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Down to Earth

07 December 2006

Raw, fried or sautéed, cultivated, wild or dried, mushrooms bring menus rich flavor and a terrestrial sense of satisfaction.

This article first appeared in the 1 October 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>

By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor

For some food professionals, no other ingredient evokes a sense of mystery and even danger as do wild mushrooms. Indeed, no other ingredient relies on a global network of off-the-grid foragers for its provision.

But for others, fungal love didn't come easily. "Personally, I hated mushrooms until a year ago," admits Executive Chef Matt Carpenter of Bin 8945 Wine Bar & Bistro in West Hollywood, Calif. What converted Carpenter's mushroom bias was the culinary potential of the variable ingredient. "Once I realized how I could manipulate their flavors and textures, I started to have fun with them," he says. And his fun has resulted in dishes from mushroom seviche to mushroom pot pie.

While wild varieties highlight seasonality, with chanterelles shining in summer and fall while morels signal spring, most mushrooms that make it to industry plates aren't found in the forest. Cultivated varieties have expanded beyond ubiquitous buttons and portobellos, allowing chefs to experiment with braised, fried, puréed and raw preparations. Dried varieties do their part, deepening flavors of braises, stocks and soups. And while diners and chefs alike seek mushrooms when the weather turns cool, year-round availability of cultivated varieties makes them ideal for summer pickling and grilling.

That versatility warrants a separate food category for mushrooms somewhere between meat and vegetable, says Executive Chef Warren Schwartz of Whist at Viceroy Santa Monica hotel in Santa Monica, Calif. "It's like meat. It's that complex," he insists.

It's also versatility that lends itself to operations across the board. According to R&I's 2005 Menu Census, 83% of operators surveyed purchased mushrooms. While button mushrooms have long been common, what's changing is the variety in the marketplace. Independent restaurants long have championed distinctive mushrooms, but more chain restaurants are incorporating varieties other than buttons into menus.

According to Wheaton, Ill.-based researcher Food Beat Inc., mushrooms were served in nearly every chain category, with the exception of Mexican quick service. Of chains surveyed, Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory had the highest number of dishes prepared with mushrooms, including the chain's most popular dish, Chicken Madeira.

Complements All Around

Corporate Executive Chef Bob Okura has a ready reason for the favoritism. "They're very versatile, not just in terms of cooking applications but in their ability to fit cuisines of different cultures," he says. "[Mushrooms add] layers of flavor that you get from no other ingredient."

The Cheesecake Factory buys buttons, creminis, portobellos and shiitakes fresh daily, incorporating them into dishes such as Steak Diane and Kobe beef burger topped with sautéed shiitakes and onions. The chain in June introduced a new, meat-based Bolognese sauce that uses reconstituted dried porcini where the liquid used to reconstitute the mushrooms is reserved for sauce.

While mushrooms are found throughout The Cheesecake Factory's something-for-everyone menu, restaurants focused on a single cuisine have discovered clever uses for the fungi that stay true to their concept.

Los Angeles-based multiconcept operator Innovative Dining Group features mushrooms in numerous Japanese preparations, from elegant matsutake mushrooms in dashi broth at its West Hollywood, Calif., restaurant Katana to seared enoki and oyster mushrooms served in a clay pot with ponzu at multi-unit Sushi Roku. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., Spanish restaurant Taberna del Alabardero riffs on classic paella by making mushrooms the main ingredient.

Multicultural Mushrooms

At Katana, a restaurant built around a Japanese robata, or open charcoal grill, mushrooms also are featured drizzled with butter, grilled and finished with a dash of ponzu, a soy sauce-based sauce made with citrus. Mushrooms also act as clever substitutes for noodles. A favorite for Hollywood's carb-wary diners are thin slices of baby abalone and grilled asparagus sautéed with a dash of sake and soy sauce served on thin, white enoki mushrooms sautéed in butter.

Enoki mushrooms also work well served raw. At one sixtyblue in Chicago, Executive Chef Martial Noguier pairs enokis with cooked and cooled button and shiitake mushrooms dressed with vinaigrette made with reduced mushroom stock, sherry vinegar, shallots, grapeseed oil and truffle oil.

Noguier, a self-proclaimed mushroom fanatic, also serves "pickled" button mushrooms with a veal strip loin in the summer. He sweats mushrooms and onions in olive oil, then simmers them in white wine, lemon juice, thyme, coriander seeds, peppercorns and bay leaves.

Raw mushrooms, sliced thinly, make an elegant cold preparation. As soon as pristine porcini arrive at Beppe in New York City, Executive Chef Marc Taxiera shaves them for a porcini-and-dandelion-greens salad.

While he, too, likes raw mushrooms, Executive Chef Santi Zabaleta at Taberna de Alabardero also fries them for tapas reminiscent of fried dishes of southern Spain. He dredges hen of the woods, honey and royal trumpet mushrooms in flour, then deep-fries them, serving the dish with two aiolis: herb and roasted red bell pepper.

Mushrooms also can be unobtrusive players on the plate. Zabaleta grinds stems along with meat for Taberna del Alabardero's albondigas, or classic Spanish meatballs, eliminating the need to use a conventional bread-and-egg binder. "It makes the ground meat juicy and not as dense as a meatball," Zabaleta says.

Carpenter also uses this trick in making kofta, a Near Eastern ground-lamb meatball. He combines ground chicken breast with ground cremini mushrooms, tomato paste, garlic and a dash of soy sauce. He rolls the mixture like a sausage and poaches it. Once it has cooled, he slices it into pieces, grills it and serves it with mushroom jus.

Prepping and storing mushrooms takes consideration, particularly when inventory includes wild varieties. Soaking is frowned upon for mushrooms since they soak up water like a sponge, but some need more bathing time than others. At Ame in San Francisco, Executive Chef Greg Dunmore brushes dirt from matsutake and porcini mushrooms, but with black trumpets, which are notorious for harboring dirt and pine needles, he splits them and dunks them in water three times before placing them on a towel-lined sheet tray.

And when trimming stems, Dunmore wastes not. He recommends adding stems to stocks.

Variety Pack

Experienced foragers keep chefs on their toes with an array of wild varieties. But cultivated and dried mushrooms are welcome for the reliability they bring to the mix.

  • Cultivated: Everything from button and shiitake to royal trumpets, beech, king oysters and clam shells.
    Chef Warren Schwartz of Whist in Santa Monica, Calif., gets wild chanterelles from as far away as Russia. But in order to use mushrooms as frequently on breakfast and lunch menus as on dinner menus, he turns to a cultivated mix.

  • Dried: Powdered or whole, dried mushrooms, particularly porcini, add depth to soup and dimension to presentations.
    Chef Greg Dunmore of San Francisco's Ame likes adding smoked, dried porcini to the base of a braised lamb daube. Powdered porcini punch up Chef Marc Taxiera's popular mushroom soup at Beppe. Chef Santi Zabaleta of Taberna del Alabardero in Washington, D.C., dredges halibut or flounder in porcini powder.

  • Wild: Foragers scattered throughout the continents work with local purveyors to bring exotic varieties to operators. Such goods are not only pricey, but fragile.
    Dunmore never allows porcini and matsutake mushrooms to sit for very long.
    After cleaning them, he cooks the mushrooms rather than holding them raw in the walk-in.

  • Try it: Taxiera uses nepitella, an herb frequently given away with fresh porcini purchases in Italy. Found dried domestically, the herb adds notes of mint and oregano to Taxiera's mushroom soup.

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