February 25, 2012

Blog the Sixth: Mushrooms Garlicy

A Supererogatory Side,
or else a Pasta Garlicy, a Risotto, or even a Frittata

Because I could not resist the Baby Bella mushrooms on sale the night I broiled my pork chop some blogs ago, I decided to have a third vegetable side that night.  This inability to resist a sale testifies to the very wellspring of my cookery, namely poverty.  I learned to cook as a graduate student when, in the face of indefinitely protracted doctoral dissertation composition, I tired of cafeteria food and decided that, whatever the case might be with the dissertation, adulthood could not be put off indefinitely, and it was time to cook real food for myself on a daily basis.  There were however limitations, to wit, a graduate student budget.  So, I would go to the supermarket, buy what was on sale, go home, call my mother, and say, “So how do I cook veal breast—it looks like it’s all bones.”  Thus did I learn how to cook veal breast, and whatever else was on sale that week.

To this day, I go to the supermarket, not with a shopping list, but with a budget, even if not as constricted as in yesteryear.  I look for what looks good and is at a good price, which usually means what’s in season and hence in abundance, if not locally, then somewhere on the globe.  I shop global, not local, because that’s what I can afford.  My senses are the final arbiter:  what looks good, what smells good, what feels good—of what’s on sale—that’s what I buy, whatever its provenance, and I figure out what to do with it when I get it home.

The Baby Bella's looked good and were cheap, so I grabbed them.  I love mushrooms.  I do not understand people who do not.  They perplex me.  If the truth may be spoken, they seem to me to be missing a part of soul.  I know that a soul, being immaterial, cannot have separable parts, as does a brain.  It can, nevertheless, have parts of a sort, namely powers.  But what power can be lacking in these poor souls?  They do not lack the power of taste, for the mushrooms taste bad to them, however unaccountably.  Are we to think there is a power of soul more specific than taste that is necessary for the appreciation of mushrooms?   It seems pretty well established for some time now that the formal objects of sensation are five, corresponding to our five senses.  And so these poor souls perplex me.

But such perplexities are matter for philosophy, not cookery.  For the cook, the mushroom is a marvel.  The marvel, however, is bipolar:  there is the WHITE and the DARK, and their virtues are opposite, the virtue of the white mushroom consisting in a marvelous power to absorb the flavors of other things, whereas of the dark, to marvelously suffuse its flavor into other things.  White mushrooms are sometimes contemned as flavorless by snobs who mistake assimilative potency for simple deficiency (okay, perhaps cookery requires metaphysics, after all).  But that is matter for another blog.  Today, dark mushrooms are on sale.
Now, although the deep flavor of dark mushrooms is expansive, their bulk is not, so they don’t make much of an impression lying there at their ease in their little serving dish.  I therefore often have them as a supererogatory third vegetable, so that instead of looking like a skimpy second, they look like a bonus third.  They complement roasted meats so well, that I often serve them on the same platter as the sliced meat, with some decorative parsley sprigs, the whole making a bella figura, as my mother would say.

However, another great way to bulk up your mushrooms is to make a pasta garlicy out of them, and serve it as a pasta primo before the meat-dish.  Or if you don’t want as heavy a starter as pasta, you can make a frittata out of the mushrooms, and serve little slices of it as part of an antipasto, with some sharp cheese or dried sausage, and almonds and olives.  In fact, even if you make it as a vegetable side, it’s worthwhile to make extra so as to have leftovers you can transmute into a pasta or frittata later in the week.

You could also either make or morph mushrooms garlicy into a risotto, but only at the expense of some culinary integrity.  I am willing to pay this price, being a gentile to Northern Italian cooking.  I learned how to make risotto from Marcella Hazan, and as far as I can see from her sundry recipes, a vegetable risotto always starts with onion (not garlic), and not much of it.  Also, a true risotto sacrifices the integrity of the featured ingredient to the final synthesis:  you add the rice to the vegetable fully cooked, so that by the end of 20 minutes of stirring broth in, the vegetable disintegrates and binds with the rice-cream formed by the dissolved epidermis of the Arborio rice.  But when I, an American cook of Campanian extraction in exile from the Brooklyn diaspora, make my risotto out of mushrooms garlicy, I use Baby Bella’s instead of the traditional porcini, and I use garlic (not onion), and a lot of it, and the mushrooms tend to survive the 20 minutes of stirring more or less intact, littering the final product.  The only way to do this and deflect the reproach of barbarism is to dub the dish risotto americanizato (—hey, it worked with Yankee Doodle Dandy, didn’t it?).

Okay, let’s get started making mushrooms garlicy.  Mushrooms are self-evidently dirty, but not with grit to offend tongue or tooth, just earth offensive to a sense of cleanliness.  Some gourmets just wipe their mushrooms off with a moist rag, to keep them dry and earthy-tasting, but I for one don’t want my mushrooms to taste earthy from earth (if I wanted that, I’d just eat dirt), so I wash the earth away, and I’m pretty sure the Italian peasants who have worked the earth of Campania for millennia have likewise thought it disgusting not to wash your mushrooms. 

It’s true, however, that mushrooms suffer from chronic dropsy and will drink in much more water than is good for them, even to the point of enervating their sinews and bloating their viscera.  So, I never soak them at all, nor wash them in advance.  When I’m ready to cook them, I dump them into a colander, turn on the faucet full force, and vigorously swirl them around in the colander under the running water, relying on the force of the water and the friction of the shaking to wash away the earth.  As soon as they look clean, I dump them out onto a paper towel and roll them about a bit so that clinging water is absorbed by the towel.

Time to trim them.  I trim away the bottom of the stem and turn the mushroom upside down on its cap.  Then I slice it into half, thirds, or quarters, depending how thick I want my slices.  In all cooking, you want your pieces of the same size in one dimension.  If all the mushroom slices are 3/8” thick, no matter how broad each is, they will all still cook evenly. 

Once the mushrooms are sliced, I chop a goodly amount of garlic (a couple of medium cloves per 8 oz. package).  As usual, I want in the end to see the garlic, but not to feel it separately in eating.  To this end, I chop as follows:  I lightly crack the clove with my knife-handle, trim off a bit of each end, and pull away the loosened peel; then I halve the clove and lay the halves flat-side down on the cutting board, to give me stability and hence control.  I slice the clove halves lengthwise into two, three, or four thick slivers, depending on size, and then hold them all together with my fingers tightly curled inward and slice them thinly crosswise.  The breadth of the resultant pieces will give them visibility, but their shallowness impalpability.

Time to start sautéing.  So sinewy are the folds of a dark mushroom’s flavor that they show themselves all the more splendidly in a contest with the formidable flavor of extra virgin olive oil.  The two are like heroes who cross weapons all night long in a contest for supremacy, only to walk away comrades in arms at dawn, mutual trial engendering mutual respect.  The warrior virgin will endure the heat of battle better if anointed with butter, so I pour out a pool of extra-virgin olive oil into the frying pan, place a big fat wad of butter in the center, turn the heat up to medium, and wait for the butter to melt into the oil.

When the bubbling of the butter begins to abate, I add in the mushroom slices with showers of salt.  The aim is to draw out all its water from the retentive viscera of the dropsical mushroom and boil it away.  I reduce the heat to medium-low at first to coax the water out, and then turn the heat up high to boil the water away quickly.  When the sound of boiling liquid changes to that of sizzling oil [are you listening to your food?], then I scrape the chopped garlic off my cutting board into the pan, flip everything around with my spatula to combine it all, and then turn down the heat to medium, for lively but not angry sautéing.

Curiously, it doesn’t take very long for the garlic to season the mushrooms.  While it’s doing so, I ground a goodly amount of black pepper evenly all over the mass of mushrooms, and the scent of black pepper twirls together with mushroom and garlic scents; thus entwined they waft upward into the nostrils, and thence into the soul, which melts at the prospect of such penetrating satiety.  Savor this moment.  This is why you must not gab when you cook.

When everything is looking and smelling delicious, I take a taste to make sure there’s enough salt and pepper.  If per chance the flavor of the mushrooms does not seem as deep as its scent promised, then it means the mushroom needs a little more sautéing with the garlic.  Once all is delicious, then I add in a goodly amount of chopped parsley, and let it cook for a minute or two, only long enough to wilt it so that, like the garlic, it will be more seen than felt.  The job of the parsley, my mother says, is more to add green accents and a refreshing scent than to add any distinct flavor.  If I’m using these mushrooms as a supererogatory vegetable side, I reheat them gently while slicing the meat, and add them to the platter right before carrying it to table. 

Spaghetti with Mushrooms Garlicy

If I want to start off the dinner with a pasta garlicy as a primo (and never as a main dish), then I put water to boil for spaghetti or linguine (at least two 8 oz. packages of mushroom per pound of pasta).  My family always uses long pasta for mushrooms, and here I am more attached to my twirling spoon than ever, since I want the twirling strands of pasta to ensnare the mushrooms like the entangling locks of a Siren, and if any should hope to escape by lying low in the bowl, then I have my spoon to scoop them up and devour them whole, as did the Cyclops the straggling companions of Odysseus.

Be sure to put a handful of salt in your pasta boiling water, keeping in mind that the amount of salt is relative to the amount of water, not the amount of pasta: the water needs to be salty enough to season the pasta.  In the end, the pasta should taste neither bland nor salty, but tasty in the way that good bread is tasty.  The pasta is al dente when it still offers pleasant resistance to the tooth, but without any hard core to leave bits stuck in your molars.  You’ll need some of the cooking water to finish the sauce, as is always the case with oil-based sauces.   The easiest thing to do is not to drain the pasta, but rather to use a spork or tongs to transfer it dripping wet directly from boiling pot to frying pan.  (If you do want to drain it, however, be sure to save a big mugful of cooking water for finishing the sauce.)

You’ll need to have made the mushrooms garlicy in a pan large enough to contain your pasta as well, and to include extra olive oil and butter for the pasta.  Reheat the mushrooms gently while the pasta is boiling, and when the spaghetti is still shy of al dente, use a spork or tongs to transfer it dripping wet into the sizzling frying pan to finish cooking with the mushrooms.  Keep turning everything over and over in the pan on medium heat, to glaze the spaghetti with the mushroom-oil and entangle the mushrooms in the strands.  Add cooking water as necessary to keep the pasta slippery, but keep sautéing it until it’s glisteny.  When all merges into a one, you need to serve it quick and hot, and it needs to be enjoyed right away, before it dries out.  At table, have available zesty Pecorino Romano grated, and the pepper mill, and maybe even a little pitcher of the pasta water, in case anyone’s needs loosening.

If you don’t know how to twirl your spaghetti and mushrooms together on a spoon, I don’t know what to tell you, Gentle Reader.  I cannot in good conscience countenance short pasta, but neither is it thinkable for you to cut your spaghetti bite-sized and use a spoon to scoop it up together with mushroom, like a baby.

Garlicy Mushroom Risotto Americanizato

Risotto is a lot more work than pasta, Northern Italian cooking having a bit of the French about it—a predilection for amalgamations artful, rarefying, and laborious.  I prepare the mushrooms garlicy in advance, and once it’s done, I turn off the heat and add Italian Arborio rice to it (which is short-grained rice with a soft outer skin to disintegrate into a cream)—in the ratios of about ¼ cup rice per person (for a primo), and 1 8-oz. package of mushrooms per cup of rice.  I mix the rice and mushrooms together well, to coat the rice with the oil and butter, and let it all sit until I’m ready to cook the risotto, which has to be done right before serving.  I always have antipasto and drinks ready for guests to keep them busy while I spend 20 minutes or so cooking risotto for them. 

Risotto needs a lot of meat broth, about 2-3 cups per cup of rice.  There’s simply no comparison between home-made mixed-meats broth and canned, but home-made broth requires a blog of its own.  In desperate circumstances, I have made do with canned broth, by combining 2 parts chicken with 1 part beef and 1 part water, which brew must be kept at a simmer throughout the cooking. 

When I’m ready, I turn on the heat to medium-high under the rice and mushrooms, and keep stirring and scraping as the oil heats up and the rice begins to sizzle, and I sauté the rice for a few minutes, until the grains turn pearly in the middle and translucent at the edges.  Then I add in a few ladles of simmering broth, and keep stirring the rice all the while with wide, even, leisurely sweeps, flips, and scrapes.  The heat should be high enough to keep the simmer lively enough that the rice needs to be kept moving to not stick and brown, but not so high a heat that the rice boils and bursts.  The patience required here is like that required for force-feeding geese for foie gras:  you want to fatten your rice by continual feedings of broth, without drowning it.  Whenever the rice has absorbed enough broth that by scraping you can glimpse the bottom of the pot through the liquid, then add a ladleful or two more of broth to make the creamy mass soupy again, and stir and simmer until the rice takes in the excess broth and reduces to a creamy mass again.  Then more broth, and more stirring—it’s the only way to get rice‑cream delectably suffused with essence of mushroom. 

When in about fifteen minutes the rice grains begin to bloat and float, you begin tasting for doneness, and also add salt if needed (depending on how salty your ‘shrooms and broth were to start with).  Getting risotto to al dente is even harder than pasta.  A crucial difference is that whereas pasta depends on how long you cook it, rice depends on how much liquid you feed it.  If you feed it too much broth at the end, it will turn into a mushy mass before you know it, like baby food.  You want, rather, to feel the grains of rice on your tongue individually, and you want them to resist the tooth with an even and pleasantly tender resistance—but you don’t want a crunchy or dense core, either.  

Keep tasting the rice until it seems almost ready but not quite—not crunchy, but still a little too dense a tooth-resistance to be pleasant—and at this point, turn up the heat very high and pour in a last big ladleful of broth, and boil it away quickly, with vigorous stirring and scraping.  This final bloating of the rice will fluffify your risotto.  In the end, the final product should be a fluffy, undulating, and mobile mass of creamy rice.   At this point, turn off the heat, and add in a wad of butter and tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  Stir these in well to bind with the rice-cream.  Taste to see if the risotto wants more salt or black pepper.  Then cover the pot and let the risotto rest, while you get guests to the table and drinks poured.

Parmigiano Reggiano is creamy, nutty cow’s milk cheese (very expensive), and Pecorino Romano is tangy, salty sheep’s milk cheese (half the price), and they don’t substitute well for one another in recipes.  Risotto is creamy and wants creamy cheese, so pull out your wallet.  Also, Parmigiano doesn’t keep well once grated, taking on a certain sourness in just a day or two, so try to grate fresh only as much as you need (these are the times I especially love my handy OXO Rotary Cheese Grater, which I got from KOHL'S).  You’ll need more grated cheese for table, besides what you stir into the pot.

After up to 5 minutes of resting, uncover the risotto and beat it back into a fluff before spooning it out into pasta bowls; if it seems too thick or sticky, you can stir in a little broth to loosen it, but take it slow.  Bring the risotto to table warm and fresh, to be consumed in this its finest hour.  Enjoy, for this fussy food doesn’t keep well.

Garlicy Mushroom Frittata

Mushrooms garlicy also make for a very delicious frittata (Italian omelet), often liked even by people who think they don’t much like mushrooms (conceptual aversions are such a nuisance).  Somehow the eggs buffer the sponginess and earthiness of mushrooms, while also accentuating the flavor.  It’s a match made in heaven.  I’ll use slices of such a frittata to fancify an antipasto platter, but it’s also good late‑night with cheese to offset big wine (the kind of wine hearty enough for garlic, that is).  Next day, I’m always overjoyed to find a piece of mushroom frittata in the frig, mid-morning, mid-day, or mid-afternoon, and I find I like it not only dechilled to room temperature, or very briefly heated in the nuker, but even cold out of the frig, if I dare say so in print.  For how to make a frittata from mushrooms garlicy, see the page button above, METAMORPHOSES OF LEFTOVERS, under From Vegetables Garlicky to Frittata!

Eat mushrooms, to feed your body and feast your soul.