Some things - no matter what their origins or how difficult their circumstances - have that certain something that makes people feel a connection to them. And, while mushrooms may not be hanging on museum walls or played in concert halls, they most certainly have the staying power of a masterpiece.
They enhance our meals, offering us unique and varying flavors, and run the range from very casual and inexpensive - like the cremini or button - to luxurious truffles that are sought after like buried treasure.
Consider being conceived in mud or rotting wood, being labeled a fungus and still surviving, thriving in conditions that would be unpleasant, to say the least, for most of us. But the mushroom makes those condition its home, and all the better for us that it does.
It crosses cultural and national boundaries, inspiring home cooks and professionals alike. I can still remember when shiitakes first came to our tables, probably about 15 years ago. Now, they're as common as the button mushroom.
And it's been years since the portabella mushroom made its way onto the dining scene. Today, it has become an almost obligatory vegetarian-menu option: grilled like a steak or stuffed, marinated or tossed with a salad, portabella variations are endless, although sometimes quite repetitive.
Even the lowly button mushroom adds something extra to a pasta, salad, sandwich or steak.
Go a bit beyond the supermarket mushroom staples, and there's a bounty of mushroom varieties to be had. Porcini, chanterelles, hen of the woods, blue foot, trumpet royal, black trumpets, matsutake and nameko are all available to enhance dishes or even be meals on their own.
Wild mushrooms are sprouting up all over, and we now have access to so many different types, so many different flavors and aromas. I can still smell and taste the first time I ever had grilled oyster mushrooms drizzled with a little olive oil and seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper - what a revelation of simplicity and bold flavor!
Whether cultivated or wild, mushrooms are an indispensible tool for any chef. People devote their lives to finding them; they walk through woods, foraging for perfect morels. There are cultures and industries built around the truffle, for example, not to mention the frenzy that breaks out in the restaurant community when we hear that it is a good season for them.
Whatever your preference - sliced buttons on your pizza or steak, or shaved truffles over a beautifully roasted sirloin - the next time you indulge, take a minute to think about what that mushroom had to go through to get to your plate, and I'm sure you'll appreciate that jewel of flavor that much more.Mushroom Pizza
Blended oil is a mixture of olive oil and another vegetable oil such as canola, usually in equal parts.
2 lbs. mixed mushrooms
blended oil, as needed
3 Tbsps. minced garlic
5 thyme sprigs
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
salt and pepper to taste
cornmeal to sprinkle
1/2 lb. freshly-made pizza dough (can be made or purchased in a pizza shop)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or to taste
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
Place a baking stone or heavy cookie sheet on the lowest rack in oven and preheat to 525?.
In batches, sauté mushrooms in about one-quarter cup blended oil. Add garlic and thyme.
Finish with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.
Take one-quarter of the mixture and chop roughly. Mix the chopped mushrooms into the pizza dough (can use a mixer to do so). Let rise another 30 minutes or so.
Stretch the dough and place on the cookie sheet sprinkled lightly with cornmeal. Top with remaining mushrooms, cheese and cream (optional).
Bake for 8 to 12 minutes, turning occasionally.
Sprinkle with parsley, slice and serve.Salmon With Mushrooms and Leeks
4 portions (4 to 5 oz. each) high-quality salmon
2 lemons, 1 cut in half, one sliced thinly
4 thyme sprigs
10 garlic cloves, quartered
1 large leek, washed and cut in 2-inch lengths
1 pint button mushrooms
1-2 quarts canola oil
3 Tbsps. good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsps. fresh sliced chives
coarse salt or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 250F.
Line the bottom of an ovenproof, deep sauté pan with the lemons, thyme and garlic. Fill about three-quarters of the way with canola oil and warm over medium-low heat until you can smell the aromas coming from the pan, about 10 minutes.
Arrange the leeks around the sides, then the mushrooms, and season with salt and pepper.
Let sit about 5 minutes to make sure the oil is not too hot. You should be able to put your finger in the oil.
When oil is ready, season the salmon well and place in pan, making sure salmon is covered in oil, and place in the oven.
When salmon is just cooked through (12 to 17 minutes, depending on your oven), remove to a towel to drain oil.
Arrange the leeks and mushrooms on plate, then put one salmon portion on each.
In a small bowl take 2 tablespoons of the cooking oil, the olive oil, chives, juice from one lemon, and salt and pepper to taste, and mix together.
Use this vinaigrette as the sauce for the salmon.
Serves 4.A Tremendous Breakfast (or starter course)
2 extra large, very fresh eggs
3 Tbsps. heavy cream
3 Tbsps. grated Parmesan
1/4 tsp. fresh garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 Tbsps. butter
1 medium-sized black or white truffle (If you cannot get a truffle, you should be able to find high-quality truffle oil or truffle butter. It's not the same, but it will still taste delicious.)
3 slices of white bread
Crack the eggs into a medium sized mixing bowl and whisk in the cream, cheese, garlic, and salt and pepper.
Melt the butter in a small, nonstick sauté pan over medium heat, and add the minced truffle.
When you can start to smell the truffle coming from the pan, increase heat slightly and add the eggs.
Stir vigorously with a rubber spatula, then leave over low heat until eggs come together.
Remove to a plate or cutting board. Add butter and increase heat. Brown bread slices in butter, then cut in triangles.
Place bread onto plates, portion eggs on bread and shave remaining truffle over top.
Season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.
Serves 4 as an appetizer.
Daniel Stern, former executive chef of Le Bec-Fin, is a Philadelphia-based chef. You can find him at: www.diningdifferent.com .