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Cooking With Mushrooms

by Pamela Slover Percival

From portabellas to Shiitakes, the availability and popularity of fresh mushrooms has literally mushroomed in the past few years.

While white button mushrooms were once the only fresh mushrooms available in Texas grocery stores, it's now not uncommon to find brown, crimini mushrooms and their larger cousins, the meaty-textured portabellas, along with medium-sized, parasol-shaped Shiitakes, delicate oyster mushrooms and even the small, white clusters of miniature enoki mushrooms in Texas produce departments. Albertson's grocery stores, for example, usually stock about eight different varieties of fresh mushrooms, with whites and portabellas being the most popular, according to Albertson's spokesperson Jeannette Duwe.

The mushroom business in the United States is booming, with sales of the 1999-2000 U.S. mushroom crop at a record high 867 million pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. "Most of the growth has been in selling fresh mushrooms, instead of the processed, or canned, ones," said Jeff Kissel, who compiles mushroom statistics for the NASS.

For example, 30 years ago, when a home cook reached for mushrooms to include in a recipe, those mushrooms were probably canned, Kissel said. Back then, only 32 percent of U.S. mushrooms were sold fresh. Today, fresh mushroom sales account for at about 78 percent of the market.

This means consumers have an abundance of fresh mushroom choices and are finding unique ways to cook with these edible fungi. Salads top the list as the most popular way to enjoy mushrooms, followed closely by use as an accompaniment for beef, an ingredient in pasta dishes and a pizza topping, according to consumer usage and attitude surveys conducted by the Mushroom Council.

The increasing popularity of fresh mushrooms by home cooks may be due to greater industry promotional efforts and, in part, to greater usage by professional chefs. People see specialty mushrooms used by chefs in restaurants and on television. "Nationally, we have seen a trend with an increased use of gourmet types of mushrooms," Albertson's Duwe said. One of the reasons for that may be the cooking shows that have certainly risen in popularity." Also, in a recent Mushroom Council survey of 140 restaurant chain executives, 73 percent reported higher usage of mushrooms than in past years.

Many Texas restaurants are following this higher mushroom-usage trend. For example, Chef Stephan Pyles of Star Canyon restaurant in Dallas, created a recipe for a Tamale Tart with Red Pepper Custard, Wild Mushrooms and Chicken Confit (see recipe below). Cowboy Cook Tom Perini, author of the cookbook Texas Cowboy Cooking, tops the dinner salads at his Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, Texas, with slices of fresh mushrooms. Papa John's Pizza operations across the state offer portabella mushrooms as pizza toppings.

Texas grown mushrooms

The use of mushrooms, like many other restaurant trends, tends to trickle down to home cooks, who end up foraging for mushrooms at the local supermarket. And many of the fresh mushrooms Texans find at those supermarkets these days are grown at one of Texas' two major mushroom farms, Monterey Mushrooms in Madisonville and Kitchen Pride Mushrooms in Gonzales. Mushrooms are grown in dark, climate-controlled buildings using pasteurized compost as a growing medium.

Monterey Mushrooms' Madisonville facility produces 500,000 pounds of white button mushrooms per week, along with smaller quantities of portabellas, criminis or goldens, and oyster mushrooms. The facility's agriculture manager, David Nesslrode, says his favorite way to eat mushrooms is to make portabella fajitas.

"You cook the portabella just like you would cook a beef skirt steak," Nesslrode explained. Use fajita seasoning like you would on meat, grill the mushroom with a little butter, onion and bell pepper, add a little garlic powder and onion powder, then slice the portabella and wrap it in a tortilla like a fajita. If you don't tell people what they're eating, they might think it's a beef fajita because the texture of the portabella and the beef is very similar."

Darrell McLain, president of Kitchen Pride Mushrooms, says his favorite use of fresh mushrooms is to eat them sliced on salads. He also likes to batter them, either sliced or whole, and fry them like French fries.

Mushroom buying and usage tips

No matter how you plan to prepare them, when buying fresh mushrooms at the store, look for smooth, firm caps. The mushroom's surface should be free of moisture, but not appear to be dried out, advise experts with the Dublin, Calif.-based Mushroom Council.

Once in the kitchen at home, mushrooms should be refrigerated immediately. Store mushrooms purchased in bulk and unused portions from opened packages in paper bags. Avoid storage in airtight plastic bags, which can cause moisture condensation that speeds spoilage. Properly stored, mushrooms will keep for five days or longer.

Always clean mushrooms just prior to use. The dirty-looking particles sometimes found on a mushroom's surface are not dirt but bits of the peat moss used in growing mushrooms, according to the Mushroom Council's A Guide to Fresh Mushrooms. To remove the peat moss, wipe mushrooms with a damp cloth, paper towel or soft brush, or rinse quickly with cold water. Do not let mushrooms soak in water.

Cooking mushrooms

Sauting is the most popular technique for cooking mushrooms, according to A Guide to Fresh Mushrooms. When they are sauted in a hot skillet, most of the liquid is released and evaporates. This results in a denser texture and more concentrated flavor than when mushrooms are cooked in liquid. Sauting also browns the mushroom's surface as it comes in direct contact with high heat. This browning adds to the rich, deep flavor of cooked mushrooms.

Portabellas are also great on the grill. To grill or broil, lightly brush caps and stems with oil to keep them moist, then season with salt and pepper. Or, try a brush-on sauce such as Italian dressing, oyster sauce, barbecue sauce, hoisin sauce, teriyaki sauce or balsamic vinaigrette.

Nutritional value

While nutrients vary from one kind of mushroom to the next, many contain protein, vitamins A and C, B-vitamins and minerals including iron, selenium, potassium and phosphorus. Phytochemicals found in some mushrooms are being studied as possible cancer-fighting substances, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Roasted Pepper and Salsa Portobello Mushroom Pizzas

From Chef Rick Bayless
  • 6 medium portabella mushroom caps, about 4 inches in diameter
  • 2 roasted red or yellow peppers (or a combination of both; you can use roasted peppers purchased from the deli case or bottled roasted peppers, if you wish)
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • ¼tsp. dried Mexican oregano
  • Salt, to taste
  • ¾ cup thick, homemade-style salsa
  • 1 c. shredded cheese, such as Monterey Jack or mozzarella
  • 2-3 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
Remove stems from mushroom caps and reserve for another use. Wipe the mushroom caps clean with a damp towel.

Cut the roasted peppers into ¼-inch wide strips; cut the strips in half. Heat the oil in a small skillet until hot. Add the onion slices and saut until golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and oregano; cook 1 minute. Stir in the pepper strips and remove from heat. Season with salt.

Spoon about 2 Tbsp. salsa on the gill side of the mushroom caps. Distribute some of the roasted pepper mixture over the salsa. Place mushrooms directly on the cooking grate and cook until mushroom caps are tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle caps with cheese. Re-cover the grill and cook until the cheese is melted, usually 2-4 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve immediately. Serves 6 as an appetizer.

Chicken Marengo

From the Mushroom Council
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 1 lbs.)
  • 12 oz. fresh, white mushrooms, sliced (about 5 cups)
  • 2 cups frozen pearl onions, thawed
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • ½ tsp. dried thyme, crushed
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 can (14 oz.) diced tomatoes (undrained)
  • ½ cup dry white wine
In a Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat until hot. Add chicken; cook until brown on both sides, turning once, about 3 minutes for each side. Remove chicken from pot. Add mushrooms, onions and garlic. Cook and stir until mushrooms are golden, about 10 minutes. Return chicken to skillet. Stir in thyme, salt and pepper. Add tomatoes, with their juice, and wine; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low; cover and simmer until chicken is tender, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve over steamed rice, if desired.

Tamale Tart with Red Pepper Custard, Wild Mushrooms and Chicken Confit

From Star Canyon Restaurant
  • 4 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and pureed, divided
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 1 Tbsp. roasted garlic puree
  • 4 egg yolks
  • ½ cup yellow cornmeal
  • ½ tsp. cayenne powder
  • 3 Tbsp. cumin
  • 1 Tbsp. salt
  • 12 Tbsp. vegetable shortening, at room temperature
  • 12 Tbsp. ancho pepper puree
  • 2 cups water, divided
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • onion
  • 1 lb. assorted wild mushrooms, julienned
  • 2 Tbsp. oregano
  • 2 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 lb. chicken confit julienne (recipe follows)
In small saucepan over high heat, warm 3 of the warm peppers, pureed, stirring constantly until very thick, about 5 minutes. In another small saucepan over medium heat, warm cream, reducing in volume to about 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons. Whisk garlic puree into cream.

In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks lightly; drizzle into cream mixture. Stir slightly. Add reduced bell pepper puree mixture to cream. Cover and set aside to cool. In medium bowl, combine masa harina, cornmeal, cayenne pepper, cumin and salt. In bowl of electric mixer, whip shortening until light and fluffy. Beat in dry ingredients until mixture is smooth. Beat in ancho puree and remaining red bell pepper puree. Form dough mixture into a disk and pat evenly over bottom and sides of a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. (Or, use 6-8 individual tart pans.) Fill tart dough with reserved pepper custard and cover with plastic wrap.

Place a round metal cooking rack inside of a wok. Fill with 2 cups water, with rack positioned about 3 inches above water level. Bring water to a boil over high heat; reduce to simmer. Place wrapped tart on rack and cover wok. Steam until custard is set, about 30 minutes. Using two potholders, carefully lift tart off rack; remove plastic wrap and sides of tart ring. Place on serving platter.

In large skillet, heat oil until slightly smoking. Add onion, stirring continuously. Add mushrooms and saut 3 more minutes, until the mushrooms are fully cooked and tender. Add chicken confit, oregano and lime juice. Heat for 2 minutes longer.

Chicken Confit

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 3 Tbsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 4 cups olive oil
  • 2 cups chicken fat
Cut chicken into pieces, trimming neck and wings and removing backbone; reserve bones for stock. Rub each piece of chicken with salt; place in baking dish just large enough to hold the chicken pieces in one layer. Sprinkle with pepper; add thyme and bay leaves. Cover and refrigerate 6-12 hours, turning pieces occasionally.

Preheat over to 300 degrees. Wipe excess salt from chicken pieces. Place chicken skin side down in skillet and cook on top of stove over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add chicken fat and olive oil to cover browned chicken. Cover skillet and cook in oven for 1- 1 hours, allowing chicken to become very tender.

Cool to room temperature. Pull meat from bones. Cut chicken into small julienne strips and refrigerate.

Food writer Pamela Slover Percival is a regular contributor to the Abilene Reporter-News in Abilene, Texas. Contact her at gpercival@prodigy.net.

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