August 06, 2012

Mushrooms...Glorious Mushrooms...

Did you ever wonder how and why certain foods became classified as edible? For instance, who was it that first decided they would try milking a cow after watching a newborn calf suckle, reaching under, squeezing out a bit of milk from an udder and then deciding to taste it? Now that's a 'foodie!' We have many brave pioneers to thank for paving the way for the plethora of culinary excursions and delights we now enjoy.

Well, I've always wondered the same about mushrooms. After all, it is a fungus, usually found growing on or under tree roots. And, only certain ones are edible, with some psilocybic types, or 'Shrooms,' sending anyone who eats them on a psychedelic trip into mind numbing hallucinations. It has long been held that Alice's trip through the looking glass started with a mushroom. "Go ask Alice....when she's ten feet tall."

Yet others are so toxic and deadly, they can kill you with just one nibble. How did they find the edible ones? For instance, back in Egypt, who drew the short straw when, upon finding this little darling growing on a tree stump, they all looked at each other and said, "Who, me? No way! Pharaoh schmaroh, I'm not putting that in my mouth!" Did they try them on 'subjects?' Was there a checklist, so that when Harry, the tester, dropped dead after eating this new variety brought in from the forest, we documented it? Talk about a position with no job security.

Whatever the reason for trying them, thank God someone had the courage to eat these little beauties, transforming them into the well loved staple of stews, soups, and the now many and diverse applications, from liqueurs to dusts, that we all enjoy today.

What I found amazing in my research was that, most people think of a mushroom as the fungi, when it actuality it is the 'fruit' of the fungi. The mycelium , the main body, is subterranean, or lives on dead trees and living tree roots and it can vary in size from a few inches to several miles wide! When they absorb a large amount of water, they can grow amazingly fast and their fruits sprout out of the ground overnight. Have you ever woken up, gone to get the paper and gazed out at your front lawn after a good soaking rain only to be confronted with an invasion of mushrooms that have miraculously appeared overnight? Well, they were there all along! You can put that mystery to bed...I know it's been bugging you....Now you know.

These little fruits, mushrooms, are the delicacies that we humans enjoy. There are over two thousand types of mushrooms, but only 2 ½ - 5 % are edible. The rest are highly poisonous and can masquerade as the edible ones, which is why if you are going to try your hand at foraging for wild mushrooms, make sure you do it with someone who is qualified in distinguishing the real deal from the pretenders. It's a risky and sometimes fatal
business. Who would of thought of mushroom foraging as a "Deadliest Job?"

Some 'shrooms' contain enough toxins to immediately kill the person who eats them, like the Amanitas strain. Historical records reveal that Claudius II and Pope Clement VII were both killed by enemies who poisoned them with this deadly variety. Buddha died, according to legend, from a mushroom that grew underground. Buddha was given the mushroom by a peasant who believed it to be a delicacy.

Mushroom Facts
  • Mycophagy is the act of consuming mushrooms and dates to ancient times.
  • Mushrooms have been an essential in Chinese medicine for centuries, containing vitamins B, C and D. They are known to lower both blood pressure and serum cholesterol.
  • City of Hope, a cancer research facility, has suggested that mushrooms may help prevent cancer.
  • The living body of the fungus is a mycelium made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae. The mycelium is usually hidden in the soil, in wood, or another food source.
  • A mycelium may be small enough to fill a single ant or large enough to cover many acres.
  • The branching hyphae can add over a half mile (1 kilometer) of total length to the mycelium each day!
  • These webs live unseen until they develop mushrooms, puffballs, truffles, brackets, cups, “bird’s nests,” “corals” or other fruiting bodies.
  • Mushrooms grow from spores, not seeds, and a single mature mushroom will drop as many as 16 billion spores!
  • Some of the oldest living mushroom colonies are fairy rings ---> growing around the famous Stonehenge ruins in England. The rings are so large that the best view of them is from a plane. 
Mushrooms through the ages....
Dancing Shaman.
Man's use of mushrooms extends back to Paleolithic times and for the most part it seems that the first uses for this fungi was medicinal and spiritual. They played pivotal roles in ancient Greece, India and Mesoamerica. The oldest archaeological of mushroom use discovered so far is probably a Tassili image from a cave which dates back 3,500 years before the birth of Christ. The artist's intent is clear. Mushrooms with electrified auras are depicted outlining a dancing shaman.

In the winter of 1991, hikers in the Italian Alps came across the well preserved remains of a man who died over 5,300 years ago, approximately 200 years later than the Tassili cave artist. Dubbed the "Iceman" by the news media, he was well equipped with a knapsack, flint axe, a string of dried Birch Polypores (Piptoporus betulinus) and another yet unidentified mushroom. The polypores can be used as tinder for starting fires and as medicine for treating wounds. Further, a rich tea with immuno-enhancing properties can be prepared by boiling these mushrooms. Equipped for traversing the wilderness, this intrepid adventurer had discovered the value of the noble polypores. Even today, this knowledge can be life-saving for anyone astray in the wilderness.

Mushrooms, the plant of immortality? That’s what ancient Egyptians believed according to the Hieroglyphics of 4600 years ago. The delicious flavor of mushrooms intrigued the pharaohs of Egypt so much that they decreed that mushrooms were food for royalty and that no commoner could ever touch them. This assured themselves the entire supply of mushrooms. In various other civilizations throughout the world including Russia, China, Greece, Mexico and Latin America, mushroom rituals were practiced. Many believed that mushrooms had properties that could produce super-human strength, help in finding lost objects and lead the soul to the realm of the gods.

Mushroom Varieties

Black Trumpet
Color can vary from purply-gray to death-like black. Lily shaped, thin flesh, delicate taste. Available fresh fall through spring.


Bland taste compared to other mushrooms. Available fresh year round.

Also called Polish, Porcini or King Bolete. Bulbous stem with brown, rounded cap. Rich, musty flavor and very perishable. Available fresh in fall, dried and frozen year round.

Curved trumpet or vase shape, color varies from bright orange to apricot gold. Some say it imparts the smell of apricots. Available fresh during fall and winter, dried year round.

Cremini, Button and Portabellas are related. Cremini looks like a button, but is a bit larger with a brown cap. When growth is unchecked, it becomes a Portabella with more complex flavor and texture.

Dainty, Q-Tip shaped. Cultivated and available fresh year round.

Squash colored and slightly bitter tasting. Substitute for Chanterelles. Trim stems. Hedgehogs have small “teeth” on gills and break off in other foods, leaving gold flecks.

Also called Pine mushroom. Spicy, woody flavor. Available fresh in fall.

Spongy looking but hollow. Color is tan to dark brown. Intense, earthy flavor. Available fresh in spring, dried year round.

Cultivated, fan-shaped. Color varies from light tan to gray. Mild flavor. Available fresh year round.

Also called Chinese, Black Forest or Oak mushrooms. Chocolate brown, fibrous, woody stems. Available fresh and dried year round.

Rubbery texture, flat, woodsy aroma. Imported from China. Available dried year round.


Fragrant member of Chanterelle family. Gray-brown color with muted gold stem. High water content.

Earth's Largest living Organism...The Honey Mushroom
People have known about the "honey mushroom" for some time, but were not aware of how large and invasive this species of fungus could be. The fungus was investigated more closely by researchers when they realized that it was responsible for killing large groves of evergreen trees. When foresters cut into an infected tree they would find spreading white filaments, mycelia, which draw water and carbohydrates from the tree to feed the fungus.

Researchers collected samples of the fungus from a widespread area and analyzed the DNA. A large sample of the specimens they collected turned out to be from a single organism. Until August of 2000 it was thought that the largest living organism was a fungus of the same species (Armillaria ostoyae) that covered 1,500 acres (600 hectares) found living in the state of Washington.

Mycology experts surmised that if an Armillaria that large could be found in Washington, then perhaps one just as large could be responsible for the trees dying in the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. Researchers were astonished at the sheer magnitude of the find. This most recent find was estimated to cover over 2,200 acres (890 hectares) and be at least 2,400 years old, possibly older.

To go into the forest where this giant makes its home you would not look at it and see a huge, looming mushroom. Armillaria grows and spreads primarily underground and the sheer bulk of this organism lies in the earth, out of sight. Occasionally, during the fall season, this specimen will send up golden-colored "honey mushrooms" that are the visible evidence of its hulking mass beneath. Scientists have not yet begun to attempt to estimate the weight of this specimen of Armillaria.

Well there you have it, mushrooms in all their glorious forms. Hope you enjoyed it. After all. what's a little fungus among friends,?

Bon Appetit,

August 01, 2012

Chef Michael Colletti: The Whitehouse, Wutang & Grilled Octopus...a recipe for success....

Chef Michael Colletti began his culinary journey at a young age growing up watching his grandparents and father, who migrated from Sicily, preparing the family recipes with home grown ingredients. Delicacies, such as figs, cardoons and persimmons. He remembers, "I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother or my father, or in the garden with my grandfather. You know it's funny, we ate back then the way people are eating now, farm to table. Whatever my grandfather was growing, or whatever was in season, that's what we ate. At Easter, my grandfather would be in the basement butchering a goat to breakdown for Easter dinner. I always had a love for food and culture and of course, eating," he laughs.

Michael's first culinary job was into the family business. His father owned a bagel shop and he studied bagel-making at his father’s side, also doubling as a short order cook. He then learned more about the hospitality business at his cousin's pizzeria, Villa Borghese. The discovery of his natural palate and affinity for cooking led him to attend the Culinary Education Center in Asbury Park, NJ.

I asked him what led him to the Asbury Park school. He stated, "Well, I applied and was accepted at Johnston & Wales, but just before I started school my dad passed away and I just couldn't leave my mom all alone, "he remembered, "I transferred to the Education Center in Asbury Park so I could stay at home and be there for her. Once I got out in the work force, I realized, after having worked alongside those who attended so called 'more formal' culinary schools, we all learn the same basics, no matter the school. And truly, school only teaches you the basics, we chefs all learn by getting on the line at a busy restaurant and getting our asses kicked."

"My first real restaurant gig outside the pizzeria,' he explained, "was a restaurant called Aqua in Bound Brook. I was basically moving from station to station. I then moved myself up to Sous Chef. Brian Walter was the head chef, he had just come from Le Cirque, and we received 4 stars from the Star Ledger. We did great Italian food with French technique. All homemade pasta, super seasonal, super fresh." I asked him what was the biggest thing he learned from his first true commercial kitchen. He answered immediately, "Speed and organization." I then asked him what surprised him the most going from his cousin's pizzeria kitchen to Aqua. "Doing 200 covers and having to get the food out." he laughed, "You were responsible for your station and you needed to be on your game and get your food out. But, it prepared me for for my next gig, so it was a good first experience."

From Aqua, Colletti then moved on to work with New York restaurant icon Sirio Maccioni of the world renowned Le Cirque. Not bad for a young chef's second gig. He expounded on the experience of working in the high profile restaurant's kitchen. "At Le Cirque, it was a bit more slow paced, but much more exacting with regard to technique and presentation. I learned a lot about the science behind food and it made me more detailed. Sirio is old school, so I learned about the tried and true ways to prepare food. It was there that I met Spike Mendelsohn. We worked side by side and really got along well. Spike decided to move on to a new restaurant being opened by Drew Nieporent and Michael Bao, Mai House, also in NYC."

He explains, "I did not really know much about Vietnamese cuisine and I thought, you know, always thinking of building up my resume and experience as a chef, that this would be a great opportunity to expand my knowledge." During Chef Colletti’s tenure as Chef de Cuisine at Mai House, the restaurant was awarded two stars by Frank Bruni of The New York Times and named among the Top 10 Best Restaurants in New York City by The New York Times. He spent more than two years at Mai House; during which Colletti traveled throughout Vietnam for several months to study the local food and culture and was chosen to guest chef at the 5-Star Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He talked about the experience.

Chef Colletti's Day Boat Scallops
"When you go to any place, to cook like the locals and learn the why of the food, once you come back, you have such a better understanding of the cuisine and the culture, it broadens your base. When you are there, you see them making rice paper, you're going to that stall and you're learning. I was there for three months and it was almost overwhelming. You eat so much," he laughs, "cause you don't want to miss a bite." I asked him what was the most memorable experience being there. He responded, "The freshness! You're at a stand, eating clams that just came out of the water, right there on the beach. It's a total immersion into the everyday lives of these people and it all revolves around the freshest ingredients, the freshest food. And simple, not complicated. The food speaks for itself." 

After five years in New York, he decided to join Mendelsohn in Washington D.C. at the Sunnyside Group. There he would play a vital role in the conceptualization of Chef Mendelsohn's restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery, located in Capitol Hill. He explained, "Spike's parents opened up a spot in DC and Spike asked me to join him. I was really into the conceptualization of the place. The decor, the menu building." During this time Spike gained national acclaim with his being on TV. With the national success of Good Stuff Eatery, Chef Colletti was invited to participate in Food Network’s 2009 Food & Wine Festival's “Rachel Ray Burger Bash,” in both Miami and New York, where he earned back-to-back victories for his creation of the “Colletti Smokehouse Burger." Food Network then invited Chef Mendelssohn and Chef Colletti to compete in an episode of Iron Chef America, where they would “Battle Prosciutto” versus Chef Michael Symon. The episode that aired in March 2010.

Chef Colletti was then given responsibility for opening and overseeing operations at the second Spike Mendelsohn venture, We, The Pizza, also in Capitol Hill. It became an instant sensation and within three months of opening was voted one of the “Top 50 Best Pizzerias in America” by USA TODAY.

First Lady Michelle Obama, a frequent visitor and supporter of both restaurants, requested Chef Colletti participate in preparing several White House luncheons serving the President and staff members. Through this affiliation, he became part of the “Lets Move!” campaign created by Mrs. Obama to combat childhood obesity. In addition, while living in Washington, D.C., Chef Colletti was proud to be involved with Horton’s Kids Foundation and D.C. Central Kitchen. As a result of his supportive efforts, Chef Colletti was asked to attend the 2011 Capitol Food Fight, in which he was awarded second place by celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio and José Andrés.

After three successful years in Washington, D.C., he decided to move back to his home state of New Jersey to pursue his own restaurant vision with his cousins. The resulting collaboration is VB3 Restaurant and Bar  located in Jersey City in The Monaco, a luxury apartment building on  Jersey City's waterfront. Carrying on the important garden to table tradition of his family, the restaurant features Chef Colletti’s creative, Modern Seasonal Italian cuisine, based on family recipes using locally-sourced ingredients. "From the moment I decided to do this it was a blast," he said excitedly. "My own concepts, my own menu, falling back on my roots and my heritage. Taking the old Italian classics and making them into this modern cuisine, using French techniques." He continued. "I was thrilled to be back in NJ. It's my home. Friends and family are here. My roots."

About the VB3 direction and concept he told me, "We spent a lot of time figuring out the concept," he continued, "what the area  needed. We decided on serious food with serious nightlife. VB3 has 80 seats in the dining room and 30 at the bar. We're open till 3AM Monday through Sunday, so our philosophy is; 'Come for the Food...Stay for the Party.' It's a very relaxed atmosphere, not stuffy at all, but with incredible food coming out of the kitchen. Most patrons are quite surprised, but that's a good thing. The menu is seasonal and focused on local, fresh farm to table ingredients. It (the menu) speaks for my cooking style. At the same time it has to be accessible to the main stream dining public. We're flanked by two hotels, so while I'm doing fresh, exciting interpretations of classic dishes, it's still recognizable to what we all know as comfort food."

Actually friends, take my word for it, it's amazing.

Bon Appetit,