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Off The Shelf #29: Magic Mushrooms
Not those kinds of magic mushrooms. Better, in fact.
Photo Source: Andrew Ridley on Unsplash
This is Off The Shelf - your weekly nibble of sustainability without the preaching. Subscribe to make sure you never miss a morsel.
My little poll a few weeks ago suggested that people enjoy it most when I take a particular food and dig into its sustainability. Unfortunately, when I do this, I usually find that the stuff I like the most is in some way evil. For example:
🥩 Meat production is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions
🍫 Chocolate’s production chain is rife with exploitation
🥚 Millions of eggs still come from birds in cages
It can all be a bit depressing and overwhelming. And I don’t want to be THAT guy, barging into your inboxes every week to drone on about how bad we should all feel.
So this week is different. On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I present to you a food for which we can all be thankful. One that is abundant, sustainable, nutritious, versatile and - when done right - extremely tasty.
🍄 The mushroom.
ABUNDANT AND SUSTAINABLE
There are millions of mushroom species. A recent study determined that just over 2,000 of them are safe to eat straight from the ground.
This is where I am in acute danger of falling down a rabbit hole about how mushrooms grow and how they fit into the ecosystem. There are some pretty astounding fungi facts: for instance, the largest living organism on the planet is a mushroom in Oregon, measuring about 3.5 miles wide. It’s 2,400 years old. Whole books have been written about mushrooms and how weird they are, including this one.
Mushrooms are sustainable because they require very little in the way of natural resources to produce. A kilogram requires 15 litres of water to grow. The same amount of beef requires 1,451 litres. And the land needed is tiny: you can produce about 100kg in a space roughly the size of a squash court. For beef, you’d need more than 1,700 squash courts for that much. This guide is sorely tempting me into a mushroom farming side hustle. Anyone want to join me?
And here’s the edge of another rabbit hole: mushrooms - or rather, fermenting their roots - could be key to developing artificial meat. This is a massively contentious idea, and I know a lot of my readers won’t countenance the idea of ‘fake’ meat. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. But this podcast is definitely worth a listen if you’re interested.
Overall, I think it’s pretty safe to say that eating mushrooms is a guilt-free activity when it comes to the environment.
Mushrooms are a great source of vitamin D, and researchers have found that they contain antioxidants which help fight age-related diseases. As I hurtle into my 36th birthday in January, could this be what tips me into trying Veganuary for the first time ever?
Mushrooms are also great if you’re watching your weight. They have a high water content, they’re low in calories and they’re free of fat, cholestorol and gluten. Granted, the same can’t be said for all the ingredients you’ll be adding to make them really taste nice. But it’s a healthy starting point.
VERSATILE AND TASTY
Mushrooms are magic, in that they have a strange ability to cause some people to recoil in horror at the very thought of them. There’s a conception that they’re slimy and dirty. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, they sprout from dead and decaying organic matter, but let’s gloss over that.
There are hundreds of ways to use mushrooms as the star of any main meal - they don’t just have to sit there shrivelled and unseasoned at the side of your fry-up:
🧄 Sautee them in olive oil with garlic and butter and eat them with toast (or fried bread if you really want to do business).
🧀 Finely chop them, season with salt and roast them till almost crispy, then mix them in with a risotto or linguine with parmesan, garlic and a bit of the pasta water. You can also add them to a lentil ragu for that extra bit of umami flavour. Ottolenghi is the master in this realm.
🥢 Toss them with cornflour and chinese 5-spice, and deep fry them before tossing them with sweet chilli sauce and serving them in a bao bun with spring onions.
🍤 Slice king oyster mushrooms into thick discs, score and season them, and fry them up like scallops.
The list goes on. My top tips when prepping and cooking mushrooms: firstly, don’t use water to clean them, because they’ll absorb it and this will reduce the intensity of the flavour. Instead, scrub off the earth and dirt, and get them frying or roasting nicely with some olive oil and butter. Secondly, cook them for longer than you think, and build up a nice crust on the edges. This is known as the maillard reaction, and it’s the secret behind a better flavour in almost everything. It will change your life.
Data as of 20 November 2022. Just to keep my senior politician readership out of hot water on Sunday morning TV. Price of milk represented by the average price of comparable 2-pint bottles at 5 major retailers in the United Kingdom (Tesco, Aldi, Sainsbury’s Waitrose and Marks & Spencer). Index is equally weighted and based on online prices. Methodology is purely proprietary and utterly unscientific. For actual price data that might be remotely useful for economic analysis, try the Office for National Statistics.
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