Chinese style mushrooms and cauliflower
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It's no secret that mushrooms have a knack for bringing a beefy bite to even meatless dishes. Less well-known, however, are varieties with the distinctive taste and texture of seafood. Along with being prized for its nutritive value, Hericium erinaceus, or monkey head mushroom, is often compared to crab legs. Whether you're a vegetarian or simply want to expand your repertoire of ingredients, monkey head mushrooms add an exotic twist to dinner.

Finding the Fungi

You won't need more than one monkey head mushroom for a typical meal – these mushrooms can grow more than a foot in diameter, and are usually rounded or oval-shaped. Before you become familiar with the fungi, it helps to know the many names it might be sold as. Covered in soft, spine-like shapes, H. erinaceus has inspired common names ranging from "monkey's head" to "bearded tooth," as well as "bear's head" and "lion's mane." Whatever name they go by in Asian and gourmet markets, they are sold in both fresh and dried form.

Handling the "Heads"

The first step in cooking fresh monkey head mushrooms is to wash them properly. Unlike more familiar fungi such as button types, monkey head mushrooms won't become slimy when exposed to water. Gently pull the round or oval shapes apart with your fingers and submerge the pieces in a bowl of water, swishing them to dislodge any debris. Gently pat these larger pieces dry and chop them into bite-sized chunks.

Dried Delights

If you buy monkey head mushrooms in dry form, you'll need to soak the whole heads in warm water for about 20 minutes. They'll swell in size when introduced to water, but won't become mushy. Once the fungi are reconstituted, they should be rinsed until the water is no longer brownish yellow, but is running clear. Chop the reconstituted mushroom heads into pieces that work best for your recipe.

Simple Sauté

It doesn't take much to turn a chopped monkey head mushroom into a simple entree. Sauté the fresh or reconstituted pieces over medium-high heat in olive oil or butter. Start by lightly browning garlic before tossing in the mushroom pieces, if desired. Once the added mushrooms have lightly browned and become the texture of seafood, remove them from the heat. Serve them on a plate along with a side dish of vegetables, if desired. You might also ladle the mushroom pieces over a starch, such as pasta, rice or mashed root vegetables.

Fried Favorites

For extra crispiness, sauté chopped monkey head mushroom at high heat, until the edges turn crispy. Add soy sauce just before they come off the heat. To create extra texture and an Asian twist, coat them with flour, cornmeal or tapioca powder, then deep-fry. The crunchy pieces can then be quickly stir-fried with vegetables, as well as pork or another protein. Once thickened with a stir-fry sauce, such as one made with bean paste and ginger, the stir-fry is ready to serve over rice.

Savory Soup

Dried monkey head mushrooms impart extra flavor to soups and stews. Soak the fungi in warm water first, then squeeze, rinse and chop it. Add the pieces to your favorite long-simmering soup dish, such as chicken or seafood in a clear broth. Alternatively, make a sophisticated cream of mushroom soup. Start by sautéing monkey head mushroom pieces in butter, along with other fungi, such as oyster, shiitake and crimini mushrooms. Add a bit of cornstarch or flour to thicken this base. Simmer the mushroom pieces in milk or cream, along with such flavoring agents as sherry, salt and pepper or fresh herbs.