Andrea Gentl has built a career around photographing food for the most esteemed publications, restaurants and chefs in the world. But long before it was her job to capture the beauty of food on film, Andrea, who splits her time between an apartment in New York’s Soho neighbourhood and a house upstate, was focused on it. “As soon as I left home in my teens, I cooked. I cooked to remind myself where I came from and to bring people together. Cooking for people felt natural and became a way to share with others,” read the opening lines of Andrea’s first cookbook, published last year. Andrea focused on one ingredient (albeit one with an immense amount of varieties): mushrooms. The result, Cooking with Mushrooms is many things: an expansive guide to the multitude of mushrooms from a true-blue mycophile; a collection of recipes that embrace the full breadth of mushroom’s possibilities in the kitchen; and a stunning log of photos that capture the magic and mystery of this incredible ingredient. It’s also a personal story that dates back to her childhood in rural Massachusetts where the seeds for her lifelong mushroom fascination first took root.
Can you share some of your earliest mushroom memories?
Cremini mushrooms were the mushrooms I ate most as a kid. We only ate a few wild mushrooms, mostly porcini, which my Italian grandparent’s friends would gather from the woods in Vermont. They were dried and added to risotto. The cremini mushrooms of my childhood were often served in a cream sauce, or in a creamed soup or sautéed in butter with lots of parsley. The recipes were heavily influenced by the popularity of Julia Child’s programme on television. My grandmother would give her stuffed mushrooms a signature Italian twist, adding Pecorino and garlic. Her stuffed mushroom recipe has actually morphed into my Thanksgiving stuffing.
Do you remember the first time your mind was split open by a mushroom dish you tasted?
The first time I had my mind blown by mushrooms was on assignment in northern California. We were photographing renowned mushroom wildcrafter Connie Green, who supplied the Bay Area restaurants and chefs with wild mushrooms. In no time, she had a basket teeming with wild mushrooms. We returned to the ranch where she sautéed some in butter and served them over toasted bread. The flavour was just incredible!
So, did you start cooking them yourself more after that experience?
Yes, after that, I was hooked on cooking with wild mushrooms. The problem was that in the early ’90s they were incredibly hard to find unless you knew a forager or what mushrooms to pick. Some shops in New York had wild mushrooms when in season, but they were often really expensive. Over the years, I became friends with wildcrafters and foragers who would bring me mushrooms and, little by little, they started to turn up at the farmers' markets where there was also a growing demand. Over the last decade I have noticed a shift in local mushroom cultivation, and so many more farmers are growing mushrooms. As a result, the mushrooms that were once only available to chefs and restaurants are now widely available to the general public. So, you are genuinely eating local when you buy mushrooms from your local farmers’ market.
Are there certain mushrooms that you tend to buy – and cook – more frequently?
I love the taste and smell of maitake (Hen of the Woods). It’s earthy, buttery and nutty all at once, and yet it has a healthy dose of funk to its aroma. If someone makes a maitake perfume, I would wear it. Growing up on a farm has given me a strong preference for mushrooms and wine with a bit of barnyard funk.
Did you always envision mushrooms as the focus of your first book?
I know it’s very specific! During the early part of the pandemic we put together a book proposal about a wild larder because it seemed that we would be upstate for an extended period of time, and I could finally focus on all the wild foods I loved cooking with. Ultimately, it felt too broad so we honed it down. I had a lot of mushroom recipes and I knew I always wanted to one day do a mushroom book so we set the rest of this aside and just focused on fungi.
From when you grew up on a farm in rural Western Massachusetts?
Growing up in Massachusetts in that kind of hippie community, mushrooms were really just everywhere. As a kid I used to draw mushrooms all the time. It was like my signature; I always drew mushrooms. When they built a new elementary school in the small town where I grew up, there was a contest to make a drawing for the new sign. So, of course, I drew a mushroom, and won the drawing contest! For 30 years there was this beautiful hand-carved mushroom that was the sign for my school.
That’s wild. Your book has come out amidst a particularly major mushroom boom.
I think I’ve been aware of this sort of mushroom trend happening for ten or so years. I started to see more varieties in the farmers’ markets; mushrooms that were only available to chefs all of a sudden were available to the public. I started to see, even in Whole Foods and mass grocery store chains, many different kinds of mushrooms; not just cremini, but blue oysters, yellow, pink. I remember even discussing with friends years ago the idea of starting a mushroom farm upstate. Then I was watching what was happening with mushrooms not just in the food front, but also the wellness front. Now people are even talking about how mushroom leather might eventually replace all the leather in cars, which would be huge, and how mushrooms can clean up waste streams and dumping grounds. It’s all pretty amazing.
It really is. So, how did you approach the process of putting this cookbook about mushrooms together?
When I decided to do the book about mushrooms I took the same approach I had for the wild larder idea: really breaking down an ingredient and figuring out how to use it in so many ways that can become part of your cooking. I started dehydrating and treating mushrooms more like a spice, making butters, making pastes. My process was to go to the farmers’ market or order mushrooms from vendors like Tivoli Mushroom or Smallhold and then just be really inspired by what I had there in front of me. I would start with those mushrooms when they were really fresh and shoot beauties of them. In thinking about the recipes, I considered what I like to eat and how some of my favourite foods could be adapted to recipes with only mushrooms.
Is there a recipe in the book that you like to recommend as a gateway dish for those who have historically been squeamish about mushrooms?
The mushroom ragu! It’s easy and the whole house smells incredible when you are making it. So many people have not even realised they were eating mushrooms; they thought it was a meat ragu.
Sounds heavenly. I was very intrigued by the mushroom miso paste because it feels so unexpected. How do you like to use that?
I love to slather a roasting chicken in the miso mushroom batter, which is the miso mushroom paste mixed with salty butter. I always roast my chicken over tourneed potatoes and the miso mushroom butter soaks into the potatoes making them tiny umami bombs!
Have you made any recent mushroom discoveries?
Cordyceps, birch polypores and reishi are newer discoveries for me. I have recently been making adaptogenic tinctures out of them. I gathered the birch polypore and reishi in Massachusetts and the dried cordyceps I bought at Far West Fungi in San Francisco. Double extraction tincture making is straightforward and rewarding. Mushroom tinctures are quite expensive and making them at home is super cost-effective.
Making things at home is such a constant for you and I know you speak to this role that cooking and gathering plays in your life in the introduction of the book.
I grew up with a father who was an antique dealer so there was a constant sense of physical items being gathered, the importance being given to them and the displays and ever-changing tableaus. Also, having grown up on a small family farm, the idea of what foods we were growing in our garden, always picking wild foods and raising your own animals for meat. All of that is a form of gathering for me. I was brought up with the idea that you can take these simple things and use them. For me, everything with photography and cooking always starts with that collecting and gathering. That idea of gathering has become more about sharing with people: sharing recipes, sharing meals. It’s all tied together in a really holistic way. And 2023 for me and Marty [Andrea’s partner in work and life, Martin Hyers] it’s going to be a lot about not going out to eat. We’re excited to cook and have people over and connect with friends around meals. This year I’m all about staying in.
Golden Tonic Elixir with Turmeric Mushrooms and Black Garlic
For years, I was in the habit of making broth with the carcass left over from our weekly roast chicken. Last winter, my daughter requested a vegetarian version, so we transitioned to making it with mushrooms and included black garlic for earthy smokiness, and ginger and onion for their immunity-boosting properties. It is the perfect healing broth for sipping. I brighten with a squeeze of fresh lime just before serving.
Makes about 8 cups (roughly 2 L)
1 pound (455 g) mixed fresh mushrooms, any variety (oyster, maitake, and shiitake all work well here)
6 quarts (5.6 L) water
2 large heads garlic, halved horizontally, unpeeled
2 to 3 black garlic cloves, smashed with the side of a knife, unpeeled
1-inch (3 cm) nub fresh ginger, sliced
1 medium yellow onion, halved, unpeeled
2-inch (5 cm) nub fresh turmeric, finely grated with a Microplane, or 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 celery stalk with leaves (optional)
1 tablespoon Himalayan pink salt, plus more to taste
1½ teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed with the side of a knife
1½ teaspoons fennel seeds, crushed with the side of a knife
½ dried red chile, such as chile de árbol, crushed
Clean and trim the mushrooms. If using oysters or maitakes, shred them into pieces. If using shiitakes, trim and leave the stems on.
In an 8- to 12-quart (7.6 to 11.3 L) stockpot, combine all the ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and continue to boil for 15 minutes.
Reduce the heat and cook at a bare simmer for 2 hours. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 3 hours, until completely cool.
Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the solids (discard, or compost, the solids).
Transfer the broth to glass jars for storage. If freezing, leave ¾ inch (2 cm) of free space at the top of the jar for expansion. Refrigerate for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 6 months. Add more salt to taste and a squeeze of lime juice before serving.
This recipe was excerpted from Cooking With Mushrooms: A Fungi Lover's Guide to the World's Most Versatile, Flavorful, Health-Boosting Ingredients by Andrea Gentl. Artisan Books © 2022.
Interview by Fiorella Valdesolo.
Photographs by Andrea Gentl, courtesy of Artisan Books © 2022.