reversing cognitive decline, fortifying your immune system, protecting against cancers, saving the bee populations, bioremediation, and so much more,” said chef Russell.
As a food source, mushrooms are rich in the B vitamins: riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid, a combination that has been shown to help protect heart health. Riboflavin is good for red blood cells. Niacin is good for the digestive system and for maintaining healthy skin, and pantothenic acid is good for the nervous system and helps the body make the hormones it needs.
Mushrooms are also rich in Beta Glucan, a form of soluable dietary fiber that’s been strongly linked to improving cholesterol and boosting cardiovascular health. Beta-glucans occur in the cell walls of many types of mushrooms, and studies have shown that it can help your body regulate blood sugar, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are believed to be the best sources of beta glucans.
Chef Russell and Degabrielle list the potential health benefits of specific mushrooms varieties, including techniques and recipes on how best to utilize each type—including a shredding technique, a pressing method, patty making and many other ways to turn mushrooms into a savory side or your main entree. The appendix section of Just Mushrooms offers a brief introduction to the health benefits of mushrooms as a superfood, as well as a health benefit section to help explore which recipe can be used to help reduce anxiety, decrease inflammation, improve mental clarity and focus, increase longevity , protect against disease or boost the immune system response.
Both chef Russell and Degabrielle caution that their book is meant to be a quick reference, saying that a great deal more information on the mushrooms featured in the recipes, and other mushrooms, can be found by following the sources listed in the source section of Just Mushrooms. “Mushrooms provide some of the greatest hope for healing,” stated Degabrielle, “Use our book as a starting point for your own research and exploration.”
“We firmly believe that mushrooms are part of the solution to the current health crisis and many of the other crisis points for our natural environment,” said chef Russell, who suggests starting with the Lion’s Mane Pudding (great for kids!) and work your way up to Thai Curry Patties. “Our hope is that Just Mushrooms offers a delicious way to take a step towards the future of food and a more sustainable tomorrow,” said chef Russell.
Here are a few recipe highlights:
My kids drink this like soup! Besides being a holiday staple, it’s absolutely the best for biscuits and gravy! – Michelle
1 small white onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
1 tablespoon vegan butter
4 cups filtered water
2 teaspoons dried sage
1 teaspoon oregano
1 ounce dried oyster mushrooms
⅓ cup cashews
¼ cup nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon salt (truffle salt, if available)
1 teaspoon black pepper
Optional: tapioca starch
- Dice onion and garlic. Sauté in a stock pot over medium heat with butter until golden brown and aromatic.
- Add water, sage, oregano, mushrooms, cashews and nutritional yeast. Simmer for 20 minutes.
- Pour into a high speed blender and process until completely smooth.
- Return to the stock pan and allow gravy to slowly simmer on low heat for another 10 minutes. This will allow the gravy to thicken and the flavors to unite.
*If your gravy is not thick enough, make a slurry using ⅓ cup gravy and 1 tablespoon of tapioca starch. To do this scoop out ⅓ cup of gravy and stir in the tapioca starch. When thoroughly dissolved add the slurry back into the stock pot and continue to stir over low heat until the gravy reaches your desired consistency.
Why pay someone else to make your toast? There are a million ways to do this and they’re all delicious. We used a millet bread to give some heft to our toast offering. You can use any kind of bread and any variety of mushroom you fancy. – Michelle
1 tablespoon sesame oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup of chestnut mushrooms
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon maple syrup
beet sprouts, for garnish
1 large ripe avocado
bread of choice
- In a small saucepan, heat sesame oil and toast garlic on medium heat for roughly 2 minutes.
- Prepare your mushrooms by removing the rough mycelial bottom and placing the stalks and caps in the pan.
- Allow mushrooms to sweat and cook in their own garlicky goodness for 2 minutes.
- Add soy sauce and syrup.
- Cook another 2 minutes while you toast your bread of choice.
- Place mashed or sliced avocado on toast.
- Top with mushrooms and garnish with fresh sprouts.