Truffles and morels and mushrooms, oh my! A fungus by any other name is, well, it’s still a fungus. Mushrooms are one of nature’s most versatile and exotic specimens for use as an ingredient in the kitchen. Their earthiness adds a whole other facet of flavor to stews, is enhanced when sautéed with sage and marries perfectly with cheeses atop of pizzas or within paninis.
The first mushrooms are believed to have been cultivated by early Chinese, Greek and Roman civilizations. Mushrooms were utilized by these cultures both for medicinal properties and for culinary consumption. Today, there are thousands of varieties of the edible fungus, many of which are harvested or cultivated for your enjoyment, including such specimens as chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, porcini mushrooms, cremini mushrooms, shiitakes, cepes, enokis and Portobellos.
On the subject of edible fungus, truffles are another species. Truffles grow underground and are located by tunneling snouts of trained pigs and dogs. If the critter doesn’t gobble up the unburied treasure first, perfectly ripe truffles are then destined for the kitchen. The most prized truffles are known as black diamonds, found primarily in the French Perigord and Italian Umbria regions. The white truffle grows in the Piedmont region of Italy. Truffles are harvested during the autumn months and into mid-winter. Truffles provide an intense earthy flavor and fragrance that is coveted in every gourmet chef’s kitchen. Truffles are very expensive provisions, however. I would recommend splurging on truffles solely for special holiday cooking and consider adding truffle oil to your pantry staples inventory for infusing truffle flavor on an any day basis.
Morels are from the same fungus species as truffles. They are characterized by a honeycomb appearance on the surface, with a cone-like cap. The color ranges from tan to a deep espresso brown. The darker the morel, the more intense flavor it holds. Morels add a level of smokiness and nuttiness to their earthy flavor. Morels are typically harvested throughout the spring.
Cultivated white mushrooms pervade the supermarkets en masse. While they do have their place in epicurean projects, the flavor is very mild at best. Canned mushrooms should be avoided at all costs, unless you want slippery, slimy slices that taste like the brine or water in which they were packaged. While I used to have to frequent one particular gourmet market for wild mushrooms, I have noticed them cropping up in well-stocked supermarkets. These include shiitakes, creminis and oyster mushrooms.
Originating in Japan and Korea, the shiitake mushroom boasts a brown cap that can be as large as six inches across and whose edges often curl under. The cap, although thin, has a meaty texture and has a flavor that faintly reminiscent of beef. The stems are very tough and are usually discarded or simmered in stocks for added flavor.
Oyster mushrooms are easily identified by the gray, multiple, petal-like caps that fan outward from the stem. They have a strong earthy flavor with undertones of pepperiness.
Cremini mushrooms resemble the white mushroom in size and shape, but are much darker brown in hue. They are actually the immature version of the popular, large and meaty Portobello mushroom. They are dense and full flavored, a more rewarding alternative to the white mushrooms for use in stews.
Mushrooms that naturally sunbathe in ultraviolet rays undergo a chemical conversion that transforms ergosterol into vitamin D. If you have been informed by your physician that you suffer from vitamin D deficiency, or if you are one of today’s many individuals that is chained to a corporate cubicle all day, seeing about as much sunshine as the vampires your teenage daughter voraciously reads about, help yourself to a plate of mushrooms. It’s a lot more enjoyable than gulping down a vitamin capsule!
Unless you happen to be a mycologist, one who is trained to accurately identify wild fungi, refrain from regressing back to the days of our ancestors. We are no longer a hunter and gatherer society, no longer required to venture into the woods to pluck wild mushrooms. Many of the wild mushrooms spotted in backyards and along hiking trails are in fact toxic. Just ask the golden retriever here on Long Island who made the news by making such an attempt at culinary mushroom gathering. She couldn’t wait to get the backyard mushrooms into the kitchen and began snacking immediately. This resulted in an extended stay in the local emergency hospital and a very hefty vet bill for her owner. Stick to the mushrooms in your food markets, and keep children and pets away from the snacking temptations of mushrooms in your yard.
Mushrooms are used in a variety of dishes, from soups,stews and stuffing to pizzas, paninis and pastas. Mushrooms are on every ingredient list for Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourgignon. Chicken with morels and a creamy sauce makes an elegant entrée. Try topping a pizza with fontina, mozzarella, Asagio, Pecorino Romano, sliced creminis, garlic and chopped pancetta. Mushrooms are tossed into ommelettes and stirred into mashed potatoes, risottos and polenta. Truffled mashed potatoes and truffled macaroni and cheese are decadent indulgences. A favored autumnal side dish that I like to prepare is that of sautéed wild mushrooms. The savory garlic and the sweetness of cream sherry meld perfectly with the earthiness of various mushrooms and fresh sage.
Wild Mushroom Saute
8 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms
8 ounces fresh oyster mushrooms
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup cream Sherry
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Slice the cremini mushrooms. One by one, peel off the petal-like caps of the oyster mushrooms. Remove stems from the shiitake mushrooms and discard, then slice the caps. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add all of the mushrooms and sauté for several minutes, until they soften and their size reduces. Add the garlic and sauté for five minutes more. Add the Sherry and the sage and stir for another two minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serves four.
1 pound fresh white mushrooms
¼ cup butter (1/2 stick)
2 shallots, chopped
2 tablespoons cream Sherry
1 tablespoon flour
2 ½ cups heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Sea salt and ground white pepper
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
2 additional white mushrooms, sliced
Chop the 1 pound of mushrooms in a food processor. Melt and heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and shallots, and sauté until the mixture is cooked – the mushrooms will turn brown. Add the sherry and sauté for another minute. Sprinkle the flour over the mushroom mixture and stir to combine. Stir in the cream. After about two minutes, remove from heat and transfer the soup to a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour back into the saucepan, stir in the nutmeg and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Heat through. Ladle into two large soup bowls; garnish each with the mushroom slices and the chives.
Easy Cheesy Mushroom Pizza
1 round Italian bread, halved horizontally
Tomato Pizza Sauce recipe10 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced
8 ounces fontina cheese, grated
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated
½ pound pancetta, chopped
4 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Preheat oven to 450-degrees. Place bread halves, cut-side up, on a large pizza stone or baking sheet. Spread the tomato sauce over both. In a large bowl, combine the fontina and mozzarella, then arrange the mixture over both pizzas. Scatter the sliced mushrooms and the pancetta over both. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of Romano over each pizza. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the cheese is melted.
Mushroom Prep 101
Never wash mushrooms under running water, they become waterlogged and their texture is compromised. To remove dirt from mushrooms before cooking, take a damp towel (or a damp heavy duty paper towel that doesn’t shed lint) and rub the dirt off of each mushroom.
As indicated above, shiitake mushrooms should be stemmed and cast aside. Make quick work of slicing the caps by stemming all of the mushrooms first, then stack up four or five caps at a time and slice through them all at once. Of course, the task can be even easier if you cheat: many supermarkets vend sliced shiitakes and sliced creminis. If you opt for purchasing pre-sliced mushrooms, use them within a day or two.
For the above recipe, oyster mushrooms are easy to ready for the skillet. Simply peel away the petal-like caps, one by one and drop them into the skillet or a prep bowl.
When dealing with white mushrooms or cremini mushrooms, they can be sliced for sautéing or for topping something, like a pizza, stem and all. If you’re going to send them for a plunge in the stewing pool, they can either be tossed in whole or you can halve or quarter them lengthwise if you want smaller chunks.
Some mushrooms, such as porcini mushrooms, are readily found as dried mushrooms. These are fine for adding to stews; simply rehydrate them in a bowl of boiled water for thirty minutes before adding them to the recipe. For a flavor enhancement to soups or stews, you can also pulverize the dried mushrooms into a powder and then stir them into the pot.