Genuine wild, in season only; cultivated, all year round
Mushrooming is a word that’s used to describe something that’s grown overnight and, I have to say, that’s precisely the word I would use to describe the mushroom market. Whereas once we could buy only buttons or caps, we are now presented with an amazing variety of sizes, shapes and colours. Let’s not be too dazzled by looks, though, because some of them appear more interesting than they actually taste. Because season and availability fluctuate, here we need to concern ourselves mostly with how to get the best out of whatever is available.
My own firm-favourite cultivated mushrooms are the flat, open, dark-gilled variety and the smaller pink-gilled open caps. (I have never thought the pale, insipid button mushrooms were even worth bothering with.) There are now chestnut mushrooms and the large version called portabella, too. I also like shiitake (particularly in an omelette), a saffron-yellow variety called pied de mouton, and now we can buy the best-flavoured wild mushrooms of all, Italian dried porcini (known as ceps in France) and another French variety called morels. I now find getting the finest mushroom flavour in cooking is never a problem.
To prepare mushrooms, don’t wash them is the first rule – they already have a lot of moisture and washing them means they absorb even more, which can make them soggy. Take a damp piece of kitchen paper and wipe each mushroom clean, or use a special mushroom brush, which brushes away any dirt. Don’t peel them, either, because the peel has lots of flavour. I always use the mushroom stalks, except with shiitake, as they are a bit chewy in this case and so need to be trimmed almost down to the cup. If the mushrooms are small, leave them whole, if not, cut through the stalk, then into halves or quarters.
Dried mushrooms: Without doubt one of the best ingredients to hit British food shops in the past century. However much we value them and are grateful for them, cultivated mushrooms will never have the flavour of mushrooms grown in the wild. But now that we can buy dried wild mushrooms, we can all enjoy that special flavour without having to search in country meadows, woods or Wimbledon Common at the break of dawn. Both the French and the Italians produce excellent dried mushrooms, and their native varieties, which include ceps and morels in France and porcini in Italy, are best of all. This means you can always add a touch of luxurious concentrated mushroom flavour whenever you are cooking with mushrooms.
Sautéed Mushrooms: First imagine a plump, round, fat, juicy mushroom, then think of a shrivelled dried mushroom – the difference is moisture, and because the dried one has masses more flavour, having lost the moisture, I feel that the thing to aim for when cooking mushrooms is to get as much of the moisture out as possible so as to concentrate the flavour. No need to use very much oil or butter, as mushrooms tend to soak this up at an alarming rate. Always remember, too, that as the moisture evaporates they lose half their original volume.
Serves 2. 8 oz (225 g) mushrooms, prepared as described1 teaspoon olive oil or butter, salt and freshly milled black pepper. Heat the olive oil or butter in a frying pan and, when it’s hot, throw in the mushrooms and toss them around by shaking the pan. Season with salt and pepper, then turn the heat down to very low and just let the mushrooms cook gently, uncovered, so that all the juice evaporates and the flavour of the mushrooms becomes more concentrated. Leave them like that for 30 minutes, stirring them around once or twice. Once the mushrooms have lost much of their moisture content they can then be used in an omelette or simply as they are.
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