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Serve wild mushrooms in a meal, and it magically becomes festive, even when paired with everyday ingredients. French chefs have countless ways to use them - to fill buttery puff pastry cases, for example, or as a bed for sauteed veal cutlets. Italian chefs use them to make scrumptious risotto and pasta dishes.
But even ordinary, white button mushrooms, when prepared according to classic formulas, can transform a meal from the pedestrian to the sublime. Take duxelles, for instance. This tasty French mushroom preparation of sauteed chopped mushrooms with shallots is used as a spread, a stuffing for vegetables or the basis of a savory sauce for beef or chicken.
Mushrooms have long been a favorite of Jews from Eastern Europe, as wild ones are plentiful and inexpensive in that region. Besides, they're a great parve substitute for meat. According to Alina Zeranska, author of The Art of Polish Cooking, a mushroom-and-onion saute spread on toast and topped with dill-flavored scrambled eggs is a favorite appetizer. Russians combine butter-sauteed mushrooms with sour cream, mayonnaise and dill to make a stuffing for hard-boiled eggs, wrote Darra Goldstein, author of A La Russe. To fill pirozhki (hearty yeast-dough turnovers), she wrote, cooks mix sauteed mushrooms and onions with rice, parsley and dill.
Asian cooks are equally fond of fungi. Anyone who likes Chinese food has noticed that mushrooms appear on restaurant menus as a vegetable dish and are used to enhance other dishes. Even in spicy dishes, like the stir-fried seafood with red and green peppers in black bean sauce that I enjoyed recently, the flavor of the sauteed button mushrooms added by the chef greatly enhanced the dish. Chinese vegetarians use shiitake mushrooms to simulate beef.
When I tasted "veggie-beef" in orange sauce, with faux-beef made of shiitake mushrooms, it was impressively similar to the real thing.
Perhaps less well known are Indian mushroom dishes. One I like to order at an Indian vegetarian cafe is spicy clove-scented button mushrooms with soy chunks, peas and diced tomato.
Remembering his Yemen-born mother's delicious shakshuka, my husband recently added sliced white mushrooms sauteed in olive oil to the traditional scrambled-egg-with-tomato dish, and it was delicious. I love the melawah (Yemenite flaky pastry) topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions at Magic Carpet, a Yemenite restaurant in Los Angeles. Humous topped with sauteed mushroom slices was also a tasty discovery to me. None of the above preparations is traditional, but they are testaments to Israelis' growing appreciation for mushrooms.
For special occasions, use exotic mushrooms (sometimes referred to as wild, although many are now farmed), such as the large, meaty portobello, oyster mushrooms (Hebrew pitriyot yarden) or dried shiitake, porcini or other dried mushrooms, which have a concentrated flavor.
These mushrooms might seem mysterious if you've never used them, but they're as fast and easy to cook as ordinary white mushrooms. Indeed, when it comes to sauteing the most popular way to prepare most mushrooms - faster is better. Use high heat and cook them quickly. They acquire a terrific "toasted" flavor and a pleasing, firm texture, and are ready in minutes. Luckily, you don't need to use much oil, as the mushrooms have plenty of natural moisture.
To use dried mushrooms, soak them in warm water until softened, then drain them well, pat dry and saute with onions, which absorb some of the moisture and help give the mushrooms a caramelized taste. Use exotic mushrooms on their own or, since they are expensive, combine them with white mushrooms.
Once you've sauteed the mushrooms, they have countless uses. You can serve them as a warm salad, spooned over a bed of colorful baby greens with a drizzle of wine vinegar; or on their own as an appetizer, accompanied by good fresh bread, like crusty baguette, Italian-style bread or top-quality pita.
I love sauteed mushrooms as a filling for omelets or a topping for grilled or sauteed fish, chicken or steak. They are wonderful mixed with fresh pasta or grain dishes, such as rice pilaf, barley or kasha (buckwheat). There's no better embellishment for mashed potatoes or for polenta.
Adding sauteed mushrooms makes vegetable dishes much more exciting. Recently my neighbor made a colorful side dish of mushrooms sauteed with a generous amount of garlic, zucchini and leeks, moistened with tomato sauce. The garlicky mushrooms gave the dish an enticing aroma, which caught our attention as soon as we entered the kitchen. I find that sauteed mushrooms complement broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and even frozen mixed vegetables.
Choose mushrooms that are free of bruises and are dry, not slimy. Keep them unwashed in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Use white mushrooms within four or five days, and exotic mushrooms within two or three days.
When cleaning fresh mushrooms, be gentle but thorough. Clean them just before you cook them. Don't soak fresh mushrooms in water; instead rinse each one carefully and rub it gently to remove any sand; I use a brush for this. Next set them on paper towels to absorb the excess moisture. Shiitake mushrooms, whether dry or fresh, sometimes have tough stems; if the stems are hard, save them to flavor a sauce or soup.
Exotic mushrooms vary greatly in size. For even cooking, large mushrooms should be sliced or cut in bite-size chunks. Small ones can be left whole to show their attractive shapes. Regular mushrooms are best quartered or sliced.
SAVORY MUSHROOM SAUTE
This flavorful medley of exotic and button mushrooms is delicious as an appetizer on toast, as an accompaniment for any entree you like, or as a topping for omelets, rice pilaf or mashed potatoes. If you don't have exotic mushrooms, you can make this saute with button mushrooms (white mushrooms) alone.
110 to 120 gr. fresh exotic mushrooms, such as portobello, oyster mushrooms (Hebrew pitriyot yarden) or fresh shiitake mushrooms, or 28 to 56 gr. dried mushrooms
1 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. butter or additional oil
110 to 170 gr. button mushrooms, quartered
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 medium shallots or green onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced (optional)
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley, 2 tsp. chopped dill or a mixture of both
Clean exotic mushrooms very gently under running water with a vegetable brush, or with a damp paper towel.
If using dried mushrooms, soak them in hot water to cover for 20 minutes or until soft.
Cut any large exotic mushrooms in bite-size pieces. If using shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried, cut off stems if they are tough; save them to flavor soup.
Heat oil and butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add exotic and button mushrooms, salt and pepper. Saute about three minutes. Add shallots and saute, tossing often, for two to three minutes or until mushrooms are lightly browned and tender and any liquid in pan has evaporated. Be careful not to burn shallots. Add garlic and saute 1â„2 minute. Add parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.