These days, almost everyone I know is talking about Fantastic Fungi, a film celebrating the role fungi play in all life on earth. Much of the film focuses on the lifework of Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti, a remarkable family-owned business in Olympia. Back in the 80s, Fungi Perfecti was The Place to get grow-your-own mushroom kits, awesome tools that got a whole generation of gardeners to begin recognizing the benefits fungi offer people and the planet. Many people, gardeners included, have been used to thinking of fungus as a problem, the curse of the kitchen and a dangerous source of diseases for people and plants. Clearly, some fungi do cause problems, but we easily forget-or never really understood-that fungi support an astonishing range of lifeforms on our beautiful planet.
Fungi themselves come in a zillion forms, far more than we have yet identified, recognized or labeled, despite knowing about thousands of fungi that nurture and promote healthy ecosystems, from old growth forests to open meadows, prairies and savannahs, even to our own personal gut flora. We’re still exploring the mycorrhizal relationship between fungi and plant roots and learning its value for the productivity of forest and farm land, an interweaving without which over 80% of trees and grasses could not survive. We rely on beneficial fungi, like penicillium molds that heal diseases, and Beauveria bassiana, a promising biological control agent for kudzu bugs, tree borers, and other insect pests. We now use fungi to produce antibiotic or antiviral compounds used in human medicine (among many other things).
Food For Thought
And of course, we eat fungi! Everywhere mushrooms grow (which is pretty much everywhere, in some form or another), people dote on them. The woods near my home are host to chanterelles and morels, matsutake and chicken-of-the-woods, all succulent and delicious seasonal treats that make their way into nearly as many meals as the common White Button mushroom found in supermarkets. Even supermarkets offer a lot more mushrooms than ever these days, from Portobello and Crimini (baby Portobellos, aka Italian Brown Field mushrooms) to Shiitake, Maitake, Enoki, Oyster and Black Trumpets. We eat fungi in sourdough and other yeast breads, and drink them, or their yeasty byproducts, as hard cider, beer and wine.
Some mushrooms also have psychoactive properties and have been used in shamanic rituals for millennia. These days, researchers are returning to valuable post-WWII work on Psilocybin, a compound found in several fungi. Long recognized as a potent hallucinogen, Psilocybin in small doses and very carefully monitored settings appears to be able to relieve debilitating depression and anxiety in people with advanced cancers. So far, many patients given such treatment experience peaceful and profound spiritual awakenings with effects lasting for months. Some researchers believe that the beneficial effects may be permanent, but recognize that few pharmaceutical companies are interested in a medication that only requires a single dose to achieve a cure. As one said, “There’s no money in that, of course.”
Truth be told, I found the conversation about the beneficial effects of Psilocybin attractive enough that, should this therapy become more widely available, I’d be very tempted to try it myself. In fact, I’d ask about a family plan, as all my relatives have been on antidepressants for decades. My kids also struggle with depression, as do I, and I love the idea that a Magical Mushroom Tour might set us-and so many others-free to fully enjoy and participate in life. As it happens, I’m far less stressed this year because my family has eagerly embraced the idea of a very low key holiday season. Instead of gifts, we’re focusing on sharing wonderful food, with zero complaints (of course the grandkids will get some gifts, but the adults have happily opted out).
In early winter, I tend to make simple, clean tasting food that showcases just a few plant-based flavors. Right now, the simmering soup pot holds a delectable melange of plump leeks and Crimini mushrooms. Another new favorite is caramelized carrot soup with roasted Portobellos and cauliflower. Bliss!
Marvelous Mushroom Soups
Thick with barley and rich with leeks, this vegan soup owes its umami-rich flavor to Crimini mushrooms and a bit of miso. Don’t mention that part; let everyone guess what makes this soup so satisfying (or leave them blissfully ignorant). As always, soup is even better the next day.
Leek And Mushroom Soup
2 tablespoons avocado or olive oil
3 large leeks, sliced into rings
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups sliced Crimini (or any) mushrooms
1 teaspoon stemmed and chopped thyme
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons miso
1 quart water or vegetable broth
1/2 cup barley
1/2 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup stemmed parsley
In a wide, shallow soup pan, combine oil, leeks, garlic, mushrooms, thyme, and salt over medium high heat until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Stir occasionally until mushrooms are well coated with oil and nicely sauteed (3-5 minutes). Mash in the miso and add the water or broth. Bring to a simmer, add barley, return to a simmer, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until barley is tender. Season to taste with paprika and salt and serve hot, garnished with pumpkin seeds and parsley. Serves 4-6.
Another new favorite is caramelized carrot soup with roasted Portobellos and cauliflower.
Caramelized Carrot & Mushroom Soup
2 tablespoons avocado oil
4 sweet carrots, sliced lengthwise into quarters
2 large Portobello mushroom caps, sliced into 1-inch wide strips
1 head cauliflower, divided into florets
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 large yellow onion, thickly sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 quart water
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped crisp apple
On a rimmed baking sheet, gently toss carrots, mushroom strips and cauliflower florets with 1 tablespoon avocado oil. Pat into a single layer, sprinkle with salt and roast at 400 degrees F. until caramelized (30-40 minutes). Meanwhile, in a wide shallow pan, combine remaining oil, onion, garlic, and celery, add 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook over medium heat until onion is soft and golden (20-30 minutes). Add water, maple syrup, and pepper, cover pan, bring to a simmer and simmer over low heat until roasting vegetables are ready. Chop carrots and add with cauliflower to the soup, then puree with an immersion (stick) blender. Cut mushroom strips very thinly and add to the soup. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve hot, garnished with chopped apple. Serves 4-6.