- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Buttery, mint-scented wild mushrooms in puff pastry cases at the celebrated Michel Guerard restaurant in southwestern France.

Aromatic chanterelles and morels with chicken strips and wine sauce at the elegant La Reserve restaurant near Bordeaux.

Omelets filled with garlic-scented cepes (porcini) at a little cafe in Provence.

The porcini mushrooms my husband and I bought while traveling in Tuscany, which we ate alfresco after sauteing them in olive oil on our van’s burner.

In the past, plenty of effort and even risk of poisoning were involved when people had to gather their own mushrooms. Luckily, the Chinese started domesticating shiitakes more than 600 years ago, and the French followed by cultivating white mushrooms about 200 years ago.

At many supermarkets, you can find earthy, brownish, large-stemmed porcini; delicate yellow-orange chante relles; larger orange-red lobster mushrooms; thin, tender enoki; meaty brown shiitake; trumpet-shaped oyster mushrooms that come in clumps; mysterious-looking, intensely flavored brown morels with a honeycomb shape; and plate-size portobellos.

White button mushrooms also have a brown cousin called cremini, which is actually the small form of the portobello. Visit ethnic markets, and you’ll find even more varieties.

Mushrooms weren’t always so easy to get in North America. In the early 1980s, when I moved back home after spending 13 years abroad, I had to go on a “mushroom hunt” to a specialty grocer or farmers market if I hoped to find wild mushrooms. Even dried mushrooms, a useful pantry staple for adding flavor to soups and sauces, required a trip to a gourmet shop. Now many of these exotic mushrooms can be found easily during much of the year.

There are two basic techniques for cooking mushrooms, as I learned in the introductory cooking class during my first year at La Varenne Cooking School in Paris:

m White cooking and brown cooking. White-cooked mushrooms, the chef explained, were boiled briefly in a bit of liquid, which was then used in a delicate sauce.

m Brown-cooked mushrooms were sauteed briefly on high heat.

Generally, white-cooked mushrooms went into white stews (made with white wine and often cream), and browned mushrooms were designed for dishes with a red wine sauce.

The many 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 didn’t feel the urge to explore the many tasty mushroom dishes created by cooks in other lands.

When I tasted mushroom curry with peas at an Indian vegetarian restaurant, I loved it. I found a great recipe in my friend Neelam Batra’s tome “1000 Indian Recipes,” in which the mushroom curry is accented with almonds, poppy seeds, ginger and cardamom. I also found another mushroom specialty, paneer cheese scramble with morel mushrooms and cumin seeds.

A Thai friend taught me how to make a rich Thai mushroom and red chili curry with coconut milk and a variety of vegetables.

With their meaty texture and satisfying flavor, mushrooms have long been a favorite of vegetarians and frugal cooks looking for meat substitutes.

Fillings of chopped or sliced mushrooms are wonderful in crepes and all sorts of pastries, accompanied by a mushroom sauce. Mushrooms enhance stuffings of all types, whether meaty or vegetarian, and taste great when stuffed with spinach puree, garlic butter, ground meat filling or cheese-flavored bread-crumb stuffing.

A few mushrooms can lend a wonderful aroma and flavor to a sauce or soup. They are good partners for steak, chicken, fish, rice, vegetables and just about every food.

Mushrooms are easy to prepare because they cook in a few minutes. The only reason for stewing them longer is to add extra flavor to a sauce.

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.

Buying sliced mushrooms saves time, but whole ones keep better. For most uses, I prefer thicker slices than those in the packages. In any case, slicing mushrooms takes very little time; the easiest way is to cut them in half from top to bottom, then put them cut side down on the cutting board and cut each in half slices.

Button mushrooms keep up to 5 days; exotic mushrooms are more perishable and should be used within 3 days. It’s important to keep them 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.

Dried mushrooms keep for months, according to Jack Czarnecki, author of “Joe’s Book of Mushroom Cookery,” but not indefinitely. Although they might seem more expensive than fresh ones, he writes, it takes 100 pounds of fresh mushrooms to yield 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.

Clean mushrooms attentively just before cooking them. It’s best not to submerge them in water unless you have morels that are very sandy. The chefs I studied with in Paris rinsed each mushroom carefully and rubbed it gently to remove any sand. Delicate exotic mushrooms can be rubbed 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.

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.

Mushrooms with red peppers, cumin and thyme

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 pound mushrooms, quartered

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried leaf thyme, crumbled

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Heat oil in large heavy skillet. Add onion and pepper, and saute about 7 minutes over medium heat. Add mushrooms, cumin, 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.

Shiitake mushrooms with sesame seeds

The stems of shiitake mushrooms, whether fresh or dried, can be tough. Cut them off and use them to flavor broth, then strain them out before using.

Sauteed chanterelle mushrooms with fresh herbs

Exotic mushrooms are usually cooked simply so they keep their wonderful flavor. Chanterelles are the most beautiful to use because of their lovely golden-orange color. You can cook lobster mushrooms or fresh shiitake mushrooms the same way.

1/2 pound exotic mushrooms, such as chanterelles or shiitake mushrooms

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 or 2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or chives

Clean mushrooms very gently with damp paper towel. If using shiitake mushrooms, cut off stems, which are tough; you can save them for flavoring broth. If mushrooms are large, cut in bite-size pieces, following the mushroom’s shape.

Heat oil and butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper. Saute about 3 minutes. When liquid comes out of mushrooms, raise heat to high and saute, tossing often, 2 minutes. When liquid has nearly evaporated, add shallot and saute 1 to 2 more minutes, until mushrooms are lightly browned and tender. Add parsley and tarragon or chives. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

Mushroom medley with Madeira

Combine any kind of exotic mushrooms with button mushrooms for this richly flavored stew. Chanterelles can be used instead of the porcini or shiitake. The dish makes a wonderful topping for rice, grilled steaks or poached eggs.

1/4 pound fresh porcini (cepes) or shiitake mushrooms

1/4 pound button mushrooms, halved and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 tablespoons butter

1 large shallot, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/3 cup Madeira

1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley

Gently rinse mushrooms and dry on paper towels. If using cepes, cut in thin slices. If using shiitake mushrooms, use caps only; thinly slice.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat oil and 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Stir in shallot, then cepes or shiitake 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 cepes or shiitake 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.

Braised chicken with morel sauce

There is nothing better than chicken with a creamy mushroom sauce, especially when the mushrooms are morels. Asparagus is the perfect accompaniment, with either Basmati rice or fine fresh pasta on the side.

3/4 to 1 ounce dried morels (about 3/4 cup)

2 tablespoons butter

2 small shallots, minced

1/2 cup white wine

1 1/4 cups chicken stock or low-salt broth

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup whipping cream

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 pounds chicken pieces, patted dry

Soak morels in hot water to cover for about 30 minutes or until soft. Rinse and drain thoroughly. Halve any large morels.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add shallots and cook over low heat about 2 minutes or until softened. Add 1/4 cup wine and bring to a boil, stirring.

Add 1 cup stock, thyme, morels, salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered over moderate heat until liquid is reduced to about 1 cup. Stir in cream and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 7 minutes, or until sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon.

Season chicken pieces lightly with salt and pepper. Heat oil and remaining butter in large heavy skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Add leg and thigh pieces and brown lightly. Set on a plate. Add breast and wing pieces to skillet and brown lightly.

Return leg and thigh pieces to skillet. Add chicken juices from plate and remaining wine and stock. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until breast pieces are tender. Transfer them to a platter, cover and keep them warm. Cook remaining chicken 10 minutes more or until tender. Add leg and thigh pieces to platter.

Reheat morel sauce in a saucepan. Skim as much fat as possible from chicken cooking liquid. Boil liquid, stirring, until reduced to about 1/4 cup. Stir into reheated sauce. If necessary, simmer briefly until thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve chicken with sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Miss Levy is the author of “Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook” and “Feast From the Mideast.”

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