Cooking with mushrooms

Not only are these fungi tasty and adaptable to many dishes, they’re also low in calories and good for you!

I have hunted for wild mushrooms in the rolling hills of Napa, California, with a mycologist (professional mushroom forager) and in my own back yard with a well-known chef. Looking for the elusive fungi is almost a meditative experience that should always be done with experts, not amateurs. 

In reality, most of us “hunt” for mushrooms in our local grocery stores for the commercially grown, cultivated varieties. While this may not be as exciting as searching in the woods, the produce section yields a pretty wide selection for every mushroom lover.

Some of my favorites include delicate oyster mushrooms that are grayish-white with pretty fluted caps. They are best sautéed lightly in butter and served with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Shiitake mushrooms are tan to dark brown with a broad umbrella cap. They are great marinated and used in a stir-fry. Enoki are tender, white mushrooms with long stems and small caps. They have a sweet, mild taste. Serve them in salads or soups, or lightly stir-fried. The royal trumpet is so called because of its light-brown, shaped cap, and is delicious grilled or stir-fried. Cremini are the brown cousins of the common button mushroom that most of us are familiar with. Cremini are more intense in flavor and can be used in many ways, from sautéing to thinly sliced and used raw in salads. The portobello, sporting a large brown cap, is also related to cremini mushrooms. Portobellos are often referred to as  “poor man’s steak” because of their meaty texture. They are fabulous on the grill.

There are hundreds of other types of cultivated fungi, and the good news is that mushrooms are not only tasty and versatile, but they also provide selenium, an essential mineral that’s beneficial for producing antioxidants. Mushrooms are a great source of potassium, too. And did you know that they are the only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle and one of the few non-fortified food sources? Eat all you want since mushrooms are also low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free and gluten-free.

Here are some things to remember about buying and storing mushrooms: If packaged in plastic, take the mushrooms out and place them in a paper bag. Mushrooms need to breathe, and plastic turns them mushy. They will keep refrigerated for several days. Never wash mushrooms; wipe them with a damp cloth or use a mushroom brush to remove any dirt.

The best advice I can give about cooking mushrooms is to leave them alone. Don’t be in a hurry to stir them too frequently. Let them exude their liquid and start to brown before stirring. Your patience will be rewarded with perfectly cooked mushrooms. 

Mother Earth Mushroom Ragu 
Makes about 2 cups

Earthy mushrooms slow-cooked in butter make a wonderful side dish to steak, or a sauce for pasta or risotto. For this simple ragu, try oyster mushrooms, which lend a velvety texture and a mild flavor. For a bolder taste, try shiitake or cremini. This ragu is the perfect topping for slices of grilled polenta, too. To maximize the flavor of mushrooms, be patient; do not be in a hurry to stir them while they cook. Leave them alone and allow them to cook gently without stirring. Your patience will be rewarded.

6 tablespoons butter
2 heaping tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 medium shallots, peeled, ends trimmed and minced
1 pound oyster, shittake or cremini mushrooms, wiped with a damp paper towel and thinly sliced
2/3 cup heavy cream
Fine sea salt, to taste
Generous grinding black pepper

1. Melt the butter in a medium sauté pan. Stir in the thyme and shallots, and cook over medium heat until the shallots are soft and the mixture smells fragrant.

2. Increase the heat to medium high. Add the mushrooms and cook without stirring until they begin to release their liquid. Stir and continue cooking until all the liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated.

3. Slowly pour in the cream and mix well to combine. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook covered for about 5 minutes. Uncover, season the ragu with salt to taste and a good grinding of black pepper.

Recipe from Ciao Italia Family Classics by Mary Ann Esposito

Marinated Fresh Mushrooms
Serves 8–10

These marinated mushrooms are a tasty addition to an appetizer party. Begin the process early in the day to give the mushrooms sufficient time to marry well with the marinade.

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds button mushrooms, cleaned and stemmed
3 shallots, peeled and minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons minced tarragon leaves
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Grinding black pepper
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large sauté pan. When the oil begins to shimmer, stir in the mushrooms and cook them, stirring occasionally until they are soft and begin to render their juices. Drain the mushrooms in a colander set over a bowl to collect the liquid. Save the juice to use for making a stock.

2. In a shallow 9-by-12-inch glass baking dish, combine the remaining olive oil, shallots, garlic, tarragon, parsley, salt, pepper, vinegar and sugar. Mix well. Add the mushrooms and toss them carefully, coating them with the marinade. Cover the dish and allow the mushrooms to marinate at room temperature for several hours or overnight.

3. Toss several times to distribute the marinade. Serve at room temperature.

Mushroom Salad 
Serves 4

Mushroom salad is a delight, especially when made with a variety of mushrooms, such as oyster, shiitake, enoki and cremini. If none of these is available, use all button mushrooms. The success of this salad depends on slicing the mushrooms as paper thin as possible and using a good extra-virgin olive oil.

3 cups thinly sliced button or mixed mushrooms
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1/4 cup minced parsley
Grinding of black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. Toss the mushrooms with the celery, parsley and black pepper in a salad bowl. Pour the olive oil over the mixture and toss again.

2. Spoon the mushroom mixture onto a serving platter. Sprinkle the salt over the top and add the shavings of cheese.

Recipe from Ciao Italia Family Classics by Mary Ann Esposito

Stuffed Portobello Mushroom “Quiche”
Serves 4

Portobello are cultivated mushrooms that are the big brothers of the simple button mushroom. They are popular marinated and grilled, but stuff their large caps and they become the “crust” for this spinach and cheese “tart.”

1 10-ounce box frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese, divided
Salt, to taste
Generous grinding black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 large portobello mushrooms, at least 4 inches in diameter, stems removed and caps wiped with a damp paper towel

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Chop the spinach coarsely and place in a bowl. Whisk in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the thyme and half the cheese. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 12½-inch ovenproof sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, cap side down, and cook for 2–3 minutes, covered.

3. Remove the mushrooms from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Then fill each mushroom cavity with some of the spinach and cheese mixture.

4. Place the mushrooms in a baking dish in a single layer and sprinkle the remaining cheese evenly over the spinach. Drizzle with the remaining oil. Cover the dish and bake for 25–30 minutes. Uncover, and continue baking until the filling is hot and the cheese is bubbly. Serve hot.

Cook’s secret: Cut each cap into quarters and serve as an appetizer.

Recipe courtesy of Mary Ann Esposito

Mushroom Soup    
Makes 21/2 quarts

Mushroom soup from a can? Never! It is so easy to make and so tasty when a variety of mushrooms are used.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 large leeks, cleaned and cut into rings
2 pounds mixed mushrooms, including oyster, shitake and button
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
6 cups hot chicken broth
1 cup light cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
¼cup minced fresh parsley
Grated cheese, for garnish

1. Heat the olive oil in a soup pot. Stir in the leeks and mushrooms, and cook covered over medium heat until the mushrooms are soft. Add the thyme and cook 3 minutes longer. Add the chicken broth and cook covered for 5 minutes.

2. Remove the soup from the heat and purée in batches using a food processor, blender or immersion blender until smooth. Add the cream, salt, pepper and parsley, and reheat slowly. Top with grated cheese and serve hot.

Variations: Reserve some of the cooked mushrooms for garnish. Or add toasted bread to the bottom of the soup bowl before ladling the soup in.

Categories: Food & Recipes