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Mushrooms, whether in a sauce a side or alone, are high in umami, the 'fifth' flavor By Donna Pierce
The woodsy flavors of mushrooms are all the rage. From morels in the wild to porcini in the supermarket, the fungus is among us. "We are harvesting and selling 10,000 pounds of exotic mushrooms every week. That's a 400 percent increase over five years ago," said Bob Engel, director of marketing and chef liaison for Gourmet Mushroom Inc., a 30-year-old Sebastopol, Calif., company specializing in exotic mushrooms.
The company sells cultivated mushrooms to restaurants and specialty grocery stores, varieties that include clamshell, oyster, nameko and hen of the woods, all under the Mycopia label.
Browse through the produce section and you may be surprised at the choice these days: cremini, enoki, oyster, shiitake, button mushrooms and their relative, portobellos. And the best part of their increasing commercial availability is that we can shop for them throughout the year without waiting for them to come into season. It also makes the seasonal hunt for those that are only available fresh once a year all the more enthusiastic.
Engel, who worked for several decades as a chef before joining the mushroom company, said that part of mushrooms' appeal is their broad range of amino acids, very much like that found in meat. He said that the glutamic amino acid in mushrooms is "a naturally occurring flavor enhancer and high in umami, a savory flavor component that is now widely accepted as the fifth flavor," after salty, sweet, bitter and sour.
Mushrooms are good in sauce, good as a side dish, good on their own. Here's a guide to a few mushrooms, both commercial and wild. Although this list offers tips for the best use of each mushroom, don't be afraid to interchange them in recipes.
• Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) Fresh or dried Related varieties: black trumpet a.k.a.: girolle, pfifferling Noted for: apricot color, rich flavor, meaty texture Cuisine: Central European, French, Russian Recommended use: sauces, poultry, game, pasta
• Cremini (Agaricus bisporus) Fresh a.k.a.: crimini, brown mushrooms Noted for: deeper, denser, earthier flavor than related white button mushroom Cuisine: American Recommended use: base for stuffing, sliced or chopped in salads, soups
• Enoki (Flammulina velutipes) Fresh a.k.a.: enokitake, golden mushrooms Noted for: mild flavor with light crunch; flowerlike shape with long, slender stems and tiny caps Cuisine: Japanese Recommended use: salads, sandwiches, garnishes
• Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) Fresh a.k.a.: maitake, sheep's head, dancing butterfly Noted for: firm texture, distinctive aroma, woodsy taste, stands up to braising Cuisine: Central European Recommended use: chicken or veal cream sauces, hearty beef sauces such as stroganoff
• Morel (Morchella angusticeps) Fresh or dried a.k.a.: none Noted for: spongy, honeycomb cap and rich, nutty flavor Cuisine: Central European, French, North American Recommended use: creamy sauces, vegetable, veal, seafood, poultry
• Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus) Fresh a.k.a.: pleurotte Noted for: wide color range, from white to gold, blue, pink or black, delicate, earthy flavor Cuisine: French, North American Recommended use: seafood, grilling, broiling, pasta, rice (onions and butter bring out flavor)
• Portobello (Agaricus bisporus) Cultivated a.k.a.: portabella Noted as: larger, hardier relative of white and crimini mushrooms Cuisine: American Recommended use: stir-fries, grilling, broiling, meat alternative
• Royal Trumpet (Pleurotus eryngi) Fresh a.k.a.: king oyster, French horn, eryngi Noted for: sturdy stems remain firm after cooking Cuisine: Asian, American Recommended use: grilling
• Shiitake (Lentinus edodes) Fresh or dried a.k.a.: oak, Chinese black forest Noted for: broad, umbrella-shaped caps, woodsy flavor with meaty texture Cuisine: Asian Recommended use: soups, sauces, grilling, stir-fries
• Wood Ear (Auricularia polytricha) Fresh or dried a.k.a.: tree ears, cloud ears Noted for: slippery, slightly crunchy texture, very little flavor Cuisine: Asian Recommended use: Chinese dishes such as soups and moo shu pork Mushroom dishes at local eateries
Here are some local restaurants with mushroom dishes worth tasting.
• Gold at Westward Look Resort, 245 E. Ina Road, 297-1151: The veal roulade ($29) is a recent addition to Gold's menu and is full of mushroom complements. Executive chef James Wallace pounds out a 4-ounce cutlet of milk-fed veal and then creates a filling of shittake, portobello and crimini mushrooms. After sautéing the mushrooms, he deglazes them with marsala and finishes with a demi-glace, adding some panko bread crumbs before roasting the dish. Oyster mushrooms are added to the demi-glace that's lightened a bit with cream before topping the meat. On the side, an aged marsala and gruyere potato cake comes with a wild mushroom ragout.
• Jonathan's Cork, 6320 E. Tanque Verde Road, 296-1631: The sautéed mushroom appetizer ($7) has been a staple of the Cork for more than 40 years, said chef and owner Jonathan Landeen. For the dish, Landeen takes whole baby button mushrooms and sautés them in unsalted butter with salt, granulated garlic and onion, cumin and cayenne peppers. He adds a big splash of red wine and cooks it down so the mushrooms absorb the oil and butter and release their juices. What you get is a dish that's full of flavor.
• Pastiche Modern Eatery, 3025 N. Campbell Ave., 325-3333: With the clever tagline of "shiitake happens," it's no wonder Pastiche's mushroom soup has stuck around since the restaurant opened in March 1998. Each bite of the creamy soup (cup $3.75; bowl $6.50) releases the earthy characteristics of the mushrooms, making it the ultimate comfort food. The mushrooms used in the soup vary, but it often contains buttons, shittakes and a bit of portobello.
• Wildflower Grill, 7037 N. Oracle Road, 219-4230: The miso-glazed black cod rests on a bed of Honshimeji mushrooms ($25), a mellow flavored variety that tastes somewhat nutty when cooked. Edamame dumplings perch along the plate's sides and soak up some of the sweet soy broth sauce. The Honshimeji mushroom grows in bunches of delicate white stems 1 to 2 inches high, topped with small caps. The flesh provides a crunchy and juicy meat.