Friday, February 19, 2010

"Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom." Thomas Carlyle

You may not believe it, but we really wouldn't survive without fungi. Often unseen, fungi are all around us and exert a powerful influence on the world. They are the major driving force of the nutrient cycle, they possess the necessary enzymes to break down tough plant material, returning the nutrients to the soil. There's hardly a natural molecule in the world for which there isn't a fungus that can break it down. Mighty trees are no match for these potent decomposers. Many plants form important symbioses with fungi, known as mycorrhizae, without which they could not get all the nutrients they need to survive.
Mushroom overlooking UWO campus, London

We are no exception. Yeasts are fungi too, and they make up an important part of our intestinal flora. You know all those Activia commercials with the happy bellies? They're happy because they're getting good yeasts that help them digest food. Yeasts are used to ferment soy to create soy sauce, miso, and tempeh. Yeast is used to ferment beer and wine. It is added to bread to make it rise. It is grown on a nutrient medium to produce nutritional yeast, an important food additive for vegans with no other means of obtaining vitamin B12.

Factoid: Fungi produce awesome antibiotics, including penicillin, which is often celebrated as one of the greatest discoveries of all time. Millions of people owe their lives to the everyday genius of a simple fungus.

Many fungi produce fruiting bodies, commonly known as mushrooms. These fruiting bodies are like the tip of the iceberg. The mushroom is used only for reproduction, the main "body" of the fungus stays in the soil, and the mushroom is akin to a flower bearing pollen. There are major biological differences in the life cycle, and the life cycles of fungi are very complex, but this analogy will do for the purposes of a food blog. Mushrooms are quite beautiful and fascinating structures. When I photograph mushrooms I often feel that I am stealing a glimpse at a magical world that is hidden away from us. Some mushrooms are so tiny, and yet to some organisms, they would seem like towering trees. Mushrooms always serve as a reminder to me that there are millions of organisms in a teaspoon of soil, a thought I find very humbling.

Sunlit Mushrooms, Ojibway Park, Windsor

It may or may not surprise you to know that only 1% of the mushrooms we know of are edible. Most of the rest are actually poisonous. According to my mycology textbook, The Fifth Kingdom, all mushrooms contain carcinogens, even the ones we eat all the time. Lucky for us these are easily destroyed by cooking them. The author warns to always thoroughly cook all mushrooms before consumption, even though they are routinely served raw. Sorry raw foodists, but it turns out there is at least one thing out there that isn't better for you raw.

Not surprisingly, mushrooms are quite nutritious. Because they are soil organisms, they are good sources of many trace minerals. They are an excellent source of selenium, an element necessary for DNA repair, thus making mushrooms a good member of your cancer prevention roster. Mushrooms are also good sources of copper, manganese, zinc, potassium, and iron [1]. And they're a good source of B vitamins to boot.

Agaricus bisporus is the species to which button, crimini and portobello mushrooms belong. Portobellos are my personal favourite because of their large cap and rich savory flavour. They easily stand in for beef in many situations because of their flavour and texture. They also pair well with the same bold seasonings usually used with beef, such as Montreal steak spice. And it just so happens that these are the focus of this weeks salad challenge.

Entrée salads became popular a little while ago when the western world became obese and realized that it needed to eat healthier. So what did they do? They created the steak salad, often smothered in blue cheese dressing. Somehow people convince themselves that since it's served atop lettuce this is a health food. But you and I know otherwise. The thing that steak salads do have going for them is that they are bold and hearty, and those are good things. I've taken that inspiration and created a healthy and vegan alternative to this entrée salad favourite.

Week 7: Montreal Spiced Portobello Steak Salad
Serves 1 for a main, 2 for a side

1 large portobello mushroom
1 roma tomato
Robust greenery such as romaine and radicchio
cucumber, radish and green or red onion slices

2 tsp vegan worcestershire sauce
(or roughly: 1 1/2 tsp soy sauce, 1/2 tsp cider vinegar, pinch brown sugar, dash garlic & onion powder)
1 tsp montreal steak spice
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp olive oil

Remove mushroom stem. Heat up a lightly oiled pan or grill to medium-high. Fry or grill mushroom cap, about 10-15 minutes per side with a splash of balsamic vinegar or worcestershire sauce. Slice tomato into 4 thick slices, add to pan/grill during last 5 minutes. Slice portobello into thin strips. Assemble salad portobello and tomato slices arranged on top.
Whisk together dressing ingredients and drizzle over salad. Top with some freshly ground pepper. Enjoy with a glass of red wine and a clear conscience.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 7 Salads left: 45


  1. Imagine my confusion when I learned that "Entrée" actually means "appetizer", to francophones (which actually makes way more sense than having it mean "main dish"). We attended a potluck and Kyle was essentially asked what the English word for "main dish" was. Well, didn't we feel foolish saying "entrée"...

  2. Hmm.. that does sound foolish. So... what do they call the main course? How on earth did we start calling the main course entrée? This is all very new and puzzling for me!