Thursday, November 5, 2009

Holy Umami: Crazy Mushrooms & Unauthentic Beef Stroganoff

oh to forage in the fall!

Mushrooms make you do crazy things.

And I'm not talking about the low-grade hallucinogenics you buy when you're desperately trying to be cool in high school (and for the record, I was never that desperate to be cool). I'm talking about the enchanting children of the autumn - real mushrooms - button-white-chanterelley-morelish-portabellos that leave you with a natural high thanks to their deliciously unique flavors and texture making you more likely to exclaim crazy things like "I love these freaking mushrooms!" in mixed company, or run around the dinner table stealing peoples' share of the mushroom loot, or steal one or two raw mushrooms to eat while you walk around the supermarket. Crazy, I tell ya. (Not that I've ever done any of those things.) But I digress.

Also for the record, I'm not the only one who thinks mushrooms drive you to insanity. There are a whole bunch of Russians out there who would wholeheartedly agree with me. And while I firmly believe they are not even close to being the only mushroom-obsessed nationality (I'd bet good truffles the Italians and French would give them a run for their porcini), I do have proof in the form of semi-reputable-writing (read: NY Times) that they are pretty nutty when it comes to that age-old autumnal pastime: mushroom foraging season.

But you don't have to take my word for it: Crazy Russians.

* * *

Top 4 Mushrooms that Drive Me Crazy
In a good way.

holy shiitake.

4. The Canned Mushroom
I admit it - I am a blasphemer in the eyes of many a foodie. I do, on occasion, indulge (is that the right word?) in eating those soggy, rubbery little canned mushrooms. I find them particularly satisfying in pasta sauce, actually, though I get really angry if someone dares to put them on a pizza, so don't go there. I probably like them because my mom used to buy them a lot when we were kids to make her bolognese. Hey, we're Mexican, not Italian, ok? :)

The texture of cooked mushrooms is one of my favorites aspects of eating them and canned mushrooms are nothing if not texture-filled (let's be honest, the flavor isn't exactly there). Apparently when I was a little kid (4 or 5) my mom found me in the kitchen chewing and chewing on one side of my mouth. When she asked me what I was eating I told her I was eating "my mushroom." When she tried to search my mouth for it she realized there was nothing in there, and that's when I explained that when I got hungry I chewed on my "imaginary mushroom."

Some kids had imaginary friends, I had an imaginary mushroom. Crazy or not crazy? You do the math.

3. The Chiodini Mushroom
Here's the deal: I do not like vegetarian pizza. Vegetarian pizza in most places amounts to some nasty bell peppers with some nasty mushrooms with some nasty onions and nasty cheese. Give me ham, bacon or sausage or give me death! That's just how I roll. But one day, long ago and in Rome, I did the unthinkable and ordered a vegetarian pizza because it had nothing but these mushrooms on it:

"Chiodini" means "little nails" in Italian, which makes sense given what they look like when the stems are cut short. The ones on my Sicilian-style pizza by the meter were the size of more proportionate thumb-tacks. They were perfectly cooked and offered in copious amounts.

Crazy. Of the "delicious" persuasion.

2. The Oyster Mushroom
I think I've mentioned these and how I love them made "a la Gramma", but they really cannot be praised enough. Oyster mushrooms are particularly aesthetically appealing. They come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and to me don't look so much like oysters as they do lobster tail fans or deformed ears. Or something. :) I once saw some purple oyster mushrooms selling for GBP89.99 per kilo at Harrods (crazy eff-ers). In a twisted way, I almost thought it would be worth paying that much if the mushrooms were as good as they looked.

And on that note, they are just beautiful. And they have the best texture of all (save number 1, maybe). Plus, they are generally so substantial in size that they can be eaten as a dish unto themselves. I think they are best prepared simply sauteed in butter and olive oil with some garlic and pepperoncino thrown in, but it was these little fungi that inspired me to dream the unthinkable dream and cook my crazy green lasagna.

How do you like THEM apples mushrooms? *dramatic raise of the eyebrow*

1. The Shii Mushroom (or Shiitake, in Japanese)
I save these Asian delicacies for last because they are for me the gold standard of mushrooms. They are eye-pleasing, meaty, substantial, and hold up very well in whatever dish you choose to use them for. They can be dried and rehydrated without losing umph, and are so strong in flavor that you can actually make a delicious vegetarian stock just from their woody little stems.

Another cool thing about them (apart from being able to use their name as a euphemism for the word that shizzle is also a euphemism for) is that they are known for having a heavy concentration of that elusive UMAMI flavor all we meat-and-savory-lovers want to get our taste buds on. Apparently the umami is even more concentrated in the dried variety of the shiitake, which is why I keep a package of dried ones in my bodega at all times. If you want to get your hands on this crazy dry and portable party-of-the-mouth, go to your nearest Asian food store. :)

* * *

Damn Good But Relatively Unauthentic
Beef Stroganoff

Serves 2

shiitakes: so meaty. so umami.

When it comes to mushrooms I eat them all. I love the ones I've listed above, but I also adore:
- chanterelles (oh, Julia!)
- morels (oh, Ina!)
- white mushrooms (my grandmother's caldo de champinones comes to mind)
- crimini (or baby bellas)
- portobellos (who doesn't love sinking their teeth into these?)
- porcini (in the words of Joel McHale, "so meaty!")
- enoki (great in Asian soups!)
- or even the common white or chestnut variety (really great for chicken Marsala)!

As should be apparent from the list above, Shiitakes have a special place in the culinary chamber of my heart, which is why I decided to use them for my version of Beef Stroganoff. Thought I'd go ahead and keep with the Russian - Mushroom theme for the day, as this dish is actually originally Russian (who knew?).

There is much debate about whether you use good steak or cheap meat, dill or no dill, rice, pasta, kasha or mashed potatoes?!, cognac, white wine or no alcohol at all. Finding an "authentic" beef stroganoff recipe is like foraging for rare white truffles: you're more likely to get lost in the woods or stuck in a tree for five days fending off jackals in this lifetime.

I even consulted with my Russian friends only to get mixed opinions within a married couple ("It goes with mashed potatoes!" "No, it goes with rice!")! So I just kind of took what I liked from several recipes and ran with it. Call me crazy.

* * *

1 lb stewing beef, sliced into thin strips
4 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
4 shallots (or onion), chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp dried dillweed
4 tbsps butter
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups beef stock
1/3 cup whipping cream
1/2 tbsp flour
2 tbsps freshly and coarsely cracked pepper
Salt to taste

- 1/2 lb cooked and buttered egg noodles or fusilloni (giant fusilli pasta), as in my case.

1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan (I used my cast iron pan) and brown the pieces of meat in 2 or 3 batches over medium-high heat. Remove meat to a plate.

2. Add the butter to the pan and allow to melt. Then add the shallots and garlic and cook until translucent. Then add the mushrooms, dill, and pepper and sautee until the liquid is almost entirely evaporated.

3. Add the wine and beef stock and turn heat up to high. Re-add the meat and simmer on low covered for 30 minutes or until the meat is falling-apart-tender.

4. Take off the lid, add the cream, dijon mustard and correct the seasoning with salt. Stir in the flour until completely combined and simmer for another 10 or 15 minutes, until the sauce thickens and reduces by 1/3 or so. The dish should NOT be watery!

5. Serve over noodles (or rice, or kasha, or mashed potatoes). :)

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  1. I've died and gone to heaven a post on mushrooms. I've always loved them and can eat them in practically all their forms. What a yummy yummy looking dish. May be Italian Mex dish but it looks darn tasty regardless of its origins,

  2. Imaginary mushroom?! Too funny! 8-D

    I love mushrooms, too, but am nowhere near the aficionado that you are. To be honest, I just need to know it's mushroom and not poisonous, and I'm good to go.