August 2012 Issue

Mushrooms — A Unique Ingredient Taken From Forest Floor to Kitchen Door
By Bryan Roof, RD, LDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 14 No. 8 P. 74

At the last restaurant where I worked, we had the pleasure of employing a “mushroom guy” from the spring to early fall. He was a mycologist who moonlighted selling mushrooms when the weather was rainy, damp, and warm. He’d deliver freshly cut mushrooms to the back door of the kitchen and give a brief lesson on the specimens. Although he offered, I always turned down his invitation to join him on a mushroom hunt and for no better reason than I feared I’d somehow meet my demise by picking, and ultimately eating, the odd poisonous mushroom.

In spite of my fears, I actually adore mushrooms. It’s fair to say that they stand alone as a unique ingredient in the kitchen, capable of delivering the woodsy aroma of the forest and all the meatiness of a steak. It’s amazing that so many vegetarian products on the market try to mimic the flavor of meat when mushrooms are readily at hand. Most cultivated mushrooms don’t have quite the same depth of flavor as wild varieties, but they make up for this with a toothsome texture. Dried versions of both types have super-concentrated flavor and make great additions to soups, sauces, and stocks.

Depending on where you live, the variety, price, and freshness of mushrooms available will vary. Wild mushrooms tend to exceed $20 per pound, so for me, it often makes more sense to purchase cultivated mushrooms for far less money. It’s not so much which mushroom is better but rather knowing how to make the most of the ones I’m working with. While I usually cook wild mushrooms with a light sauté in butter or olive oil, for cultivated mushrooms, such as portobellos, often I’ll turn to the grill. Portobellos, which are the adult version of cremini mushrooms, tend to have more flavor because of their age. They also have a larger cell structure, giving them a meatlike chew and allowing them to easily absorb marinades. In addition, their dense constitution stands up well to the intense heat of the grill.

When you bring mushrooms home from the market, it’s best to remove them from the cellophane-wrapped package that traps moisture and expedites rot. Instead, transfer them to a paper bag or wrap them in paper towels so air can circulate and allow them to breathe. To clean mushrooms, I prefer to dunk them quickly in water rather than brush them off with a fine-bristled brush as some cooks suggest. It’s faster, and the mushrooms absorb little, if any, water. But don’t bother cleaning mushrooms until you’re ready to cook—whether you buy them or pick them yourself.

In retrospect, I regret not taking up our mycologist on his offer to forage mushrooms in the great outdoors. Yes, my ridiculous paranoia sometimes gets the better of me, and for now I’m still feeding my craving for wild mushrooms via farmers’ markets and the overpriced shelves of grocery stores. Nevertheless, it’s probably for the best. I’m sure he couldn’t have lived with my blood on his hands.

— Bryan Roof, RD, LDN, is a chef, dietitian, and food writer living in Boston.


Grilled Stuffed Portobellos

Serves 4 as a side dish

The gills on the underside of portobello caps have an unpleasant chalkiness and, therefore, should be scraped away with a spoon before grilling. Olives and feta cheese tend to be salty so keep that in mind when seasoning to taste.

6 large portobello mushrooms, stemmed
2 T balsamic vinegar
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and pepper
1/2 cup jarred roasted red peppers, chopped
1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
11/2 tsp chopped fresh oregano
2 oz crumbled feta cheese (1/2 cup)

1. Using a spoon, scrape out the gills from the underside of the mushrooms and discard. Gently toss the mushrooms together with the vinegar, 1 T of oil, and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl, taking care to not break the mushrooms. Let sit for 10 minutes while the mushrooms absorb the marinade.

2. Combine the peppers, olives, remaining 1 T of oil, garlic, and oregano in a small bowl, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Prepare a hot fire on the grill. Place the mushrooms gill side up on the grill directly over the fire and cook, covered, until well browned on the first side, about 5 minutes.

4. Flip the mushrooms and continue to cook, covered, until well browned on the second side, about 5 minutes.

5. Finally, flip the mushrooms one last time (they should be gill side up again) and spoon the pepper-olive mixture evenly among them. Top each mushroom with feta cheese and grill, covered, for 1 minute longer. Using a spatula, transfer the mushrooms to a platter and serve.

Nutrient Analysis per serving: Calories: 180; Total fat: 13 g; Sat fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 5 mg; Sodium: 470 mg; Total carbohydrate: 11 g; Dietary fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 6 g; Protein: 7 g