Mushrooms

by Lee StabertOnly the hardiest souls flourish in the dead of winter. Far from the glimmer of spring, with little sun and no warmth, most reasonable organisms are hunkered down. Fortunately, mushrooms (like bloggers) don’t have much use for nice weather—they do just fine in the damp darkness of February. So, at a time of year when most local produce is coming out of storage, these fungal frontiersmen are still growing away in sheds, notably in Kennett Square.

Mushroom cultivation in the United States first began in Kennett Square in 1896, and the place has been a hub for the earthy delights ever since. The town hosts the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival every fall (mushroomfestival.org), and provides Philadelphia with local product year-round.

Mushrooms are great in any variety of savory dish—soups, casseroles, pasta, pizza, omelettes and braises. When prepared correctly, they add earthiness and meatiness to pretty much everything they touch. Wild mushrooms are subject to seasonal whims (and can be budget-busters), but common cultivated varieties—shitake, portabella, cremini, button, oyster—are delicious and almost always available.

Mushrooms are great friends with woody herbs like rosemary and thyme. For a pizza that sets hearts aflutter, sauté your mushrooms first with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs before topping your pie. If you have leftover ’shrooms, throw them in a pan with stock, wine and mascarpone, then toss with pasta. (This recipe also works if you start the mushrooms from scratch.)

Every home cook’s repertoire should feature a variation on duxelles, a finely chopped mixture of sautéed mushrooms (usually with onion or shallot and butter) that can be used for pretty much anything: stuffing for ravioli, the base for a vegetarian Bolognese or a spread for toast (top that with a fried egg or a spoonful of ricotta and brunch just got an upgrade). Any variety of mushroom will do, though the deeper the flavor of the mushroom, the deeper the flavor of the duxelles. (That said, you wouldn’t want to use anything too expensive or impressive.) Creminis, a smaller variety of portabella, are a great option.

The earthiness of mushrooms—a flavor component the Japanese have dubbed in umami—is also perfect paired with the bitterness of winter greens or the sweet funk of artisan cheese. ■