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Spring Mushrooms

 May 26,2015 - Radio Kitchen - Spring Mushrooms

During the first few weeks of spring, fresh Maryland produce seems to spring up like, well, mushrooms.  In fact this is a great time of the year to go shopping for your favorite fungi.  And we know that cooks all over town are pretty excited about these new arrivals.  What we are finding now are the portobello, criminis, white button, shiitake, and the queen of them all, the woodsy morel.

The portobello is the mature agaricus bisporus, and all of the examples we find today spring from a genetic mutation that occurred in Pennsylvania in 1926.

The big brown mushroom with the meaty texture caught on almost instantly and has stayed with us ever since.   Because it is such a big mushroom, with a cap about 4 -6 inches across, many recipes like to cook it intact.  But there are a few prep steps you should take.

1.  Brush off the dirt with a dry cloth.  Do not use a wet one, or wash the mushroom.

2.  Twist off the stem, and then remove the gills with a spoon.  The gills aren't harmful, but that dark color leaches out into your dish, and their texture can be a little off-putting.

3.  To get the cap to lie really flat, trim the outer edge with a sharp knife, going all the way around.  This is a good approach for those famous portobello burgers.

Keeping the cap intact helps to preserve and isolate the portabello's flavor. Cutting it up allows the slices to absorb the flavor of whatever liquid you are using to cook them in.  It all depends upon the recipe.

The cremini is actually nothing more than an immature portabello.  I bet you didn't know that.  It is a much smaller version of the portabello, no more than 2" across the cap.  They closely resemble the familiar white button mushrooms, and they are great candidates for slicing.  The difference is that the cremini has a deeper flavor, and can contribute more to a dish.  And unlike the portobello, the stems are edible.

The elegant shiitake looks like a whimsical little umbrella.  Rich tan in color, they have a longish stem which isn't really good to eat, but can contribute flavor to a stock.  Shiitakes are best eaten cooked, and even in a stir-fry they won't lose their flavor.  Also, it's not unusual to find dried shiitakes, but we like fresh home grown the best.

The little white button mushroom is sort of the white bread member of the family.  There may not be a lot of flavor, but when sliced, they soak up a lot of the surrounding juices in a dish, and add a nice firm texture.

The morel, which grows wild in the woods, is a very unique looking mushroom.  It boasts a highly textured little conical cap that is perched on the stem.

Those endless nooks and crannies make the morel difficult to thoroughly clean.  As a rule, we try not to wash mushroom with water, opting to brush them clean or tidy up with a damp cloth or paper towel.  But the morel is so pitted that it make be necessary to give it a quick soak in lightly salted water.  Whatever you do, don't let them get soggy, because they just won't taste as good.

When choosing morels, remember that the darker the color, the more intense the flavor.  But keep in mind, the morel is one mushroom you don't want to eat raw.  It's not poisonous, of course, but it is pretty indigestible raw, so cook it.  I love chopping it up coarsely, and then slowly sautéing it in butter.  Then I can add it to whatever I'm making. When the morel is cooked it has a very unique smoky, nutty flavor that is unmistakable.

Also, the morel's basic design offers opportunities. Once you detach the stem, you'll have a nice deep cavity inside the morel, and this is ideal for stuffing.  Doctor up some mashed potatoes with some chopped chives and crumbled bacon.  Pipe the filling into the hollow morel, slap them on a cookie sheet and bake them for about 20 minutes in a moderate oven.  And don't forget to drizzle a little melted butter on the morels before you slide them into the oven.  They do like butter.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.