Button mushrooms, portabellas, crimini, morels, cepes, porcini, chanterelles, truffles, shiitake, enoki, oyster, wood ears, black mushrooms, and so on; the list of culinary mushrooms is a long one. The biological world has produced many thousands of macroscopic fungal organisms and many of them are edible - even corn smut or huitiloche, as this much sought after fungus is called in Mexico.

There was a day when mushrooms were presented only on top of the most expensive cuts of beef. But this was guilding the lily. Still, if one is preparing a gravy-like sauce to enhance any meat - turkey, chicken, pork, or beef, one will consider adding mushrooms to enhance the 'dark, meaty' flavor of the meat.

Today, mushrooms are used broadly in cooking; though not as broadly as they could be. The mushroom is a vegetal oddity. In terms of nutritional value it fits into the animal kingdom better than it does in the vegetable kingdom. It is rich in many B vitamins that are rare in other plant food but common in meat. And the mushroom's predominant flavor is reminiscent of meat. The Japanese name for the flavor is umame, and it is present in soy sauce and fish sauce as well as browned meats and mushrooms. Mushrooms, it is claimed, also contain a chemical which enhances the flavor of things - a chemical that we presume works a little like MSG.

Because of its nutritional and flavor resemblances to meat, the mushroom can be used to great advantage to complement very vegetal vegetables. For instance, a classic preparation adds chopped mushrooms to peas. Simple, but powerful. It can be used to make pates. There are nice recipes for vegetarians that involve marinating and grilling portabella mushrooms and serving them on buns as hamburgers. And the stuffing mushroom has become a gourmet rage; stemmed, cooked upside-down with crab, asparagus, gruyere and breadcrumbs arranged on top. Or pureed peas, proscuitto, and swiss. Or shrimp, black olive diavolo sauce, and parmesan.

Here are some strategies for treating mushrooms effectively in recipes.

My secret way to prepare mushrooms in a sauce is quite involved, but it does make for a good flavor. Get out the heaviest saute pan you have. Heat it on high for two or three minutes as you slice up your package of button mushrooms. After the mushrooms are cut up, toss them into the pan without oil or anything. The mushrooms should sing, or squeal. If they don't the pan is not hot enough. After half a minute of singing, stir the mushrooms, wait. Stir. After a minute or two add some olive oil and stir to coat. Cook the mushrooms for a while. They will release water. Stir a little more. Next add a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar and stir. Let most of it evaporate, then add 1/4 cup of Tamari. Grind up some pepper and add it.

These mushrooms are now ready to be incorporated into a sauce or added to meat. If you want to make a simple gravy with them, make some roux, heat some stock, add the mushrooms to the stock, cook down, and thicken it with superhot roux. (The rule about roux and liquid is that one should be cold. but if the roux is heated above boiling and it is added to boiling hot liquid, it will disintigrate quickly and completely..)

Mushroom Recipes