Are you eating enough mushrooms? Don’t be daunted by their dirty appearance; the meaty fungus is easy enough to select, store, and cook.
Morels. Oyster mushrooms. Portobellos. Shiitakes. Hen of the woods. Matsutakes. For me, mushrooms occupy that delightful culinary turf of “Once you start eating them, you don’t want to stop.” Make a mushroom curry and you’ll make sautéed mushroom asparagus pasta the next night. Morel risotto will have you hankering for morels in a creamy lasagna. And why not? Meatier than any other vegetable, mushrooms are a delight.
Common, cultivated white mushrooms (sometimes labeled “button mushrooms”), cremini mushrooms (often labeled “baby bellas”), and portobellos are closely related. Cremini mushrooms are simply a slightly darker-hued variation on button mushrooms. When cremini mushrooms are mature (read: large), we call them portobellos. These are the most common types you’ll spy, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see them at the farmers’ market. If not, grocery store mushrooms are typically fine for cooking. Just be sure to look for those that seem to be firm and evenly colored, with tightly closed caps. (If they have spots or look damaged or wet, even beneath a cap of plastic wrap, don’t buy them.)
There are oodles of types of mushrooms, but a good best bet for storing most of them is unwashed, in a paper bag, with the top folded over, in the refrigerator (but not in the crisper, which can be too moist).
Clean mushrooms only when you want to use them. Advice on cleaning will vary by the source, with some saying that popping them into a bowl of water and rinsing, then drying them, is fine, with others insisting that a careful brushing of each is necessary. (I eat a lot of cremini mushrooms, and rinse them under a little running water in a colander, using my fingertips to gently remove dirt. Then I trim the stem end about a quarter of an inch, and discard.) Certain types of mushrooms, such as morels, are extremely dirty and may also require a gently scrub from a brush, such as a clean toothbrush, under cool running water just before use.
Where to start with the delights of mushrooms? Remember that they sing in almost any language—French, Spanish, Italian, even Mexican—and often need little more than olive oil or butter to make them shine. I’m quite fond of this coconut red curry with tofu, in which cremini mushrooms add a meaty element, but I’m also over the moon for pretty much any morel recipe. Morels love butter and cream, so you can sauté them in butter with shallots and toss them with pasta, cream and thyme, mingle them with peas, Parm and pasta, or make the dreamiest risotto any of your guests have ever had. (Tip: If you spy a bag of dried morels somewhere, especially at a non-bank-breaking price, get them! Oh, will you use them.)
My go-to quasi-recipe? One large minced shallot, 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, and 8 to 10 ounces of cremini mushrooms, sliced in 1/8-inch slices. Sauté shallot in butter over medium heat, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until they release their water and re-absorb it, turning a darker shade of brown, about 6-10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add one teaspoon fresh soft chopped herbs such as thyme or sage, if desired, and toss with half a pound of cooked, salted pasta. Top with grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, and serve.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.