Monday, April 12, 2010

In praise of mushrooms

Tonight's side dish was sauteed cremini ("baby bella") mushrooms with shallots and thyme. Many people think of mushrooms only as condiments--toppings to add to pizzas, burgers, or salads--but the humble fungus is much more versatile than that. Mushrooms can become a tasty and substantial side dish alongside meat, fish, or legume entrees (I have an Indian recipe for mushrooms in tomato sauce that makes a nice accompaniment for curried lentils or chickpeas)if handled with skill.
For starters, never soak mushrooms in water to clean them, as they already have a high moisture content and readily absorb any moisture that they come into contact with. Instead, simply brush off any dirt or growing medium on your mushrooms with a paper towel or vegetable brush. Second, be sure to cook the mushrooms at a temperature that is high enough to extract and evaporate their moisture before attempting to brown them or adding them to any dish in which excess moisture would be detrimental, such as a quiche, strata, or lasagna. Five minutes of cooking over medium-high heat in a bit of oil should cause the mushrooms to release their liquid; a further 8 minutes or so should be all that is needed to evaporate the moisture in the pan.

Mushrooms can also stand alone in vegetarian entrees, and for good reason: portabella mushrooms have 2 grams of protein per cup (not great, but better than other vegetables) and are a "very good" source of folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and other B vitamins. So if you are watching your blood pressure, mushrooms can be an ally in your quest for better health (just be mindful of the amount of salt you add).

The next time you are at a loss for a savory side dish, consider the mushroom. To recreate the dish we had for dinner tonight, follow the instructions above. Once the moisture in the pan has evaporated, reduce the heat to medium and add a little butter or oil. Cook another 8 minutes or so (you don't need to stir the whole time) until the mushrooms are a lovely mahogony color, then add a little finely minced red onion or shallot and about a tablespoon of fresh thyme and cook until the onion is soft. Deglaze the pan with a splash of sherry (the traditional accompaniment to mushroom soup)and allow the liquid to evaporate before serving.

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