ONE morning recently, I woke up and realized summer was over. Though I live miles from anything like a forest, the cool, damp air carried a perfume that reminded me of a walk in the woods, feet shuffling through a deep thatch of wet, fallen leaves. I snuggled deeper into my comforter and dreamed about mushrooms.
Not just any mushrooms, of course. The fungus of my dreams tastes wild and woodsy. What too often ends up on my plate is flaccid and pallid. This is the result of nothing more than a failure to pay attention. All it takes to cook delicious mushrooms is just one simple trick: Do everything backward.
Normally, when we cook mushrooms, we build a flavoring base of butter or olive oil and shallots or garlic and then gently stew the mushrooms in it. Turn that around: Sear the mushrooms in a really hot pan and add the seasonings only after they’ve browned a bit. It sounds too easy, but just try it. Even the most common domestic mushrooms will taste rich and meaty, almost wild.
I came across this technique quite by accident. I was fixing dinner one night and focusing my attention on something else -- maybe grilled lamb chops or a roast chicken ... could have been a Laker game. I looked over and realized I had left the pan for the mushrooms over high heat and the butter was past foaming and even beginning to turn nutty.
I quickly dumped in the mushrooms and gave them a couple of tosses, thinking that would cool down the pan. Then I realized I’d forgotten to add the garlic and parsley, so in they went. A few more minutes and the dish was done.
I wasn’t expecting much. At best, I hoped nobody would pay the mushrooms any attention. But when I tasted them, they exploded with flavor. Where did you get these mushrooms? someone asked. What kind are they? Are they wild?
What happens is this: When the mushrooms hit the hot butter, they start to give off moisture. Add the seasonings at this point and they carry back to the mushrooms as that liquid concentrates and is reabsorbed. Furthermore, the process goes very quickly, so rather than stewing slowly, the mushrooms get a chance to brown a bit before they start to become limp.
I’ve since refined the technique. I now think it’s better to start the mushrooms on medium-high and then increase the heat once they’ve begun to sweat. I’ve found that salting them early helps draw out the moisture. And most recently, on rereading an old Edouard de Pomiane cookbook, I found he does almost the same thing, but covers the pan with a lid for the first couple of minutes -- that concentrates the heat even more.
Vary the seasonings
MUSHROOMS prepared this way are terrific as a side dish, just served by themselves (a final gloss of butter and a couple of drops of sherry vinegar round out the flavor nicely). Vary the herbs and flavorings, maybe some rosemary (just a hint) or tarragon (as much as you want). Or you can use shallots in place of the garlic. And sometimes it’s nice to toss in some chopped, toasted hazelnuts for a little bit of crunch.
Try different mushrooms. White and brown buttons and portabellos are available everywhere -- they make up something like 90% of all mushrooms sold. Actually, they are all the same family of mushroom, Agaricus bisporus. But this doesn’t mean they are all the same.
According to Thomas Volk, a mycologist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, originally all commercially raised Agaricus mushrooms were brown, but in the 1930s a white strain was found. Thought fashionable at the time, these came to dominate the industry, though they were selected primarily for color rather than flavor. When earthy-looking brown mushrooms made a comeback in the ‘80s, it was with a new strain that was chosen in part for the flavor, usually sold as cremini mushrooms.
Then, in the early ‘90s, growers found that they could get a premium for wild-looking, overgrown cremini mushrooms that already had opened out. They called them by a made-up name that was thought to sound Italian. Or rather, several made-up names -- you can find them labeled as “portobello,” “portabella,” “portobella” and “portabello” (for the record, the American Mushroom Institute prefers the last). So popular have these mushrooms become that normal cremini are being sold as “baby ‘bellos.”
Though portabellos are harvested only a week or so older than creminis, that is a long time in the life of a mushroom. The most obvious difference is size (figure four portabellos to the pound as opposed to 25 to 30 creminis). The extra maturity also means portabellos have begun to soften and the dark gills underneath have developed fully. Whether there is much of a difference in flavor is hard to say (but because of their size, portabellos are very nice grilled). If you are fastidious about appearance, remember that the mature gills tend to stain everything a rather dismal gray. If that bothers you, cut them off before cooking.
IN addition to these Agaricus mushrooms, Japanese markets also stock maitake, or “hen of the woods” mushrooms (Grifola fondosa), that have a deep, woodsy flavor and a pleasant, slightly tart edge. Fresh shiitake mushrooms are also common, but I find they have such a pronounced smoky aroma that they have to be used very carefully. And I still have not found a good use for enoki and oyster mushrooms, which even their most ardent fans describe as “mild flavored.”
Even if you’re limited to regular old button mushrooms, start with a variety of sizes. This way, when you cut them up you get a mix of shapes: Leave the smallest whole, cut the ones that are a little bigger into halves, cut the biggest into quarters, etc. All the mushrooms should end up roughly the same size so they will cook at the same rate.
This technique is also good as a starting point for preparing mushrooms in other dishes. I think of it as a kind of “intensifying” step -- like roasting tomatoes in olive oil. It doesn’t matter whether they are then used by themselves as a garnish, tossed with pasta or folded into a more complicated dish, they are improved by the process.
You can use them in a dish as simple as mixing the mushrooms with a little cream and using this to dress steamed potatoes.
Combine the two components while both are hot so the flavorings will penetrate the potato before the starch on the outside cools.
Or it can be something a lot more complex. Stew these intensified mushrooms in a mixture of prosciutto, leeks and creme fraiche, then fold them together with cooked spaghetti squash, add more cream, bake it, top with Parmesan bread crumbs and bake it again. The depth of mushroom flavor is magnificent.
The latter recipe is based very loosely on one by bestselling cookbook author Deborah Madison (in her version, she uses chanterelles and simply bakes them with squash and cream).
At first, combining mushrooms and spaghetti squash seemed odd (actually, considering my opinion of spaghetti squash, combining it with anything would seem odd). But the more I thought about it, I realized the bland, slightly bitter taste of the squash might be a good foil for the mushrooms. And because the spaghetti strands are so fibrous, they won’t go mushy the way real noodles might.
Think about it: Finally, something delicious to do with spaghetti squash. Pinch me, I must be dreaming.