Mushrooms: The joy of fungus

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Fungus is gross. It can’t help it. But no fungus is more fun than mushrooms, those powerfully flavored, spore-producing bites of goodness. With a huge selection of edible varieties, each with its own texture and nuance, mushrooms in general provide a delightful undertone of earthiness to every dish they enrich.

They’re great in salads, perfect on pizzas and even better in omelets. But for their most perfect application, you merely have to pair them with cream. There may be no better combination of flavors on this earth than mushrooms and cream. Think of cream of mushroom soup. OK, now think of really good cream of mushroom soup, not the stuff that comes in a can. Think of cream of mushroom soup made by a great restaurant.

Pretty amazing, right? You can make it yourself at home without too terribly much trouble. A little trouble, yes. But not too much.

Oyster Mushroom Soup with Walnuts in Red Wine is made up of two distinct parts, the oyster mushroom soup part and the walnuts in red wine part. If you want, you can just make the oyster mushroom soup by itself. That’s pretty spectacular as is. But if you have the time and inclination, I’d recommend making the walnuts in red wine, too.

The walnuts add a nutty crunch that enhances the mushrooms’ woodsy flavor, but it is the red wine that really makes the difference. Reduced from two cups to just one tablespoon, the intense flavor of the wine is smoothed out and mellowed by the cream. It’s wonderful.

With the heady marvel of the soup still coursing through my body, I next made the more prosaic Woodland Mushroom Quesadillas. More prosaic, but no less delicious.

Here, you mix three kinds of mushrooms — button (the ordinary white mushrooms), large portobello caps and sliced shiitakes — and sauté them together with shallots and garlic.

Before you place the mixture between two flour tortillas and cover it with cheese, you have the option of mixing in some marinara or adobo sauce. I used marinara, and I’d recommend doing the same even more than I recommend making the walnuts in red wine for the soup.

Without the sauce, the mushrooms are nice. But the sauce makes them queen of quesadillas.

Next up was a dish that sounds complicated, but isn’t. Orecchiette Pasta with Shiitake Mushrooms and Sugar Snap Peas makes its own sauce out of the liquid that is exuded from the mushrooms as they cook, and then, when it is served, the sauce collects in tiny puddles in the orecchiette (the word means “little ears”).

Minced red onion provides a moderate amount of bite, which is countered by the sweet saltiness of grated Parmesan cheese, and notes of freshness from sugar snap peas help to brighten the earthy mushrooms.

It’s a fine dish to serve at a party, and if you make it for dinner be sure to make enough for leftovers the next day. It’s a pasta salad, so it is especially good when you serve it the second day at room temperature.

For my final dish, I went to the king of the mushrooms, the morel. Morels are prized because of their unbeatable combination of flavor (full and hearty) and texture (honeycombed and sort of spongy).

They are so prized, they are ridiculously expensive when you buy them at the store, even when you, as I did, buy them dried and then reconstitute them. On the other hand, people in the know simply go out into the forest in the spring and find them growing in the wild.

Note: If you don’t know what you are doing, do not attempt this. Some mushrooms that sort of resemble morels are toxic, at least to a degree.

The good news about the dish, Asparagus with Morels and Tarragon, is that you don’t have to use morels if your pocketbook doesn’t allow it. Any blend of exotic mushrooms will do.

This is a dish that is made up entirely of things that taste good together. Asparagus and mushrooms are always a good pair, and so are asparagus and tarragon. Mushrooms and tarragon, too. And shallots go with all of them, especially when sautéed in butter.

It’s certainly pricey, if you use morels, but it is a side dish fit for a king — of mushrooms.

Oyster Mushroom Soup With Walnuts in Red Wine

Recipe from “Cooking with Daniel Boulud,” by Daniel Boulud

6 cups chicken stock

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup leeks, white part only, thinly sliced (about 2 small leeks)

1 sprig thyme

2 bay leaves, divided

4 cups oyster mushrooms, cleaned, stems discarded, sliced (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 cup potatoes, peeled, in 1/4-inch dice

Salt and black pepper

1 cup heavy cream

2 cups red wine

1/2 cup walnut halves

5 peppercorns

1 clove

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/4 cup of chives, minced

Begin heating the chicken stock. Melt the butter in another large pot over medium heat. Add the leeks, thyme and 1 bay leaf and sweat (cook without browning) until soft, approximately 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 to 15 minutes or until all moisture has evaporated.

Add the warm chicken stock, potatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the cream and simmer for 5 minutes more. Discard the thyme and bay leaf and purée the soup in batches in a blender or food processor until smooth. Pour the blended soup back into the pot and keep warm until needed.

In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the red wine, walnuts, the remaining bay leaf, peppercorns, clove and sugar and bring to a boil. Simmer until the liquid is reduced to 1 tablespoon. Remove the walnuts with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Strain the reduced red wine and add it to the soup. Slice the walnuts when cool and set aside.

Serve garnished with the sliced walnuts and minced chives. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 506 calories; 34 g fat; 16 g saturated fat; 89 mg cholesterol; 8 g protein; 24 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 1,379 mg sodium; 108 mg calcium

Woodland Mushroom Quesadillas

Adapted from a recipe from “The Whole Foods Market Cookbook” by Steve Petusevsky and others.

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup chopped shallots

3 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 pound button mushrooms, thinly sliced

2 large portobello mushroom caps, chopped

1 cup stemmed and chopped shiitake mushrooms

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

3/4 cup marinara or adobo sauce, optional

16 (8-inch) flour tortillas

1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or spray with vegetable spray.

Place the olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and sauté for 1 minute, stirring often. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms are tender, but not mushy, about 5 minutes. Stir in marinara or adobo sauce, if desired.

Spread 1/2 cup of the mushroom mixture over 1 flour tortilla, leaving a 1/2-inch border with no filling at the edge of the tortilla. Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of the cheese. Top with a tortilla. Repeat to make 8 tortillas.

Place the filled tortillas on the prepared baking sheet; do not allow the sides to touch. Gently press the tortillas down to make the filling a uniform thickness. Bake about 5 minutes, or until the cheese has just melted. Remove with a wide spatula. Cut into wedges, like pizza, and serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 464 calories; 19 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 19 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 59 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 1,366 mg sodium; 281 mg calcium

Orecchiette Pasta With Shiitake Mushrooms and Sugar Snap Peas

Adapted from a recipe from “The Whole Foods Market Cookbook,” by Steve Petusevsky and others

12 ounces orecchiette pasta

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup minced red onion

1 cup stemmed and sliced shiitake mushrooms

1 large portobello cap, diced

1 cup sugar snap or snow peas, strings removed

1/2 cup minced scallions

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook 8 to 9 minutes until it is al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Place the cooked pasta in a bowl large enough for easy mixing.

Heat the olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch nonstick sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 1 minute; add the shiitake and portobello mushrooms and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the sugar snap peas and sauté 2 more minutes.

Add the sautéed vegetables to the bowl with the cooked pasta. Toss well, adding a tablespoon or so of the reserved pasta water, if needed, for moisture. Add the scallions, Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper, and toss lightly to blend. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 419 calories; 8 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 9 mg cholesterol; 17 g protein; 69 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 201 mg sodium; 151 mg calcium

Asparagus With Morels and Tarragon

Recipe from “Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods,” by Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

2 large shallots, finely chopped

1/4 pound fresh morels (or 1 ounce dried morels, reconstituted), cleaned and halved lengthwise if large, or other exotic mushrooms

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon, divided

1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Have a large bowl of ice water ready. Put 1 inch of salted water in a large sauté pan, bring to a boil and add the asparagus. Cook until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the asparagus to the bowl of ice water. Once cool, transfer the asparagus to a plate lined with paper towels.

Empty the sauté pan and wipe dry. Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Add the morels and cook, stirring frequently, until tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the asparagus, 1 tablespoon of the tarragon, the salt and the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and cook, stirring, until heated through, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Garnish with the remaining 1 tablespoon tarragon. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 110 calories; 8 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 20 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 8 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 169 mg sodium; 56 mg calcium