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Mushrooms – "the food of the Gods"

The month of October is mushroom month! It is the best time to go mushroom hunting and, if you know what to look for, foraging for wild mushrooms can provide you with the ingredients for an exquisitely tasty meal.

In many European countries the ability to identify wild edible mushrooms is passed down through generations. In the UK we are only just beginning to embrace the many varieties of cultured mushrooms and thankfully our supermarkets have moved on from only stocking the common button mushroom to more unusual varieties such as shiitake and oyster. There is also a greater variety of dried mushrooms available, which can be a great way of ensuring a ready supply in the cupboard to pep up a meal.

How to select, store and prepare

Always buy mushrooms fresh where possible and look for those that are firm, plump and clean. In general the darker the mushroom the older it is, and if they have been stored for too long they will become slimy and wrinkled.

Pre-packed mushrooms can be stored for up to a week in the fridge and loose ones should be kept in a paper bag or, to help to retain their moisture, placed in a dish and covered with a damp cloth. To keep dried mushrooms fresher they can be kept for up to six months in an airtight container in the fridge or they can be frozen in ready to use portions.

To prepare mushrooms they should be wiped over with a dampened paper towel. Mushrooms immersed in water will absorb it and become soggy. However if they have become dry you can soak them for about 30 minutes to rehydrate.

Packaged dry mushrooms will need to be soaked for approximately 30 minutes before cooking.

Do not peel mushrooms as you will lose some of the nutrient value and flavour. The stems and caps can be used, or just the caps, depending on the recipe.

Nutritional and medicinal properties

The Romans considered highly nutritious mushrooms the "food of the Gods" and in The Far East the medicinal properties of mushrooms have been well documented. They are an excellent source of minerals such as selenium, copper, potassium, and zinc and also B vitamins. They also contain all the essential amino acids and are therefore a valuable source of protein for vegetarians.

Mushrooms are also a rich source of plant chemicals and have been the subject of research in Japan and China for their anti-cancer properties. Research has particularly focussed on the Oriental varieties such as shiitake, maitake and reishi where they have been shown, in therapeutic quantities, to enhance the immune system. More trials are needed to confirm these results but in the light of existing research it would seem that adding them to as many of your meals as possible can only be a good thing!


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