Every once in a while, a cookbook comes along that you realize you’ve needed for years. “Shroom: Mind-Bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” (Andrews McMeel, $35), by Seattle’s Becky Selengut, is that kind of book. The private chef, cooking teacher and author of “Good Fish” has a clear and disarming style. Her passion for woodsy treasures underfoot is infectious.
Plenty of mushroom books on the market focus on how to hunt down and identify the scores of varieties, or they tantalize readers with recipes calling for the ones most difficult to find. Selengut, however, skips the foraging instructions and zeros in on 15 commonly available species. (I would be surprised if you couldn’t find at least eight of them, growing wild and at markets, no matter where you live.) Then she works them for all they’re worth, drawing deep for flavor and casting wide for multicultural flavor influences, which makes for an irresistible blend of practicality and romance.
Fresh porcinis and lobster mushrooms are stubbornly scarce where I live, and black truffles stubbornly expensive. Even so, the sheer abundance of good-looking and doable recipes for more-common specimens in this book inspired me to undertake a veritable testing spree.
Portobellos, creminis and button mushrooms — all close cousins — act as gateway fungi in “Shroom’s” first chapter. A cremini-and-beef bourguignon bubbled its leisurely way through the hours into a hearty but straightforward stew; angel biscuits daubed with a bay-leaf-infused brown butter turned what was already a hearty meal into a feast.
Portobellos lent their beefy heft to tacos, loaded with cabbage-and-lime slaw and doused with a surprising cacao-chili sauce. The sauce hid an ingredient: dried goji berries, whose high-five dose of power sugar sent mixed messages in an otherwise messily satisfying dish.
Beech or hon-shimeji mushrooms come in a jaunty little cluster, held together by what looks like a polystyrene base. They have a funky sweetness, which became almost cloying once they were wrapped in phyllo and coupled with a Georgian walnut sauce. That sauce turned out to be a temperamental sort of paste, though I’ve made successful versions served with chicken in the past. But the same sweetness held a sesame-tinged broth in perfect balance when paired with miso and seaweed, leaving me glad I’d tested it at lunchtime, alone, so I wouldn’t have to share.
Oyster mushrooms were new to me as a cook. I was happily surprised by both their depth of flavor and their reasonable price; check your local Asian market. Melted into a boozy ragout, they draped in savory splendor over egg noodles and would probably do the same for polenta or even pizza.
They also served as the principal ingredient in black bean, poblano and mushroom burgers with red onion jam. Something was a bit funny about the proportions, but it didn’t seem to matter: I got eight medium instead of four large burgers, and zero leftovers. Break out double napkins for this one, because it’s a dribbly, sloppy, glorious mess.
Selengut turns to the now-common shiitake to good effect in Asian dishes. Its dense texture and baritone character make a good match for soy flavors. Powerful on its own, it goes nuclear when seasoned with a soy dressing and porcini powder. The combination of an accompanying nuoc cham, herbs, rice noodles and charred shiitakes created a salad so unforgettable, I didn’t even mind that the parchment ignited when I broiled the mushrooms as directed. Next time, I’m using aluminum foil.
I thought the pork might have been more aggressively seasoned in Selengut’s dan dan noodles, where shiitakes dance with pickled mustard greens and spicy chili. It’s a confident rendition, though purists might prefer the sinus-clearing mustard greens you get at the store to this tamer pickle.
Hedgehog mushrooms stood in for meat in a chili studded with cashews; despite bold seasoning with ancho chili, oregano and fire-roasted tomatoes, it just doesn’t compare in flavor to a beef chili. The toasted cashews provided a pleasant surprise, though, supplying a hint of butter and a flicker of texture every few forkfuls.
Far more seductive was a bowl of Thai khao soi noodles, in which the same hedgehog mushrooms got slathered in panang curry and roasted. Served atop deep-fried noodles and bathed liberally in coconut milk, the hedgehogs went up to 11 on the volume dial and were worth every bit of the giant fry-up mess in the kitchen.
The rest of my testing was a grab bag of specialty fungi, bought in small quantities purely for the adventure of it. I tried a king-trumpet-and-tomato sandwich with spicy mayonnaise, then subtracted the tomato so I could concentrate on the interesting conversation the trumpet mushroom was having with the condiment. Morels, leeks and oven-roasted tomatoes went into a simple weeknight pasta whose flavors were concentrated by the charmingly withered tomatoes and caramelized leeks. A chanterelle risotto started mild and finished impressive, as the mushroom broth permeated the rice and provided a backdrop for high notes of lemon and thyme.
When I test a single-subject cookbook, it often happens that I’m heartily sick of the star ingredient after a week. I don’t know whether it was because mushrooms are so diverse in character or because Selengut’s multicultural portraits in fungi were so charmingly different each one from the next. But by the time I got to the end of “Shroom,” I was perfectly prepared to go back and start right in at the beginning again. If that’s not the definition of a keeper, I don’t know what is.
Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for the Boston Globe, NPR and the cookbook-indexing Web site Eat Your Books. She lives in New England and is the author of “A Spoonful of Promises: Stories and Recipes From a Well-Tempered Table” (Lyons Press, 2011). She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.