GOD-DESS

Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

March 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall

MUSHROOMS: FUN WITH FUNGUS!

Mention mushrooms, and most people think “luxury.” Of course, everything is relative, and some mushrooms are more luxurious than others. Miyatakes are supposedly more luxurious than button mushrooms; that would be because demand exceeds supply, thus inflating price. Some people like mushrooms because they perceive them to be a status symbol, but my goal here is to get everyone to like them because they are easy to use and delicious to eat!

Mushrooms are surrounded by controversy. A significant issue is that some mushrooms are downright deadly poisonous. This is really only an issue when you are gathering wild mushrooms, and unless you are an expert mycologist (professional scientist) or experienced mushroom hunter, I wouldn’t encourage gathering your own. I’ve done this, and it’s fun, but I only stick to the easily identifiable species. My father had a rule that he used when we all gathered mushrooms: if we found a new species, we would toss it unless its identity could be confirmed in three (3!) guidebooks.

Another controversy involves whether mushrooms are “exotic” or “wild” or “cultivated.” “Cultivated” is generally synonymous with the ubiquitous white button mushrooms, but today, many different species are now cultivated. “Wild mushroom” refers to a wide array of regional species gathered by foragers and brought to the marketplace and/or restaurants; some of these are now cultivated, while others still defy efforts to cultivate them. “Exotic” is a wild card term, without any real meaning; its interpretation is entirely in the purview of the diner, though it seems to be used commonly for criminis, portabellas and shiitakes, which are commonly cultivated, but which are also more interesting than button mushrooms (well, sort of. Criminis are just brown button mushrooms, and portabellas are mature criminis. Shiitakes are just delicious).

Before going further, let’s have a biology lesson. Mushrooms are the reproductive structures of fungi, the main bodies of which are usually underground (though also under tree bark) and are called mycelia. But what are fungi? Most would answer “plants,” but that would be wrong. Remember that I’m a well-trained evolutionary biologist, so here’s an overview of how organisms are classified. They are grouped by characteristics they share. Organisms that share lots of characteristics are considered more closely related than those that share fewer characteristics. Admittedly, this system is somewhat arbitrary with regard to where boundaries are drawn, but it is convenient. Very, very similar organisms are grouped as species if they are interbreeding or otherwise genetically identical (or exhibit only “slight” genetic variation … that’s where the arbitrariness comes in) as species. Species are groups into genera. Genera are grouped into families, then orders, classes, phyla, and finally kingdoms. Kingdoms connect to each other in only very slight ways. Argument exists regarding the number of kingdoms, but for my own project, “Fun with Phyla®,” I (for convenience) decided to recognize five: Bacteria, Proctista, Plantae, Fungi and Animalia. I used that order intentionally, because interestingly, genetic and other studies show that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants! I sometimes wonder what ramifications this has for vegetarians, or for the even-stricter vegans. Where do they draw the boundary of what they can eat or cannot eat?

Fungi include a variable number of phyla, but only two produce the vast majority of edible species. Truffles are in one of those phyla, and most of what we call “mushrooms” are in another; I’ll skip the molds that make so many wonderful cheeses and other products until another column. But enough biology! Let’s get on with cooking!

So you find yourself with a pile of fresh mushrooms, and you need to get them ready to cook. What do you do with them? I have heard TV chefs talk about brushing mushrooms (not washing) so often that I think there is some sort of anti-washing cult out there. The argument that I hear is that mushrooms are like sponges, and will soak up water that will impact the recipe. Well, that is only true if the mushrooms are old, or if you soak them a long time. When you have fresh mushrooms (and I do mean FRESH), their cell walls are intact, and they cannot absorb water. Their structure doesn’t work that way, unless your mushrooms have begun to decay, which causes the cell walls to break down (or dried mushrooms, which are another column completely). You don’t need that special, expensive (for what it is!) mushroom brush to brush off the debris. Dump them in a sink or a bowl/tub in the sink, run water over them, and gently rub them to get the growing medium (aka, dirt) off of them. I use my fingers, but you can use a cloth or nylon net or brush, if you like. Don’t fret over the base of each mushroom stem, where dirt tends to accumulate/attach to strands of mycelium; you can cut that off, as it tends to be fibrous (but don’t discard the entire stem, because there is flavor there!).

Before I get to actually discussing cooking mushrooms, let’s consider eating them raw. Can you? Sure! Slice them on salads, or put them into sandwiches, or use them on a crudite platter. But, remember that they are naturally full of moisture (not from washing them!), so cooking actually intensifies their flavors, giving us that familiar (and desired) “mushroom” flavor. By the way, mushrooms contribute the flavor component known as umami to the overall palette/palate of a recipe, so keep that in mind as you construct your own recipes.

Now I’m going to present two basic recipes for handling fresh mushrooms. You can use them just as they are cooked, or freeze them and use them in future dishes. Both of these basic mushroom preparation techniques reduce inherent water, intensify flavor, and are flexible enough for thousands of applications. Let’s get on with Sautéed Mushrooms and Roasted Mushrooms.

Sautéed Mushrooms

I grew up with my mother using this technique when she would buy mushrooms on sale, and it’s great! I’ve modified it over the years, but it’s ideal for an infinite number of variations. I’m assuming the use of white button mushrooms, but crimini, portabella, and various wild mushrooms can be substituted for this recipe, and most of variations (exceptions noted below). With wild mushrooms, the key is to enhance their natural flavor, and not to muck them up with lots of other flavors. Though not ideal, canned mushrooms can be used; in fact, I would argue that caramelizing them as described below is the only way to really make canned mushrooms flavorful. One of the key points is to keep the mushroom pieces the same size to allow for even cooking.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat (if using olive oil, allow it to become heated). Add the sliced mushrooms and distribute evenly in the skillet, stirring to coat with the melted butter (oil). Sprinkle the salt evenly over the mushrooms, grind the pepper over the top, and sauté until soft, stirring occasionally. The mushrooms will release their moisture, the amount of moisture that is allowed to remain or that is cooked off is a personal choice (do you want them slight dry or slightly juicy?). Serve immediately in any of the following applications or variations, or freeze. To freeze, spoon into ice cube trays in 1 T portions, or into muffin tins in ½ c portions (this recipe yields about 1 c of sautéed mushrooms). After being frozen, dump the mushroom cubes/muffins into plastic bags; seal and label. I’ve kept them up to a year in the freezer, though they can dry a bit.

Variations:

Aglio e Olio con Funghi: Use olive oil as the fat. When hot, add 1T finely minced garlic. The addition of 1 t crushed red pepper flakes is optional. Add the mushrooms and sauté until soft and juices are released. Optionally, add ¼ c wine (red or white) or vinegar (wine or balsamic) for an enhanced flavor profile. Yet another option is the addition of chopped fresh parsley at the end (about 1 T), really more for color than flavor in this dish.

Mushrooms in Wine: When the basic Sautéed Mushrooms have begun to soften, add ½ c white or red wine (I prefer an inexpensive “jug” wine, because it adds a hint of residual sweetness). Optionally, add ½ to1 t thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, ground bay leaf (laurel molido in Hispanic stores) or your favorite herb.

Caramelized mushrooms: Prepare the Sautéed Mushrooms as described above, but continue cooking until the released moisture has completely cooked off, and the mushrooms begin to brown, stirring often to avoid burning and to allow even browning. Quartered mushrooms work best and become crusted, but sliced mushrooms can actually develop a slight crispiness, almost like “mushroom chips.” Optionally, dress the finished mushrooms with ¼ c wine (red or white) or vinegar (wine or balsamic). Also optionally, ½ to 1 t of your favorite herb can be added at the end (they would burn if added earlier). Note: you “can” use canned mushrooms for this recipe, if you are in a pinch, as caramelization and roasting (see below) are about the only ways to give them flavor.

Applications:

Pasta con Funghi: Use any of the Sautéed Mushroom variations above, but the Aglio e Olio con Funghi is a natural combination with pasta. One batch of Aglio e Olio con Funghi will dress a pound of cooked pasta. Cook the pasta in salted water. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 c of the starchy, salty water. Dump the pasta into the skillet containing the Sautéed Mushrooms and stir/toss to combine/mix. Add some of the reserved pasta-cooking liquid if looser, juicier pasta is desired. Top with grated pecorino, asiago or Parmesan cheese.

Sautéed Mushrooms over (or under) pan-fried or grilled meats, fish or poultry: Any of the variations of Sautéed Mushrooms above can be used as a sauce over or under steak, pork chops, lamb chops, chicken breasts (or other poultry), salmon, trout, shrimp, lobster, scallops, or other seafood. Using a variation with wine or vinegar works best; herbed variations are also excellent in this application.

Scrambled Eggs and Sautéed Mushrooms: Use 1 to 2 T of any variation of Sautéed Mushrooms per egg. Place the mushrooms in a hot skillet with 1 T olive oil or butter; optionally, add 1 T of chopped green pepper (or chile) and/or onion, and or 1 t finely minced garlic, per egg, and allow to sauté over medium heat with the mushrooms until translucent. In a bowl, beat the number of eggs proportionate with the amount of mushrooms and vegetables sautéing. When the mushrooms are heated through, and the vegetables (if using) are translucent, add the beaten eggs to the skillet and stir until the eggs cook. Serve immediately with toast, biscuits and/or fried potatoes; I like to grate cheese and add hot sauce over my scrambled eggs sometimes.

Omelette au Champignon (Mushroom Omelet): There are two ways (at least, since neither of these is the traditional French method) to make an omelet. Use two beaten eggs, ¼ t salt and 5 grinds of black pepper per omelet, and a 9” skillet. One involves cooking the beaten eggs in the skillet (with 1 T olive oil or butter) until almost done, lifting up the edges with a fork so that the uncooked egg runs underneath to cook; be aware that the exterior of the omelet should be pale gold, not dark brown. When only a slight amount of uncooked egg remains on top, add the filling to the half of the cooked eggs closest to the handle of the skillet, in this case, 2 T of any of the Sautéed Mushroom variations (and other sautéed vegetables, if desired). Optionally, add 1 to 2 T grated cheese (your choice, but gruyere or goat cheese will be particularly delicious) and ½ t of dried herb or 1 ½ t chopped fresh herb, and fold the uncovered half of the cooked eggs over the filling using a spatula. Serve immediately. Alternatively, heat the mushrooms (and sautéed vegetables, if desired) in the skillet with the herbs (if desired), add the eggs, and cook the eggs as described above; when almost cooked, add the cheese (if using) and fold in half with a spatula. Serve immediately.

Other applications: Any of the variations of Sautéed Mushrooms can be served over a green salad (2 T per 2 c greens; see Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® - June 2003 for salad-making guidelines). They can also be served over mashed potatoes (or other mashed root veggies), or baked potato cakes, or latkes or polenta. Use the full batch of sautéed mushrooms added at the end of making risotto (standard recipe using 1 c of rice; if you need the complete recipe, it will be provided in a future column).

Roasted Mushrooms

Similar to the Caramelized Mushrooms above which are done on the stovetop, these are done in the oven, and can be combined with a variety of vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, parsnips or your fave root veggies. Solo or with other ingredients, they are delicious. As discussed above, canned mushrooms can be used in an “emergency,” as caramelizing and roasting canned mushrooms are about the only ways to make them palatable, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Preheat oven to 400ºF. Heat olive oil (or melt butter) in a large (12”) oven-proof skillet (on top of stove) or in an oven-proof baking dish. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper to the warm fat and toss until the mushrooms are completely coated. Place the skillet/baking dish in the oven, and roast for one hour, stirring/shaking often (every 10 minutes is good). Serve immediately in any of the following applications or variations, or freeze. To freeze, spoon into ice cube trays in 1 T portions, or into muffin tins in ½ c portions (this recipe yields about 1 to 1.5 c of mushrooms).

Variations:

Roasted Mushrooms with Herbs or Chile: add 1 t of your favorite dried herb (whole/crushed is better than ground, to avoid burning in the oven) or crushed chile. Roast as described above. Thyme and rosemary are two of my favorites.

Roasted Mushrooms with Wine or Vinegar: add ½ c wine or ¼ c vinegar at the beginning, or ¼ c wine or 2 T vinegar at the end of roasting.

Applications:

Use any of the Roasted Mushroom variations in the applications described above for Sautéed Mushrooms, in the same proportions.

To reiterate, these recipes are primarily designed to bring enhanced flavor to the relatively inexpensive and easily accessible white button, crimini and portabella mushrooms. Practice the two techniques with them, and then expand your skill set to cook with the more precious wild mushrooms. During the spring and autumn mushroom seasons, when such delicacies as morels, chanterelles, and others are more abundant, I use these techniques to prepare them for freezing so that I can have them throughout the winter or whenever they are out of season. My guests are shocked when I serve a lightly dressed salad bejeweled with chanterelles, toasted hazelnuts and dried apricots in March, but they certainly don’t complain. Neither will yours! Now, go have some fun with fungi, and let me know if I can help by calling 773.508.9208 or email me.

 

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