For a humble, shade-loving fungus, mushrooms are having a day in the sun.

From a nutritional standpoint, of course, they’re a proven winner. Fat free and checking in at about four calories each, they are low in sodium and cholesterol, and provide nutrients such as selenium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin D. Mushrooms are also one of the top sources of umami, that mysterious “fifth flavor,” after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

Easily recognized in aged cheese, grilled meats, soy sauce, and anchovies, umami contributes a deep, savory “yum” factor to foods, thanks to the presence of L-glutamate, a naturally occurring compound. Chefs and gourmets have known about umami for ages: the secret key to the gastronomic bliss of, say, a perfect veal demi-glace. But until recently, scientists dismissed the notion of a true fifth flavor. In fact, it wasn’t until 2002 that researchers confirmed the presence of receptors on our tongues for L-glutamate, and agreed that when something you eat tastes really, really delicious in a way not sweet, salty, sour, or bitter, it’s thanks to umami.

Wholesome, nutritious powerhouses of deliciousness, mushrooms have one more talent hidden up their gills: As a natural, sustainable crop, their environmental impact is low, especially compared to raising livestock.

As Time has reported, “eating meat and dairy is expensive, and in a whole lot of ways. Remember, it’s not just the carbon emissions that hurt; it’s also the pesticides, fertilizers, fuel, and water needed to produce the feed for all those cows and pigs. And once that damage is done, there are still the health consequences we all face from eating too much meat, particularly red meat.”

All of this has ushered in a heyday for mushrooms as a nutritious, sustainable substitute for meat, something recently recognized by the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

For the past two years, the foundation has sponsored a contest to determine the best burger made with a beef-and-mushroom mixture. According to the James Beard website, these so-called Blend Burgers can help chefs respond to the “increasing pressure to serve healthier and more sustainable meals that reduce calories and sodium and still taste delicious.” Hundreds of restaurants around the nation are taking part in this year’s contest; among them are six Ohio restaurants, including Flour in Moreland Hills, Michelson & Morley on the CWRU campus, and The Willeyville in the Flats. (You can vote once a day through July 31 for your favorite, here.)

Spice’s Ben Bebenroth is also a champion of the humble mushroom. In fact, you could say Ben owes his career to wild fungi: He first made his name on the local food scene as a wild-foods proponent and mushroom forager, and to this day he continues to seek out elusive but delectable morels, chanterelles, and boletes from local forest floors.Field and Forest ProductsPicked Wine Cap

This year, however, he is also cultivating a native mushroom at Spice Acres, the Wine Cap Stropharia. A large, good-looking mushroom with a sturdy white stalk topped with a port wine-colored cap, the mushroom is “meaty and mild,” says Ben, with a flavor similar to a portobello. “While they aren’t full of protein, they can play a leading role in vegetarian cuisine,” he says. “They have a meaty ‘tooth feel’ that plays very well into a protein-based, center-of-the-plate dish.”

Ben also values the mushroom’s versatility. “From an economic perspective, their price per pound can be on par with beef, or even higher, and they have an amazing shelf life. You can dehydrate them and they last for months, without refrigeration. And dehydration doesn’t compromise the flavor; it may actually enhance it.”

Then there’s the environmental and ecological impact of mushrooms as a crop. According to the fungi-philes at Field and Forest Products, a supplier of mushroom spawn and related specialty products, “the wine cap is a natural soil builder, weed suppressor, and attractive landscape ornamental.” And because wine caps are native to the Eastern United States and can be found growing naturally in garden beds, forest edges, and even lawns, they are an ideal choice for small-scale cultivation.

All these factors played into the decision this spring to start cultivating the mushroom at Spice Acres. Using five and a half pounds of “sawdust spawn” — mushroom spawn mixed into a matrix of sawdust — farm manager Andrea Heim oversaw the planting of about 50 square feet of wine caps.mushroom terrace 3The planting area — a shady nook tucked beneath trees and surrounded by raspberries, blackberries, and bee hives — was chosen because it inherently supports the growth of fungi. “When looking at places to grow things, we always try to look for natural environments, where the crops can work with nature and not against it,” Ben explains.

Andrea and her staff built a series of terraces beneath the trees and topped them with three inches of wood chips. “We sprinkled on the mushroom spawn, added two more inches of wood chips, and placed straw on top. They need to be consistently moist, so if it doesn’t rain for a week, I’ll have to water,” says Andrea. “But between the shady location and the mulch, maintenance shouldn’t be much of a problem.” As the mushrooms grow, their roots, or mycelium, will spread throughout the surrounding area, ensuring more mushrooms for years to come.

“We’re not expecting a harvest until late summer or early fall, but when we start, we should be able to harvest for up to four years,” says Andrea. “What a payoff!”

Mushroom Duxelles

A fancy term for chopped and sautéed mushrooms, a duxelle is an easy and versatile way to enjoy mushrooms’ rich, earthy flavor. Long, slow cooking enhances the umami.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 to 3 cups cleaned and sliced mushrooms (wine caps, portobellos, cremini, oyster, shiitake, white, or a combination)
  • 1/4 cup finely diced shallot
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Optional Flavorings

  • 1 to 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons red wine

Directions

Heat oil in heavy pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add shallots and sauté, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, salt, and sugar, and stir thoroughly.

Turn heat down to medium. Let mushrooms and shallots cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms release their juices, usually after about 15 minutes; continue to cook and stir until the juices have evaporated.

If desired, add one or more of the optional flavorings, stir, and let the mushrooms continue to cook over low heat until that liquid has evaporated, about 5 to 10 minutes more.

When mushrooms are mostly dry, greatly reduced in size, very dark, and smell like heaven, add the butter, if desired, and stir. Cook a few minutes longer to allow the flavors to blend.

Serving suggestions

  • Serve on a slice of crusty bread as an appetizer or light entrée; garnish with chopped fresh herbs
  • Pile some onto pasta marinara and top with grated Parmesan; particularly delicious when duxelles are finished with optional red wine
  • Fill an omelet or garnish a serving of scrambled eggs; try adding some shredded Swiss cheese
  • Make a sandwich with toasted ciabatta, a heap o’ mushroom duxelles, fresh basil, and sliced brie; a slice of homegrown tomato would not be amiss
  • Serve as a side, with rice or quinoa
  • Use as a topping for burgers or steak; this is especially yummy when duxelles are made with the optional Worcestershire sauce

Find more recipes from the Mushroom Council here.