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Portobello mushrooms

Cooking with Portobello Mushrooms
by Pat McNees

If you’re like me, you’ve walked right past the portobellos in the specialty section of stores like Fresh Fields and the Gourmet Giant. Portobellos are those huge brown mushrooms with dirt on the stems, which is inhibiting if you’ve heard that washing mushrooms is ill-advised.

A dinner at City Café convinced me I should try cooking them – indeed, it sent me on a portobello mushroom-crazed bender. City Café had a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich on its spring menu, which, at $11 (this was years ago) I would normally ignore as pure California trendiness. But a friend had recently told me about a memorable portobello mushroom grilled over charcoal, so I ordered the sandwich.

In the City Café sandwich, the grilled mushroom was sliced on the bias (as one would slice a flank steak) and the slices sat plumply between two slices of toasted walnut bread (from the Uptown Bakery), together with goat cheese and grilled red and yellow peppers. I added the fresh watercress served on the side and took my first bite. Splendid!

Trendy or not, this combination of wildly different flavors and textures offers a symphony of oral pleasures, with one flavor rising to a crescendo, then subsiding as the next one steps forward to be savored (this sandwich cries out for mixed metaphors). I am embarrassed to report that even as I ate that first sandwich, I yearned for a second one. Instead, I went home and, the next day, tried to recreate it. And when I found portobellos selling for $3.95 a pound at Giant Gourmet (about $1.25 for a 3- to 4- incher), I went crazy trying them in different recipes.

The portobello combines a beefy texture with a mildly earthy flavor. To say it is like truffles for the downtrodden is an exaggeration because it does not have the nutty or deep woodsy taste of wild mushrooms. Indeed, it is a cultivated cremini, the brown version of the button mushroom (Agaricus), says Stan Gerendasy of Potomac Woodland Mushrooms, which supplies restaurants with wild mushrooms and other delicacies. As an eating experience, the portobello is probably nearer the wild mushroom that the Campbell’s soup kind, but it may be, as Gerendasy says, that “the size almost creates a taste – you get such a mouthful that it’s a different experience.”

One advantage the portobello has over wild mushrooms is that it maintains its firmness longer while cooking and is chewier in texture. You won’t find portobellos mentioned in many cookbooks, even mushroom cookbooks. Simply follow any recipe that includes mushrooms but allow for size. And ignore what you’ve heard about not buying mushrooms in which you can see the dark gills. Visible gills are a sign of aging, but these are old mushrooms; that’s why they’re so big. When grilling these beauties whole, put your seasonings in the gill side, and grill them gill-side up.

Nora Pouillon, owner-chef of City Café and Restaurant Nora, uses portobellos in many recipes, but Roberto Donna, owner-chef of Galileo, was probably the first to popularize this mushroom in Washington.

“Cooking time is very important with the portobello,” says Donna, “because if you cook them too long, you lose all the juices and they become mushy and black. I cook them very briefly – 2 to 3 minutes maximum under the hot flame of the salamander [a professional broiler]. We call them roasted, but we really cook them under the broiler.”

The way to deal with the mushroom’s dirty tip is to cut it off. Then, says Donna, “take the stem off and save it for stock or other stuff.” The rest of the mushroom gets wiped off with a napkin or a damp paper towel.

Donna combines salt, pepper, chopped garlic, basil and parsley, all to taste. He puts the seasoning on the surface of the mushroom’s black gills, facing up. He tops everything with a teaspoon of butter, then pours from a half cup to a whole cup of olive oil on it.

Yes, half a cup to a cup. “That’s why we charge $8.95 for it,” he says. “You’re going to scare these people, but almost one cup. We make them in a 12-inch pan and there is olive oil and butter all over the pan. We bake one at a time. You don’t serve all the fat – you pour off all but a spoon of it.”

Donna broils each mushroom 2 to 3 minutes maximum. “The trick is to take the pan out before the butter turns black. How long you cook it depends on how thick they are. I serve them when they are still very firm; they seem almost raw. When the black gills stop being firm, when they let down under the pressure of the finger, they are overcooked.”

Donna puts the whole mushroom on the serving dish, cuts a 1-inch incision into the thick center part of the mushroom (which takes the longest to cook), and puts a spoonful of the oil and butter in that incision so the mushroom finishes cooking on the way to the table.

A Mushroom for All Seasons

One advantage portobellos have over wild mushrooms is that, because they are cultivated, they are generally available year round, except for occasional shortages for such unpredictable reasons as blight. Among wild mushrooms, fresh morels are available only in the spring (March to May), porcini (the Italian cèpe, or Boletus) in June and then again from September to November, chanterelles from June to November, cèpes (another Boletus) in the fall (August to November) and truffles, black chanterelles and hedgehogs (pied de mouton) in the winter. If any of these appear out of season in a restaurant dish, you are probably eating a frozen or canned mushroom (these maintain their shape best) or a dried and reconstituted mushroom (which may look haggard but retains more intensity of flavor).

Because, like portobellos, they lend themselves to cultivation, oyster mushrooms, shiitakes and enokis are generally available year round. Mushrooms that grow only in the wild fetch a higher price – morels can reach $40 a pound.

Here are some recipes. Don’t overcook the mushrooms, but beyond that don’t think you have to cook portobellos with precision. As Nick Bell, chef at City Café, says, “The portobello mushroom is very forgiving.” It doesn’t perform only when conditions are “just so.” This is an ingredient for the ‘90s: a mushroom for tired, rushed or lazy cooks who want something different but not budget-crushing.

Brown Rice Portobello
(2 to 4 servings)

When portobellos are cooked in liquid, they tend to darken and enrich the sauce that results, so they add interest to such starch dishes as rice, risotto, and pasta. One night I cut a portobello up into an orangey-looking commercial pasta sauce; it transformed the sauce into the brownish look and taste of a wild-mushroom sauce (all the more so when I combined a fresh portobello with a couple of reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms, and included the reconstituting liquid).

Make a lot of the following brown rice dish, because it tastes good reheated and is a flavorful and nourishing dish to put on the table when you’re trying to go meatless.

2 shallots, chopped (or use 1 small to medium onion)
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil, plus 1 tablespoon butter (optional, but it brings out the shallot flavor), or 3 tablespoons olive oil total
1 cup brown rice
3 cups hot liquid (water or broth)
1 Knorr bouillon cube (optional, to intensify flavor)
1 portobello mushroom, chopped

Sauté the shallots briefly in the oil, add the rice, stirring just enough to coat the grains with oil. Then add the liquid – enough to cover the rice plus another generous ½ inch or so of water. Add the optional Knorr bouillon cube, if using. (I prefer Knorr to all others I’ve tried.) Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover the pot and allow rice to cook gently. After 15 minutes, add the chopped mushroom and cook 10 minutes more – for a total of 25 minutes for the rice – until it has absorbed most of the water. Then uncover the pot, stir the rice and continue cooking, watching and tasting often, until the rice is firm but al dente, or firm to the tooth. You may have to add water if the rice goes dry before it is tender.

Alternatively, you can sauté the chopped mushroom and add it after the rice is cooked. If you prepare the dish this way, allow it to sit for at least an hour, so the rice can pick up the mushroom flavor.

Note: For more concentrated flavor, pour hot water over 3 or 4 dried shiitake mushrooms (often found in the Asian or gourmet section of specialty supermarkets), let them sit about 30 minutes until they are reconstituted. Then drain the water from the shiitakes into the cooking broth for the rice, chop the shiitakes, and add them to the chopped fresh portobellos. In this way you combine the intense mushroom flavor (from the shiitakes and liquid), plus the firmer texture of the fresh portobellos.

Per serving: 546 calories, 9 gm protein, 77 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 mg sodium

This article first appeared in the Washington Post food section on May 19, 1993, as “The Mushroom That Makes a Meal: Coming to Terms With the Portobello, the King Kong of Fungi”. Copyright (c) 1993 by Pat McNees. Do not reprint in any medium without permission.