Life's too short to stuff a mushroom

The difference between everyday mushrooms and exquisite, gourmet delicacies.

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I'll play along with most games, but ask me to cook portobello mushrooms and I turn into a five year-old. "Please do something nice with these," said my mother on Thanksgiving, handing over a bag of floppy, Frisbee-sized portobellos. I shuffled toward the grill, holding the bag away from me as if it smelled.

It's not that I don't like portobellos; I've just come to regard them as the oversung heroes of strategic marketing. Next to the preformed hamburger patties at local grocery stores are packages of portobellos stuffed with goodness that could make old shoes taste better than prime rib.

The UAE's only commercial locust farm also farms mushrooms in a sparse, dank basement. If you think common button mushrooms look alike, it's because they are - at least genetically. The brown variant is also known as the brown, crimini, baby bella, or, when mature, portobello mushroom (other accepted spellings include "portabella" and "portabello"). There are so many kinds of mushrooms to love, though many are elusive and expensive: blue oyster, enoki, maitake (hen-of-the-woods), black trumpet, morel, matsutake, shiitake, fresh (not canned) straw mushrooms and, of course, the different varieties of truffle, with prices that are inversely proportional to the temperatures in which they thrive. Desert truffles, called faga'a in the UAE, are less pricey but still prized; many locals believe that they form after storms in the exact spots where lightning strikes the sand.

Duxelles, a paste of finely chopped mushrooms cooked down with butter, herbs and shallots, is one of the most versatile things a cook can have in her arsenal. With their high protein content, mushrooms make an obvious vegetarian alternative that doesn't lack in flavour or substance. The other thing mushrooms are rich in, besides protein, is water; about 90 per cent of it by weight. Kitchen wisdom has long-advised us to never wash or soak mushrooms; instead we're instructed to brush them off or pat with damp towels because this supposedly keeps them from absorbing water. Now that these myths have been thoroughly busted, feel free to wash your mushrooms if you feel like it. They will live, and so will you.

In Spanish tapas bars, meaty wild mushrooms are grilled and served with a single raw egg yolk nestled in their midst. In Mexico, mushrooms are commonly used as a taco filling. Just the other day, the smell of porcini mushrooms (cepes) sautéing with summer garlic and guajillo chile sauce made my knees weak with pleasure. It had been a while. I had gone off porcinis for years, having sliced into a whole bag of them and found them uniformly infested with worms. More judicious shoppers might have thought to examine the stalks for small holes to avoid such surprises.

In the autumn, friends hit their secret spots up in the aspen groves and come back with bags of chanterelles. Wild mushroom patches are pure gold and I've never known anyone eager to share the location of his or her "place" without the aid of a blindfold. Eating foraged mushrooms freaked me out until I felt I had sufficiently obsessed over mushroom identification guides. Although it seems like an appropriate demise for an indiscriminate glutton, mushroom poisoning is a gruesome way to go. As the American radio talk show host Bill Balance once said: "Falling in love is like eating mushrooms: you never know if it's the real thing until it's too late."