Frequently sporting hefty per-pound price tags, these mushrooms may seem beyond the reach of the average consumer. But, as you will see in the recipes that follow, a little bit goes a very long way. That and their ever-increasing popularity are probably the main reasons that exotic mushrooms have moved beyond the farmer's markets and specialty stores and into the produce aisles of the major supermarkets.
Foreign and domestically grown Asian mushrooms, such as shiitake and matsutake, are usually much less expensive than European imports. With their broad, canopylike caps and forest-floor coloration, they appear wild. But Japan has been cultivating these mushrooms since A.D. 199.
Although they are passed off as wild by purveyors and restaurants, shiitakes are decidedly less pungent than their savage counterparts. But their availability and price are consistent year-round, making them a good alternative to anyone wanting to cash in on the cachet of true wild varieties, without their drawbacks.
Another widely available cultivated Japanese mushroom is enokitake. Sold in three-ounce, vacuum-packed sacks, enokitakes are a common, though exotic- looking, item in the produce section of most supermarkets. With their cluster of creamy-white, rounded caps on long, slender stems, they lend salads, soups and stir-fries an otherworldly flair and mild flavor.
Morels are chocolate brown with an elongated, deeply honeycombed cap. They are second only to truffles in pungency and are often compared in flavor to roasted eggplant or beef.
Chanterelles are small, trumpet-shaped mushrooms, apricot in color with a slight aroma of the fruit as well. Their texture is meaty, and their flavor is somewhat smoky.
Cepes look a lot like the common field mushroom, but with a browner, more bulbous cap. This is one of the most widely eaten and easily foraged wild mushrooms in the world. It has a meaty texture and subtle flavor that vaguely resembles chestnuts. The Italians produce large quantities of dried cepes, which they call porcini.
Pleurottes also are known as oyster mushrooms. Very soft and watery, these mushrooms are so nicknamed because they have the round, pale-gray appearance of oysters. There is no flavor resemblance; they taste more like veal or pork.
The most luxurious of wild mushrooms are fresh truffles. In season from mid-autumn through the winter, fresh truffles typically sell for well over $100 a pound, although the thinnest shaving is enough to infuse a sauce with a depth of flavor and nuance of aroma that no other ingredient offers. They are available by special order through gourmet markets and specialty importers. Forget the canned equivalents. They taste about as much like a truffle as a canned peach tastes like one off the tree.
When buying fresh wild mushrooms, go by the same standards as you would for
cultivated varieties. The mushrooms should be dry, firm and uniform in color. Reject those with soft spots or mold. Although dirty mushrooms are not bad, excessive soil can harbor micro-organisms that can substantially shorten a mushroom's shelf life, so choose mushrooms that are as clean as possible.
Store them in paper or perforated plastic bags in the vegetable drawer of a refrigerator for no longer than two days. Never wrap them tightly in anything that is impermeable to air. Without some air flow, the moisture in a mushroom will become concentrated, causing the mushroom to waterlog itself and rot quickly.
Avoid exposing mushrooms to water for any length of time. The safest way to clean them is to remove any surface dirt with a damp towel, but if this is too laborious, you can wash mushrooms under a brief spray of very cold water immediately before cooking them.
All problems with availability and storage of wild mushrooms are remedied by the use of dried wild-mushroom products. Cepes, porcini, morels, chanterelles, shiitakes, tree fungus and field mushrooms are all readily available in dried form. These products suffer somewhat in consistency and subtlety of flavor, but considering that they don't require refrigeration and can sit on a shelf for more than a year without damage, their overwhelming advantage is obvious.
Dried mushrooms need only to be rehydrated in warm-to-hot tap water for 30 minutes, after which they're washed and cooked. An added advantage of these products is the rich, mushroom-flavored liquid that's left over from soaking. Pass it through several layers of damp cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove any debris, and use in cooking, in place of meat or vegetable broth.
The following recipes are wonderfully opulent in flavor, but we've kept their price down by "bulking up" each dish with the common, cheaper
cultivated mushroom. (If price is no object, feel free to use all wild varieties. If price is very much an object, these recipes will work with only
cultivated mushrooms, although the exquisite taste will be missing.)
Recipes call for a variety of dried and fresh mushrooms, but substitute one mushroom for another if the exact type specified in the ingredient list is unavailable.
RAGOUT OF WILD MUSHROOMS
1/2 ounce dried morels
1/2 ounce dried chanterelles
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons butter
1 leek, white part only, washed and sliced
1/4 pound cepes or shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and cleaned
1/4 pound oyster mushrooms, cleaned
1/4 pound large white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 chopped, peeled and seeded tomato
Salt and pepper to taste
In a small bowl, soak the dried morels and chanterelles in the warm water for 30 minutes to rehydrate. Squeeze mushrooms to remove excess water, place in a strainer, rinse well under running water and set aside. Pour the soaking liquid through a coffee filter or double layer of cheesecloth to clear it of any debris, and simmer it over high heat until reduced to one-third its volume. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the butter until bubbling. Add the leek and cook for one minute. Add the cepes or shiitakes, oyster, white and rehydrated dried mushrooms. Cook for one minute, stirring constantly, until the mushrooms soften slightly. Add the rosemary, parsley, tomato, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Add the reduced mushroom-soaking liquid, and simmer for two minutes. Adjust seasoning and serve. Makes four side-dish or appetizer servings.
SHRIMP AND SCALLOPS IN OYSTER MUSHROOM SAUCE
1/4 pound sliced oyster mushrooms
2 shallots, minced
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and cleaned
1/2 pound sea scallops, cleaned
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
In a skillet, saute the mushrooms and half the shallots in two tablespoons of the butter until the mushrooms begin to soften. Add the wine to the pan, and bring to a boil. Add the shrimp and scallops, and simmer for two minutes, just until the seafood is firm. Remove shellfish and mushrooms with a slotted spoon and save.
Add the vinegar and remaining shallots to the liquid in the pan. Season with salt and white pepper. Bring the liquid to a boil, and turn down the heat. Swirl in the remaining butter, a tablespoon at a time. Toss the reserved shellfish and mushrooms and the parsley in the sauce, and serve. Makes four servings.
VEAL CHOPS WITH RED WINE AND MORELS
1 ounce dried morels
4 veal chops, 8 ounces each
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
In a small bowl, soak the morels in the warm water for 30 minutes to rehydrate, squeeze to remove excess water, place the mushrooms in a strainer and rinse well under running water. Set aside. Pour the soaking liquid through a coffee filter or a double layer of cheesecloth to clear it of any debris. Set aside.
Season the veal chops with salt and pepper, and brown in the olive oil in a large skillet. When browned on both sides, remove from the pan and add the garlic, parsley and tomato paste. Cook for 30 seconds. Add the wine, and bring to a boil. Add the reserved mushroom-soaking liquid and the mushrooms. Return the veal chops to the liquid, and simmer for 10 minutes, turning once during cooking.
Remove the veal chops and mushrooms to a warm platter, and keep warm. Reduce remaining liquid to one-third its volume, until lightly thickened. Adjust seasoning, and pour over veal. Makes four servings.
Although they are cultivated mushrooms, shiitakes have the look of wild varieties. In this dish, they lend a subtle earthiness to a mild Cantonese- style stir-fry.
STIR-FRIED CHICKEN AND SHIITAKES
1 1/2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken breast
5 teaspoons cornstarch
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon dry sherry
3/4 cup chicken broth
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup peanut oil
Pinch of crushed hot pepper
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Cut the chicken into two-inch cubes, and toss with two teaspoons of the cornstarch and the egg white. Set aside while you assemble the remaining ingredients.
In a mixing bowl, dissolve the remaining cornstarch in the vinegar and soy sauce. Add the sugar, sherry and chicken broth, and stir to blend. Set aside. Toss the mushrooms with the lemon juice and set aside.
Heat a large wok or skillet until smoking hot. Add a quarter cup of the oil, and heat until it smokes. Add the chicken to the hot oil, and toss until the pieces just start to firm and turn white. Do not allow to brown. Remove the chicken and set aside.
Add the remaining oil to the wok, and heat lightly. Add the mushrooms, garlic and hot pepper. Stir-fry until the mushrooms soften lightly, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken, and stir-fry another minute. Stir the cornstarch mixture briefly, and add to the wok. Stir until the sauce thickens lightly. Remove from heat, and transfer to a large serving platter. Scatter scallions and sesame oil over the top, and serve. Makes four servings.
WILD MUSHROOM STRUDEL
3 leeks, white part only, washed and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 pound butter
1 pound mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and chopped
1/2 pound wild mushrooms, any type, cleaned, trimmed and chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves or 2 teaspoons fresh
Pinch rubbed sage
8 sheets (about 1/4 pound) phyllo dough, defrosted according to package directions
In a large skillet, saute the leek and garlic in half the butter for a few minutes until tender. Add the mushrooms, thyme, sage, salt and pepper, and cook for three to five minutes more until the mushrooms have released most of their liquid. Add the wine, and cook until the mushrooms are no longer wet but still moist. Remove from the heat and cool completely.
Melt the remaining butter over moderate heat. When the mushroom mixture is cool, place a dish towel on a clean work surface. Place two sheets of the phyllo on top of each other on the towel. Brush with a bit of the melted butter. Top with another sheet of phyllo, more butter and a final sheet of phyllo. Cover the remaining phyllo with a damp towel while you roll up the first strudel.
With the narrow sides of the phyllo at the top and bottom of your work surface, spoon half the cooled mushroom mixture onto the phyllo one inch away
from the side closest to you. Push the mushroom filling gently into a rough log shape, leaving a one-inch margin of phyllo showing at either end of the ''log." Fold this margin of phyllo over the ends of the filling. Starting at the end of the phyllo closest to you, roll the phyllo over the filling, and continue rolling until the entire length of phyllo has been wrapped around the filling. The finished strudel will resemble a giant egg roll.
Place the roll, seam side down, on a buttered cookie sheet, and roll the remaining filling in the remaining dough in the same way. Brush both strudels with the remaining melted butter, and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, until the pastry is crisp and golden brown. Slice each roll in quarters and serve. Makes four servings.