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It's cool and damp inside the harvesting room of Hazel Dell Mushrooms, where sprayers create a fine, pervasive mist. On row after row of shelves sit plastic bags filled with sawdust; inside the bags, fungal spawn of various kinds dream their strange dreams.
Is there any foodstuff stranger than the mushroom -- nourisher and killer, inducer of hallucination, dread or enlightenment, and, at the same time, provider of flavor in the everyday kitchen? Think of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, smoking his hookah atop a huge mushroom, bits of which Alice later eats to make herself shrink or grow. Think of the truffle, one of the most expensive and desirable gourmet treats. Mushrooms can kill, too, although experienced foragers say that's very rare. Still, in John Lanchester's novel The Debt to Pleasure, the protagonist, an expert mycologist, deliberately poisons a couple of guests with an omelette that contains death caps.
The health-providing or -destroying properties of mushrooms are still hotly argued. Some health-food fanatics avoid them because they contain large quantities of cancer-causing hydrazines (given this, as well as possible allergy problems, it's a good idea to avoid eating raw mushrooms). But in several studies, various mushrooms have also been shown to help prevent tumors, in addition to providing protection from stroke and other ailments. For this reason, mushrooms are used frequently in Chinese medicine.
Hazel Dell's mushrooms begin as mycelium in petri dishes, sending out white exploratory fingers; they're eventually transferred to bags containing a mix of sawdust and wheat bran that's been steam sterilized for several hours. James Hammond, who owns the mushroom farm outside of Fort Collins, obtains the sawdust from furniture plants. "We're the ultimate recyclers," he says. "When the mushrooms are harvested, we grind up and recompost our blocks and sell them for the garden."
Hammond grows six kinds of mushrooms, all certified organic, each demanding its own growth medium: shiitakes, oyster mushrooms, king oysters, maitakes, lion's mane, and cremini and portobello (creminis are simply smaller and younger portobellos). His ten-acre farm employs six people and processes 2,500 bags of mushrooms a week. The mushrooms are sold wholesale in Denver and directly to many Boulder restaurants, including Q's, Zolo Grill, John's and Rhumba; they can also be found at Wild Oats and Whole Foods. This year, for the first time, Hammond has also been selling his mushrooms at farmers' markets in Boulder, Cherry Creek, Longmont and Loveland.
For anyone who's only encountered exotic mushrooms wrapped in plastic in the supermarket, those from Hazel Dell are a revelation. While supermarket mushrooms are often either leathery or damp and slimy, these are firm and shapely, ranging in color from palest cream to silvery brown and smelling like a spring walk through the woods. (Hammond says he can tell when things have gone wrong in one of his harvesting rooms by the smell.) Hazel Dell also grows oyster mushrooms with lemon-yellow caps that taste faintly of cucumber -- although this is too brittle an item to ship and sell -- and others that are rose pink. Such mushrooms aren't cheap, but it takes only a few of them to add incalculable flavor to a dish.
According to the California-based Mushroom Council (www.mushroomcouncil.com), the secret to mushrooms' deliciousness lies in the glutamates they contain, since glutamates are stimulators of umami, the much-discussed "fifth taste." (The other four are sour, sweet, salty and bitter; some food aficionados suggest the addition of peppery.) It's not easy to describe umami, but when people try, they tend to use words like savory, rich, meaty, rounded and full-flavored. (Glutamate is the primary ingredient in monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a condiment as reviled here as it is popular in Asia.) The presence of so much glutamate -- along with ribonucleotides, which work synergistically with glutamate -- in some kinds of mushroom is the probable reason these fungi make such excellent substitutes for meat.
What do you do with your Hazel Dell mushrooms once you get them home? According to famed California chef John Ash, who recently gave a class on "The World of Mushrooms" at Boulder's Cooking School of the Rockies, you should store the mushrooms in paper bags rather than stifling plastic. "You can hear them in the supermarket saying, 'Help me; I can't breathe,'" he says. If the mushrooms look too wet, spread them on a baking sheet with a paper towel over them, and set them in your refrigerator to dry. Despite what most experts tell us, washing mushrooms does not make them waterlogged, Ash says, so go ahead and wash them before cooking.
You'll probably want to remove the stems from shiitakes; otherwise they'll never become tender. Ash also suggests scraping the gills from the portobellos, because they can hide sand and even bugs, have a slightly metallic taste and tend to turn rice and spaghetti dishes black.
"Mushrooms are so beautiful and flavorful," Ash says. "Once you've tasted really good ones, it's difficult to go back to ordinary button mushrooms." And if you're going to spend money on good mushrooms, you should make them the center of the meal, instead of "just whacking them up for spaghetti sauce. Cook them whole when you can, so you can preserve their exotic shapes."