Phantom Thread was a sensuous, satisfying movie, and critics agreed that this was mostly because mushrooms finally got their due in popular culture. If you spent the last two decades milling around, stumbling over tree roots, wondering when fungus would appear as a key plot point in a Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle, you (we) got your wish. Mushrooms were a star. Mushrooms deserved it. They are among nature’s most inscrutable wonders. The “mushroom” we see above ground is just the fruiting body popping out of a much larger underground network of thin filament known as mycelium. One such network—spreading over four square miles, weighing over 100 tons—is considered the largest life form on Earth, bigger than the biggest blue whale. Would love to eat that champion one day. Heat it up on butter and put it on toast.
But Phantom Thread did one injustice, which was to relegate the mushroom to a [SPOILERS] omelet for sadomasochistic self-poisoning. It’s true that many mushrooms are dangerous—this post is not an exhortation to eat whatever you found growing behind the shed—but this is an unjust way to stereotype an entire kingdom on the tree of life. But the chief injustice, here in America, is that the basic-ass button mushroom continues to dominate the popular conception of mushrooms. Those pale, soulless lumps. Those sorry, cabinet-knob-looking and -tasting dullards. Fine on pizza. But if you hope to Know The Mushroom you have got to get you some umami-rich, meatily textured, aromatic and robust friends. Then give them butter and heat and then put them on toast. Be free as a vengeful Alma, and use as much butter as you want.
The king oyster mushroom, pictured above, is a solid gateway mushroom. It is larger than maybe you knew a mushroom could be. Cut it into thin strips lengthwise. It makes a satisfying, rubbery squeak against the knife. Put butter on a medium-hot pan and put the mushrooms slices on the liquid butter and don’t move them for about three or four minutes, or until it gets a nice mild sear on. Add a little salt and pepper, flip it to get some sear on the other side. And lemon and chopped parsley and maybe grate some hard cheese over it. What a breakfast you now have. Yogurt’s good on the side.
Maybe you used to pity or avoid the mushroom. I understand completely. Hard to get excited about this humble, bland, slimy eater of decaying things. But this mushroom you have just seared like animal flesh is not like those mushrooms. Prepare to be shocked at the depth of its own flavor—like a little slice of earth bacon—surprised by how spongily it welcomes in the flavors of whatever you’ve seasoned it with, and relieved by how it doesn’t immediately surrender to your teeth the way a pathetic button mushroom would. Try this preparation out with all kinds of mushrooms*, any hardy ones that can hold up to it. Notice the differences between them. Experiment with the width of the slices. Try adding herbs, like a pinch of diced-up thyme or rosemary, to flavor up the fat as you brown the shrooms. And if one day you’re feeling decadent, buy a fancy fungus like a chanterelle, which is when browned and then rehydrated with tasty liquids, and finished with butter.
*That is to say all kinds of mushrooms you buy in a store that you can reasonably trust not to sell you poison mushrooms—unless, of course, that’s what you’re into.