Mushroom Madness

Once touted for their perceived medicinal value, mushrooms now provide texture and enhance flavor in meatless menus.

Mushrooms have just enough personality to be interesting but, often, not enough to overpower a dish—making them an effective component of the vegetarian menu. For many meat-avoiders, mushrooms can be served raw or cooked.

Like tofu, mushrooms will take on the characteristics of the ingredients around them; they have a texture soft enough for small children and hospital patients alike to enjoy while offering an interesting texture for those with no restrictions. Considered by many a healthy alternative to meat, mushrooms are low in fat, cholesterol and sodium.

More foodservice operations are offering mushroom-based meals and more consumers arebringing mushrooms home from the grocery store. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time for you to put more mushrooms on your menus.

‘Shroom vroom: According to the Mushroom Council, based in Dublin, Calf., there has been a significant rise in mushroom consumption. A recent survey showed that consumers were including mushrooms in their meals at least three times per month (up from twice a month in 1994).

White mushrooms are the most commonly used mushrooms in non-commercial kitchens, according to council research, in both whole and pre-sliced versions. Portabellas come in second, followed by shiitake and oyster. Those statistics mirror the commercial restaurant segments’ use of mushrooms.

Mushrooms are generally thought of and prepared like vegetables. Up to two cups of mushrooms are allowed daily during the induction phase of low-carb diets. They can be used wherever the texture of meat is desired. Try a grilled portabella with whipped sweet potatoes, wilted pea shoots, pearl onions and roasted red chili chutney.

Portabella burgers are available frozen and can be used as a burger sandwich or as a filling for burritos and hot sandwiches. Grilled portabellas or other mushroom varieties can be accompanied by couscous and a salad or by a cold lentil salad and a squash stew for a beautiful plate presentation.

Fresh, canned, dried: Mushrooms are available fresh, canned and dried. Select the kind best suited to your budget, menu and kitchen staff’s skills.

  • Fresh mushrooms have a firm texture. They are delicate and highly perishable and must be handled with care; they are sensitive to hot temperatures and rough shipping. Many varieties of fresh mushrooms are seasonal, so have a back-up variety.
  • Canned mushrooms are limited in variety, generally of the button mushroom type (visit Asian markets to find canned straw, enoki and oyster mushrooms). Canned mushrooms are convenient and require little handling.
  • Dried mushrooms are available year-round and store easily. Dried mushrooms must be reconstituted prior to use (or your customers will be chewing on wood-like ingredients). Dried mushrooms can be soaked in water or vegetable stock or broth until they are the desired texture. Save the soaking liquid, as it is quite flavorful, and use as a base for soups and sauces or as cooking liquid for beans and grains.

Once reconstituted, dried mushrooms are perishable and must be stored in the refrigerator. Purchase mushrooms from reputable purveyors and never serve mushrooms you’ve picked yourself (unless you are very well trained in mycology, the study of mushrooms). The right variety of mushrooms can be wonderful. The wrong variety can be deadly.

Mild and seasonable: Mushrooms generally have a mild flavor and lend well to seasoning. Large mushrooms, such as portabellas, large button, lobster and porcini, lend themselves to baking, roasting and grilling. Offer a mushroom “steak” or a mixed mushroom grill as an entrée, served on a bed of herbed rice, paired with garlic-black beans and fresh corn; as a sandwich; or layered with shredded salad greens, sliced onions and tomatoes on a sourdough roll or baguette.

Smaller mushrooms can be chopped and used for texture and flavoring. A duxelle is a combination of mushrooms and shallots (or onions) chopped so fine as to resemble a paste. This earthy, flavorful ingredient can be used to flavor stuffing, pilafs, soups and cooked grains, or can be served as an elegant spread for hot or cold appetizer. Spread duxelle on Melba toast or matzo, then top with chopped olives, capers and chopped pimentos for a colorful appetizer. Or stir some duxelle into a canned mushroom soup (use blended tofu instead of water or milk) to create a thick, flavorful creamy soup (which can also be used as a mushroom sauce). Stuff tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant and even more mushrooms with plain duxelle or duxelle mixed with cooked rice, barley or stuffing. Bake and serve with a mushroom sauce.

Gravy gain: Mushroom gravy can be made from purchased mushroom broth or the liquid produced from soaking dried mushrooms. Sauté sliced mushrooms and onions and add to heated broth. Thicken with cornstarch and let cook until the flavors are melded. Or puree soaked dried mushrooms with sautéed onions and tofu for a creamy mushroom gravy.

Have sliced fresh or canned mushrooms available for “tossing.” Toss mushrooms with tofu and scramble for a morning menu item and add mushrooms to stir-fries, pizza and pasta. Toss mushrooms into vegetable, bean and curried soups for extra flavor and texture. Toss cooked or raw mushrooms into potato, green and pasta salads and use sliced mushrooms as a garnish for entrees, casseroles and soups. Offer raw or cooked mushrooms on your potato and pasta bars.