My father was a mushroom farmer. During my high school years, I put in more than a few hours getting acquainted with mushrooms in every way possible. Most of the mushrooms we grew (from scratch, including inserting the mushroom spawn into the compost) were sent to various markets in the Northeast, but there were always several pounds that ended up in the kitchen at home, where my mother found practically 101 ways to use them. The mushrooms we farmed were basic white mushrooms, the kind that you are probably using when a mushroom topping is called for.
- White mushrooms: (including the smaller white known as a button mushroom) are quite versatile. In fact, though we often think of a mushroom as being cooked, they can be eaten raw. I sometimes make a mushroom carpaccio, which is nothing more than fresh white mushrooms sliced almost paper thin, spread out on a plate and sprinkled with fresh lemon juice. In order of usage (and considering cost) and popularity, the white mushroom comes fi rst. It has a mild, woodsy flavor that intensifi es when cooked, and it can be used in soups, stews, salads, egg and pasta dishes (as well as a pizza topping, of course). Mushrooms are nutritious, healthy, low in calories and fat and high in fi bre. What’s not to like? And here are some of the other popular types:
- Portobello: A fully grown brown mushroom; meaty, earthy, somewhat pungent. Excellent for grilling, frying, stuffi ng.
- Brown or cremini: fi rm, similar in size to the white mushroom, meaty, intense fl avor. Use in the same applications as the white mushroom.
- Shiitake: Fleshy, spongy, delicately meaty. Stir-fry, sauteé, broil. Used widely in Asian cooking.
- Oyster: mild in fl avor, velvety. Used mostly in seafood dishes and stir frys.
- Enoki: Mild, delicate. Most popular in Asian cooking and in salads.
There are many other varieties of mushrooms, of course, but these are the most commonly used and known.
Here are some very important tips when working with fresh mushrooms. Never soak or immerse fresh mushrooms in water to clean them. Mushrooms already have a high water content, so you are just adding more of something that is not needed. To clean fresh mushrooms, cut off a portion of the stem end (or remove it altogether). Wet a paper towel or cloth and brush the mushroom clean. Also there are brushes sold for this purpose as well.
When buying fresh white or brown mushrooms, look for those that are fi rm and intact. In other words, they should not have opened around the stem. When buying portobello mushrooms, look for those with a fi rm cap and stem, and that the gills are somewhat tight.
Storing fresh mushrooms has many variables relative to how fast you go through them (in your prep table or simply at room temperature). And some cooks swear by the idea of storing mushrooms in brown paper bags. And they are partially right, since plastic bags retain too much moisture. Nevertheless, over an extended period of time, they should be stored in the cooler. They do not need to be covered. Mushrooms, especially the portobello, are better off with circulating air.
For mushrooms used as a topping for pizza, slice the mushroom a little less than ½ inch thick. If they are paper-thin they will dry out from the oven heat and become tasteless. Also, when using a sliced fresh mushroom topping, I like to bury the mushrooms under the cheese a bit. This technique prevents the mushroom from being exposed to the oven heat and drying out, rendering it tasteless. On the other hand, if you use sliced portobello mushrooms as a topping, use slices that are close to ¼ inch thick, lay them over the sauce, then sprinkle on the cheese (this technique helps retain moisture yet allows for a visual of the slices once the cheese has melted).
Also, given the opportunity, I really like to sauté the sliced mushrooms in olive oil as a prep. This not only develops the fl avor, but also allows you to scatter them on top of the cheese (since the water in the mushroom has been cooked out). And I would take the same approach and sauté the mushrooms in olive oil and garlic when making a mushroom marinara sauce for a pasta dish. 09.09.09
Set this up as an appetizer or a small plate entrée. If you eliminate the sausage and add extra vegetables (celery, more peppers, broccoli) it can be listed as a vegetarian dish. Yield: six servings (scale up in direct proportion)
6 portobello mushrooms, stemmed, tops brushed clean, set aside
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chopped onion
1½ pounds sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
¼ cup finely chopped green bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley
½ cup grated Parmesan
6 ounces shredded mozzarella
In a large sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, sausage and bell pepper.
Cook and stir until the pink is gone from the sausage. Add the garlic, breadcrumbs, parsley and Parmesan. Cook for 2 minutes more, stirring. Cool the stuffi ng to room temperature. Brush the underside of each mushroom with some olive oil. Divide the stuffi ng among the mushrooms. Sprinkle an equal amount of shredded mozzarella over each mushroom.
Put the mushrooms on a lightly oiled sheet pan. Bake in a preheated 400 F oven for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese topping has melted. Serve. Mushrooms can be prepped ahead and held for 2 hours and baked to order. Serve with a side salad drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
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