with Donna Sweeny

Mushrooms — A Cultivated Taste

In their seemingly infinite variety, mushrooms have de­lighted palates worldwide for thousands of years. Apprecia­tion of the mushroom may have reached its apex in an­cient Rome where it was decreed that only patricians could eat them — and eat them they did.

Roman hosts vied with each other in the number and variety of mushrooms they served their guests, and at banquets it was not unusual for the host to prepare them personally in specialty designed silver dishes, Centuries later in Europe, mushrooms were no longer restricted to the nobility, and by the mid-1600s recipes for picked, sauteed, and marinated mushrooms appeared in cookbooks. Despite their popularity, the dangers of eating wild mushrooms were well-known, and Alexandre Dumas in Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine commented that nothing terri­fied him more than the ap­pearance of mushrooms at the dining table.

Thanks to modern advances in cultivation, such varieties as oyster mushrooms, enokitake and shiitake, once enjoyed only locally, are now readily availa­ble in markets throughout the world. Oyster mushrooms vary greatly in size, some as large as several inches across the diameter of the cap, but size does not affect their flavor. Highly perishable, they are best purchased just before use; when shopping, look for firm caps with no discoloration. They can be sharp tasting when eaten raw, but when cooked their flavor becomes mild and they are particularly delicious served in a cream sauce.

The tiny, white-capped enokitake are valued as much for their visual appeal and crunchy texture as they are for their mild flavor. They are often used as a garnish or as a salad ingredient; in soups, they are usually added at the last mo­ment to avoid overcooking. Enokitake will usually keep several days in the refrigerator; they require no preparation other than removing the thick common base of the stems.

Shiitake are popular in Ori­ental, nouvelle and California cuisine; they are quite versatile — their chewy texture and subtle flavor stand up as well to stir-frying as to lengthy cooking methods. Refrigerated, fresh shiitake keep for a week or more. Dried shiitake will last for months in a cool, dark, dry place; they should be soaked in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes, then rinsed and drained thoroughly before use.

Although the origins of cultivation are unclear, many food historians claim that mushroom cultivation began in China as early as 300 B.C. — not surprising, since mushrooms have always figured heavily in Chinese cuisine, both for their flavor and for their supposedly medicinal qualities. As for the shittake, it has been cultivated in Japan for hundreds of years; high in protein, it is often used as a meat substitute, particular­ly in Buddhist temple cooking.

With an ever-increasing de­mand from knowledgeable con­sumers, commercial growers are constantly improving their techniques, and it is now thought that sometime in the future even the venerable matsutake and morel will be cultivated. While we are wait­ing for that happy day, we now have many varieties of mushrooms which heretofore were enjoyed only by the privileged few.

Marinated Shiitake (serves 4)

  • 1/2 pound shiitake
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 head Boston lettuce
  • Remove and discard the stems of the shiitake. Wipe the caps with a moist pa­per towel slice the caps into thin strips, and put them in a glass jar.
  • Whisk the vinegar, olive oil, thyme and garlic together and pour over the shiitake. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
  • To serve, arrange the let­tuce leaves on individual salad plates and pour the marinated shiitake on to.

Green Salad with Enokitake (serves 4)

  • 1/2 small head iceberg lettuce
  • 1 head Boston lettuce
  • 1 head Romaine lettuce
  • 4 slices Monterey Jack cheese, julienned
  • 7 ounces enokitake
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 6 slices boiled ham, julienned
  • Wash and dry the lettuce leaves, tear them into small pieces and arrange on a serving platter. Ar­range the cheese strips on lop of the salad greens.
  • Combine enokitake soy sauce, lemon juice, olive oil and ham slices in a saucepan and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Spoon over salad greens and serve immediately.

Chicken Cutlets with Oyster Mushrooms (serves 4)

  • 2 chicken breasts, boned, skinned and split in half
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup sliced scallions
  • 3/4 cup chicken broth
  • 3 1/2 ounces oyster mush­room caps, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • While pepper to taste
  • Watercress for garnish
  • Put the chicken between sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap and pound with a mallet or the flat side of a cleaver.
  • Heat the butter in a skillet and saute the chicken un­til done, about 6 minutes on each side. Remove the chicken to a serving platb­and keep warm.
  • Add the scallions and chicken broth to the skillet and simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Stir in the mushrooms and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  • Lower the heat, add the cream and white pepper to the skillet and cook gently until the sauce is slightly thickened. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and gar­nish with watercress.

Stir-Fried Celery and Shiitake (serves 4)

  • 1/4 bunch celery
  • 7 ounces shiitake
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Remove leaves and stem end of the celery, wash thoroughly and slice on the diagonal. There should be about 3 cups.
  • Remove and discard the stems of the shiitake. Wipe the caps with a moist pa­per towel and slice the caps into thin strips.
  • Heat the wok, then heat the oil. When the oil is hot, add the celery and stir-fry for one minute. Sprinkle the sugar over the celery and add the shiitake. Stir-fry for two minutes. Serve immediately.