Meatless Monday: Local, Sustainable and Other Labels

Last week brought a new marketing low -- I came across a bag of crackers labeled local. Local they might have been once, but they're made in Washington State and I'm in Miami, Florida.

If you want food that's truly local -- produced within your own time zone, say -- as well as the whole shebang of eco-foodie buzzwords -- natural, organic, sustainable, not to mention luscious and meatless -- think mushrooms. They may not have fancy labeling or packaging or a clever ad campaign, but mushrooms are always seasonal, growing in all seasons and all climates. Even now.

Chilly, damp weather may wear on your own body and spirit, but it's optimal growing conditions for winter mushrooms. The mushrooms varieties of winter sound like a carnivore's wet dream -- oyster mushrooms, porcini (Italian for little pigs), hen of the woods, even beefsteak. These exotics offer a whole menagerie of meaty flavors and textures, and with the spring come all new varieties, including luscious morels and frilled chanterelles.

When local has come to mean no more than a word printed on a bag, mushrooms are truly local. Some are growing somewhere near you. You can find both cultivated and wild mushrooms in Washington, California and Oregon, also New Mexico. Pennsylvania's your biggest mushroom-grower, but Georgia boasts the Georgia pecan truffle mushroom, and in my neck of the woods, a Miami grower has teamed up with a Ghana agricultural scientist here on his green card to launch Happy Shrooms, Miami's first oyster mushroom farm, producing 600 pounds of the beauties each week.

You don't need to be a pro to grow them, either. Iowa chef and author Kurt Friese grows oyster mushrooms in his basement -- you can't get much more local than that. He bought a mushroom-growing kit at his local farmers market and set up his own operation. You can also buy mushroom kits from a handful of online sources and at many garden supply shops.

Give your mushroom kit a spritz of water once or twice a day, and it pretty much takes care of itself, yielding, as Friese says, "lots of truly fresh, delicious shrooms." Rich and chewy and umami -- that succulent, bathing-the-throat sensation that people often associate with meat --they are the edible proof you can live and eat well on a plant-based diet. Even Friese, who calls himself "a devoted omnivore" concedes oysters and other exotic mushrooms make a good meatless choice. "I like that they are a good texture for that purpose without being one of those contrived meat substitutes like tofu bacon or whatever.  They are a food in their own right."

Unlike tofu bacon and "local" crackers, mushrooms have been around for millennia. The ancient Egyptians believed mushrooms were the means to immortality, and so were off limits to mere commoners.

Maybe mushrooms won't make you live forever, but most varieties are rich in antioxidants and beta-glucan -- the same cholesterol-controlling substance in oatmeal (but without oatmeal's glueyness). They're also powerhouses of selenium, iron, vitamins B and C, even protein. All this and negligible calories and orgasmic flavor, too.

Exotic mushrooms don't exist just to please you, either. In the wild, they keep forests going by acting as conduits, bringing nutrients and water to surrounding vegetation. They nourish rather than deplete or poison the environment. That makes them -- let's say this together, shall we? -- sustainable. What more do you need? Printed labels?

Exotic Mushroom Toast

There is mushroom risotto, mushroom soup, and the ubiquitous grilled Portobello. But all the funghi-obsessed chefs I spoke with think the best way to 'shroom is to serve them up on toast. Ten minutes in the kitchen gets you pure, unadulterated mushrooms, with big, rich flavor and silky, sexy texture. By itself, it's a light but amazing meal. With eggs, salad or a bowl of soup, it's a total feast.

4 generous slices of baguette or whole-grain bread
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound exotic mushrooms like shiitakes or porcini,sliced thin
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Lightly brush bread with 1 teaspoon of the oil. Toast or grill until lightly crisp. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat remainder of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the minced garlic and cook, stirring, until garlic turns golden and fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add sliced mushrooms and continue cooking, stirring occasionally.

Reduce heat to medium if mushrooms start to stick to skillet. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until mushrooms are dark, soft and tender. Gently stir in chopped parsley and season generously with sea salt and pepper.

Mound mushrooms on toast and serve.

Serves 4 (2 if you're greedy).