Mushrooms - the cook's hunt

They stand out in my memories of fine dinners, from mint-flavored wild mushrooms in puff pastry to an omelet filled with garlic-scented cèpes.

311_ mushrooms (photo credit: KRT)
311_ mushrooms
(photo credit: KRT)
I enjoy hunting – for mushrooms, not for game; at the market, not in the forest. They add flavor and flair to almost any dish, from scrambled eggs to rice pilaf to vegetable soup, turning everyday dishes into festive fare with little effort. In short, they are one of our best allies in the kitchen.
They stand out in my memories of fine dinners, from mint-flavored wild mushrooms in puff pastry at the illustrious Michel Guerard restaurant in southwest France to an omelet filled with garlic-scented cèpes at a café in Provence. Even in the simplest of settings a fresh mushroom can be extraordinary, like the porcini mushrooms my husband and I bought while traveling in Tuscany, which we sauteed in olive oil on our van’s burner and ate outdoors.
We are fortunate that fresh white button mushrooms are easy to find. At good supermarkets I buy meaty brown shiitake mushrooms, trumpet-shaped oyster mushrooms (called “pitriyot yarden” in Hebrew) and plate-size portobello mushrooms.
In the past, plenty of effort and even risk were involved when people had to gather their own mushrooms. Luckily, the Chinese started domesticating shiitakes more than 600 years ago, and the French began cultivating white mushrooms two centuries ago.
There are two basic techniques for cooking mushrooms, explained the chef at cooking school in Paris – white cooking and brown cooking. White-cooked mushrooms, we learned, were boiled briefly in a bit of liquid, which was then used in a delicate sauce. Brown-cooked mushrooms were sauteed briefly on high heat. Traditionally white-cooked mushrooms went into white stews (made with white wine and often cream), and browned mushrooms were intended for dishes with a red wine sauce.
The superb French classics featuring mushrooms, such as sole normande, in which they are paired with luscious creme fraiche in a sauce for the delicate fish, or chicken chasseur with tomatoes, shallots and tarragon, are so delicious that for years I ignored tasty mushroom dishes from other cuisines.
But when I tasted mushroom curry with peas at an Indian vegetarian restaurant, I loved it. One of my favorite recipes, from my friend Neelam Batra’s tome, 1,000 Indian Recipes, is a mushroom curry accented with almonds, poppy seeds, ginger and cardamom. A Thai friend of mine taught me how to make a rich Thai mushroom and red chili curry with coconut milk and a variety of vegetables. For a unique accent to bouillabaisse, Masaharu Morimoto, author of Morimoto – the New Art of Japanese Cooking, cooks seafood with shiitake mushrooms and miso flavored broth.
Vegetarians and frugal cooks looking for meat substitutes have long prized mushrooms for their meaty texture and satisfying flavor. Robin Robertson, author of Vegan Planet, makes butternut squash and wild mushroom lasagna with layers of the sauteed vegetables, lasagna noodles and vegan mozzarella cheese. Fillings of chopped or sliced mushrooms are wonderful in crepes and all sorts of pastries, accompanied by a mushroom sauce. Mushrooms enhance both meat and vegetable stuffings, and taste great when stuffed with spinach puree, garlic butter, meat filling or cheese-flavored bread crumbs.
A few mushrooms can lend a wonderful aroma and flavor to a sauce or soup. When I asked the chef-owner of Vinh Loi, a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant in Reseda, California, what was the secret to his delicious soups, which were as full flavored as their meat-based counterparts, he replied: “The broth is made with mushroom powder.” Mushrooms are good partners for steak, chicken, fish, rice, vegetables – just about every food. They can even flavor desserts! Indeed, mushroom ice cream is the specialty of an ice cream parlor in Fort Bragg, California.
At the market choose mushrooms that are free of soft spots, bruises and mold. Button mushrooms with firm, closed caps will keep the longest. Exotic mushrooms should not be wet but should not be dried out around the edges either.
Button mushrooms keep up to five days; exotic mushrooms should be used within three days. It’s important to keep mushrooms dry; do not leave them in a plastic bag. You can keep them in a paper bag in the refrigerator or, if they seem to be getting too dry, put the paper bag inside a perforated plastic bag and leave the end open. I find they keep better on a refrigerator shelf than in a drawer.
Clean mushrooms attentively just before cooking them. French chefs simply rinse each mushroom carefully and rub it gently to remove any sand. Delicate exotic mushrooms can be wiped with a damp paper towel instead so they don’t lose flavor. Check the mushrooms to be sure no sand or grit remains and trim off the bottom part of the stem if it is dry or dirty.
Dried mushrooms keep for months, according to Jack Czarnecki, author of Joe’s Book of Mushroom Cookery, but not indefinitely. Although they might seem expensive, he reminds us that 100 pounds of fresh mushrooms yield a maximum of 10 pounds dried. Besides, their flavor is concentrated and so you need only a small amount in a dish. You can add a few to any fresh mushroom sauce or soup to intensify its flavor.
To reconstitute dried mushrooms, soak them in warm water for about 20 minutes or until pliable. You can use the soaking liquid in a sauce or soup, but don’t add the sandy part at the bottom of the bowl.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
This quick dish is a fine way to prepare button mushrooms. The flavorings of cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper give the mushrooms a Middle Eastern accent. Serve them as an appetizer with pita or sesame bread, as a main course with rice or couscous, or as a side dish with grilled lamb or chicken.
3 or 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 sweet red pepper, diced
450 gr. mushrooms, quartered
1 tsp. ground cumin
1⁄4 tsp. turmeric (optional)
1 tsp. dried thyme
1⁄2 tsp. paprika
1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Heat oil in large heavy skillet. Add onion and pepper and saute about 7 minutes over medium heat. Add mushrooms, cumin, turmeric, thyme, paprika, cayenne, salt and pepper and saute over medium heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes or until all vegetables are tender. Add parsley and remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings as side dish.
Combine any kind of exotic mushrooms with button mushrooms for this richly flavored stew, or use white mushrooms alone, doubling the quantity. The dish is a delicious companion for white or brown rice or poached eggs, and makes a fine filling for omelets. With olive oil replacing the butter, the mushrooms are a terrific topping for grilled steaks.
115 gr. fresh portobello mushrooms
115 gr. white mushrooms
1 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
4 Tbsp. butter
1 large shallot or green onion, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄3 cup Madeira
1 Tbsp minced parsley
Gently rinse mushrooms and dry on paper towels. Cut portobello mushrooms in bite-size pieces. Halve white mushrooms and cut in thin slices.
In a large heavy skillet, heat oil and 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Stir in shallot, then portobello mushrooms, and salt and pepper to taste. Saute, tossing often, about 4 minutes, or until mushrooms are just tender. Remove from pan.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter to skillet and melt over medium-high heat. Add button mushrooms and salt and pepper to taste, and saute about 3 minutes, or until light brown. Return portobello mushrooms to skillet and reheat mushroom mixture until sizzling. Add Madeira and simmer over medium heat, stirring, about 3 minutes, or until it is absorbed by mushrooms. Taste and adjust seasoning, transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.
Makes 4 servings.