Operators embrace mushrooms’ availability year ’round
In 1975, I was a young dishwasher at a Swenson’s ice cream restaurant in Chicago. One day, Kevin, our abusive 20 year-old “head cook,” called me to the grill to see something cool. I complied, hoping he would hook me up with free food.
“Check this out, dish dork,” Kevin said proudly. “This is what you call a screamer.”
He reached into a can of mushrooms, put a large one on the flat top and pressed hard, sliding the mushroom from side to side on the hot grill. The high screech filled the kitchen as Kevin smiled from ear to ear. He then spatula-flicked the mushroom high up into the hood where it stuck, then dropped.
“See, suds-boy, it’s a screamer! Get it?” He laughed, and then grimaced at the can. “That’s about the only thing good that comes from mushrooms.”
But I, as well as many others, completely disagree. So let’s dig deeper.
- The following mushrooms are readily available from purveyors and are easily manipulated to turn on your guests.
- Portobello. $.25 per ounce for smaller ones and $1.91 each for the giant 4½-inch Frisbees. These are great grilled and lend a deep, dark color and flavor to sauces. A great trick is to pull the skin edge of each up and toward the center and discard the strips. This will enable you to coat with olive oil for a better char when grilling. I turn them gills-up in an empty pizza pan and dump copious amounts of olive oil and garlic on them. Next I blast them through my conveyor oven, let cool and cut long thin strips to a great visual effect like a sunburst on pizza.
- Cremini. These are also called “baby bellas” but are double the price, ($.14 per ounce) of white mushrooms of the same size. The flavor is rich with a meaty taste, but not as strong as large portobellos. I use these for marinating because of the deep brown color. And they also pair well on pizza with cannellini beans, tomatoes, egg, cream, pecorino, Fontina and thyme.
- Morels. These are found growing wild during the spring and are wonderful with asparagus, ramps, butter, eggs, cream, bacon, garlic, caraway, thyme and lemon. I love stuffing them with polenta and on pizza with Parmesan, fontina, peppered chèvre and basil. Do not wash these mushrooms as they will soak up all the water. These mushrooms present a better visual on pizza if they are cut in half. You can also obtain dried, half-ounce Chinese morels for a whopping $12 each.
- Shiitake. This chewy, firm mushroom has a piney umami flavor of smoky steak and can be had for $.50 an ounce fresh. The dried caps are popular in Asian grocery stores and can be re-hydrated with a boiling water soak for 10 minutes. If using fresh shiitake, be prepared to spend an eighth of your money on the heavy, unusable stems though. Shiitake go great with sweet peppers, basil, chilies, eggplant, garlic, feta cheese, Parmesan, lemon, miso and scallions, onion, rosemary and walnuts.
- Oyster mushrooms. These buttery and tender mushrooms have a light sweetness to them. The Royal King oysters are large enough to roast and shave thinly lengthwise for a whopping presentation on pizza. Garlic, onions, parsley and asparagus as well as celery root, fennel and artichokes pair well using Parmesan, Swiss and Taleggio cheeses. The tender smaller oysters roast perfectly on any pizza; I prefer them with Jerusalem artichoke, fresh curd, roasted garlic and a little lemon-spritzed asparagus. The larger oyster mushrooms can be had for $.57 per ounce and the smaller versions are $.52 per ounce.
- Porcini. To me, this is the king of mushroom flavor. When I was competing in Italy, I sought out a mushroom guru in the mountains and he said that dried porcini was preferred over fresh because of the intensity of flavor. I took his word for it and that advice has opened up a whole new world of taste. These can be bought dried in one-pound jars for $3 an ounce, which sounds intimidating. But as you re-hydrate these mushrooms, the pungent, smoky meat and nut taste permeates the water as well as the flesh. Porcinis are great with provolone, ricotta, Parmesan, any goat cheese, garlic, lemon, polenta, pine nuts, spinach, tomato and balsamic vinegar.
- Maitake. This is also called Hen of the Woods because it has a chicken taste and texture. It pairs well with parsley, fresh spinach, sesame, miso, olive oil and cilantro. This mushroom tends to get tough as it ages. This should not be confused with Chicken of the Woods, which is another nice meaty mushroom.
- Chanterelle. My bronze medal mushroom behind morels and porcini. It tastes of apricot and pepper and grows profusely in our Ohio forests in the hot summers in large 10- to 20-foot circles of gold. The best way to preserve them is to “dry sauté” them in a pan or in your pizza oven and then immediately freeze. Any moisture ruins the texture after freezing. Perfect with shallots, butter, sunny-side up egg, garlic, parsley, cream mascarpone cheese, corn, onions, butternut squash, Parmesan, cream and pepper.
- Button. Everyone knows these small white babies that sell for $.12 per ounce. They are slightly sweet with a tender texture but can be used to enhance other, more expensive mushrooms.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author.