THE HUMBLE MUSHROOM – Part 1
Also best friend with robust herbs like thymes and rosemary,
and of course, the ultimate friend: garlic.
As you can gather, I am rather fond of mushrooms. Ever since I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough. In my opinion, few vegetables can divide people’s like and dislike as much as mushrooms. Okay, maybe tomatoes too. People who hate mushrooms, my dear brother being one of them, seem to tell me that their biggest problem is the texture, or rather the slimy texture. While it is true that some mushrooms are more slimy in nature than others, I really want them to have a chance to try a plate of really well sautéed mushrooms drenched in garlic butter goodness. Slight crispy on the edge, beautifully browned with a nutty hint of butter, on toast and maybe with an egg of top. I’m hungry. Anyway, my point is even if you dislike mushrooms, please read on and see if you would be open to try this beautiful vegetable at the end of this post.
Sometimes the simplest thing is the hardest to cook right. For me, the biggest cardinal sin to commit when handling beautiful mushrooms is washing them. Mushrooms are like sponges and so they absorb water. Mushroom tastes their best when rid of water. Fact. That’s how the flavour intensifies. Mushroom contain a lot of water in itself naturally so by washing them, you are introducing more water to it, which will be even harder to try to get rid of later. Secondly, never, and I repeat, NEVER, crowd the pan with too much mushrooms when sautéing them. Get a bigger pan or cook them in batches. Crowding the pan means lowering the heat, which in turn ‘boils’ the mushroom instead of sautéing it (and locking in all the flavour).
Living in Melbourne, we are blessed with many kinds of mushrooms at a reasonable price. I personally like them all for different reasons. My go-to combination for simple sautéing is some fresh shitake (for its strong flavour and chewy, robust texture), shimeji (for its woody taste and spongey texture, probably my favourite mushroom of all time), and oyster mushrooms (for its delicate flavour and texture). Other mushrooms I like are enoki and brown button mushroom. I don’t usually sauté the big flat Portobello mushrooms for one they do taste better roasting whole with a splash of oil, garlic and a knob of butter.
Here’s the low-down on different types of mushrooms and how best to pick, cook, and eat them. As I can already see that this subject will yield a very long post, I am going to split this into two parts. I will introduce half the mushrooms in this post, and the rest in the next one along with more recipes.
Flavour/texture: Strong mushroomy flavour, like fresh porcini but much less slimy.
How to pick: Firm texture. Cracks on the skin is good (more flavour). No visible mould.
How to cook: Finely slice in Asian stir-fry as they absorb the flavour well and retain the texture through cooking. Also delicious quartered and add to Chinese five spice soy chicken and ginger broth. Also great to use as part of mix mushroom when you want to boost the mushroom flavour.
My favourite dish: Eggy fried rice with sautéed sliced shitake mushrooms, ginger, and spring onion.
Flavour/texture: Woody flavour and spongey in texture.
How to pick: these normally comes intact at the root, cut to the size of the container. Look for plump looking mushrooms, not wilting. No mould.
Best cooked: Cut the root off and break into individual (few small ones can stay together). High heat and quick cook. Brown well. Delicious with butter toss through at the end. Also good in Asian dishes.
My favourite dish: Simply sautéed with two other types of mushroom and used as a topping on oozing, intense porcini mushroom risotto. Don’t forget the fresh parmesan.
Flavour/texture: Mild, sweet, stringy and chewy (in a good way) in texture.
How to pick: Nice ivory colour. Stay away from anything with yellow tinge (they have sweat and will smell a bit sour).
Best cooked: Cut the root off, much like Shimeji. Break into smaller, flat bunches if grilling. Because of its delicate texture, you can break them up individually and sprinkle on top of noodle before pouring hot broth over it to wilt.
My favourite dish: Small flat bunches chargrilled either on a non-stick griddle or a well-oiled barbecue plate. After one side is done, flip them over, put a piece of thinly sliced garlic and a knob of butter on each. Wait for the magic to happen. A bit of flake salt on top before you eat. Heaven.
Flavour/texture: Delicate in flavour and texture. Velvety texture.
How to pick: Only buy these at their freshest. Should be a nice off white creamy colour. No yellow tinge. Gills should be nice and separated, if they look wet and soggy, don’t buy them.
Best cooked: They cook super quick and will lose its shape, flavour and texture if they are over cooked. Stir-fry is a good way to lock in the flavour, as well as sautéing with olive oil, garlic, and a bit of butter. Just make sure your pan is non-stick otherwise when you go and scrape them off the bottom of your pan, all the soft textured end bits (yummy bits) will stay on the pan.
My favourite dish: Simple stir-fry with garlic, soy, oyster sauce, and spring onion. On rice or noodle. Delish!
My version of PERFECT SAUTÉED MUSHROOMS
Enough for 1 (greedy), or 2
200-250g of mixed wild mushrooms
2 sprigs of fresh thymes
Extra light olive oil
A knob of butter, or more
Good flake salts, like Maldon or Murry River Pink salt (*See note below)
Freshly cracked black pepper
Heat the biggest pan you can find on medium to high heat. Non stick pan is good, especially if you are working with delicate mushrooms like oyster mushrooms. Meanwhile, prep your mushrooms. DO NOT WASH THEM. If there are visible dirt, brush or wipe it off. Have faith that other things will kill you before these cooked unwashed mushrooms (as for me, it’s likely to be bacon..)
If using shitake, slice them finely. Cut the root of the shimeji mushrooms off and just pull them apart. Big shimeji mushrooms can be left by themselves, small ones can be left in small bunches. Same goes to enoki mushrooms. For oyster mushrooms, tear from the tip to break them into pieces (see picture below). I find that mushrooms taste better when you tear them into the size that you want (with the exception of buttons and shitake, they are too hard to peel). What you’re aiming for here is similar size and thickness of all mushrooms so they cook evenly. You can do this first before heating the pan so you are not too rush.
Once the pan is hot, put in a generous amount of oil. If you think you need more, you probably do. This is not the time to be super healthy. Just use better oil and one that can withstand higher heat. I generally put about 3-4 Tbs in. Do put this much in even if you are using a non-stick pan. The oil does more than just preventing mushrooms from sticking. So go on, put the oil in. Test if the oil is hot enough by touching a piece of mushroom onto the pan, carefully. If the mushroom sizzles, then it’s good to go. Throw all the mushrooms in. Shake/toss/use a utensil to move the mushrooms around to evenly coat in oil and then spread it out around the pan. Toss periodically. You are looking for a nice brown colour on the mushrooms. There shouldn’t be too much water in the pan (if there is, you either wash the mushrooms which you were not supposed to, or your pan is not hot enough/not big enough to fit the mushrooms). Remove thyme leaves from sprigs and add to the pan. When The mushrooms looks nice and slightly brown (they will not brown evenly. It’s good. You don’t want them to), put a generous knob of butter in and toss. The butter will glide and coat the mushrooms, giving an incredible sheen and its deliciousness. The smell is to die for. Resist the urge to pick one up to ‘try’, they are piping hot. Your tongue will be burn and it will ruin the dish for you. Yes, I am speaking from experience. Season with flake salt and freshly cracked peppers.
Ways to eat this sautéed mushrooms
- Eat them on toast with a poached egg
- As a topping on mushroom risotto
- On rice noodle salad (omit thyme if your salad has asian dressing)
- As a filling in omelette
- As a topping on green salad leaf tossed through with a splash of lemon dressing, crispy smoked bacon bits, and if you want, a few generous dots of garlic aioli
- On pizzas with caramelised onion, blue cheese, and plum relish
*Note on salt The normal table salt is too fine and too salty for this recipe. If you haven’t tried good flake salts, do get a box of Maldon. It may seem expensive at first at around $7 for a 200g box but you’re really using it sparingly to maybe sprinkle over meat and pasta. You can still use table salt for other purposes like salting pasta water etc. And really, when considering a whole box will last you months, $7 is not that bad. Try it and you will never look back. My husband didn’t know there’s a difference in the taste of salt until he tried good flake salt. Now he only uses this on his sandwiches. Flake salts are more delicate, not as salty, has a very slight sweet note to it, and doesn’t have that bitter taste that comes with table salt. If you really don’t want to buy the flake salt, then half the amount of salt on all my recipes (I rather you don’t).