Magic Mushrooms

There is something almost mystical about mushrooms. On a clear morning after a storm in warmer months, a walk around my neighborhood isn’t complete without the sighting of large mushrooms that have popped out overnight. It’s like walking past a rose bush with no flowers on it one day, and discovering it covered with blooms the next.

Of course, I am too uninformed about foraging to even attempt to harvest one of these crops, but that doesn’t lessen my appreciation for fungi in cooking. As a source of umami, that savory meatiness that the Japanese identify as a fifth taste, mushrooms are a quick hit for sauces and stews. Dried mushrooms restore amazingly in a little hot water, and the resulting broth becomes another element used for enhancing braising liquid or a sauce. Oyster, shiitake and morels are all available and can be stored in the pantry for months. Even standard grocery chains carry a variety of fresh mushrooms these days, so finding a fresh shiitake is almost as easy as finding white mushrooms, crimini, or portabellas.

An early revelatory experience for me centered around mushrooms. Having gone to The Inn at Little Washington back when it first opened, I was blown away by an appetizer, Marinated Shiitake Mushrooms with Chilled Vermicelli, and chef Patrick O’Connell was nice enough to give me the recipe. You can download the recipe here. Preparing the dish involves making a tomato sauce, sautéing the mushrooms in olive oil, and preparing the vermicelli, all separately. Only at the plating does it all come together.

As I was making the dish, none of the preparatory steps smelled or tasted anything like the dish I remembered from the restaurant. I assumed that the recipe was missing a transformative ingredient held back by the chef. And then, when all of the parts had been assembled as directed, there was the dish—a reasonably accurate version of the restaurant serving. The transformative effect of technique, training and intuition resulted in something amazing. I realized two things that day: creating a recipe and preparing one are really two separate things, and just how much designing a recipe is like designing anything else.

Making a good mushroom dish is all about creating a meaty texture with the mushrooms, a combination of extracting the water from the fungi, searing the exteriors, and adding flavor with spices and stock. The Baby Bella Sauté that we’ve added to our New Recipes section is a great all-purpose dish that, with some fine-tuning of spices and liquids, can accompany almost any kind of main dish, and can be pretty awesome as the major ingredient in anything from a quiche to a crepe to an enchilada.

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