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Out of the Cellar and Onto the Table

April 16, 1997|MICHAEL ROBERTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roberts is the corporate chef of the Twin Palms restaurants in Southern California

The cultivation of mushrooms boomed during the Napoleonic era, and mushroom farms sprang up in abandoned quarry tunnels on the outskirts of Paris.

I had friends who once lived in a converted mushroom "farm" right in the center of Paris. The loft-like space was unbearably dark and damp, better for the cultivation of mushrooms than for friendly conversation.

Mushrooms are saprophytes, which means that they must live off the remains of other organisms because they are unable to photosynthesize sugar into energy. For that reason, they need little light.

Mushrooms often grow at the base of trees, from whose roots they extract the necessary sugars. In return, they give soil minerals to the trees.

Other than the common cultivated mushroom, certain highly prized wild species are popular foods: Ribbed pale orange chanterelles and honeycomb-capped morels come to mind.

Common in Europe but more difficult to find here, except dried, is the famous Boletus edulis, called porcini in Italy, cepes in France.

Two Asian mushroom varieties have become common in recent years: the meaty, dark shiitake and the astringent, pale oyster mushroom. Both have been successfully cultivated, although shiitakes are still rather expensive. The most highly prized Asian mushroom is the matsutake. This dark brown wild mushroom has a perfume taste and a meaty texture.

Traditional cooking has used mushrooms more as a condiment than as a food. This is a happy coincidence; mushrooms are not known to be nutrient powerhouses. They can add their intense flavor to soups and sauces and can save bland vegetable dishes.

Mushrooms change composition after harvesting. Storing them refrigerated and tightly wrapped only hastens spoilage, so be sure to buy small amounts at a time and use them quickly.

Purchase only the whitest cultivated mushrooms. When choosing chanterelles, look for ones with a solid texture, neither mushy nor wet. Shiitakes should have plump caps with off-white undersides. Remove the stringy stems and use them to flavor stocks and broths. Oyster mushrooms should be white with unbroken caps. Trim the stems, which are bitter, except on the very small mushrooms.

MUSHROOM SOUP

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

2 medium onions, finely minced, about 2 cups

2 tablespoons flour

3 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 cup dry Sherry or Madeira

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 pounds mushrooms

1/2 cup whipping cream

Melt butter in 2-quart pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Mix in flour, then pour in broth and Sherry and season with thyme, salt and pepper to taste. Bring almost to boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, 15 minutes.

Wash mushrooms and puree in food processor. Add mushrooms and cream to hot liquid, replace cover and continue to simmer 5 minutes. Serve hot soup immediately.

6 servings. Each serving:

285 calories; 775 mg sodium; 48 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1.12 grams fiber.

WARM MUSHROOM LOAF WITH TARRAGON SAUCE

3 pounds assorted mushrooms, washed

3 onions, minced (about 2 1/2 cups)

3/4 cup dry Sherry

3/4 teaspoon thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 eggs

1/2 cup whipping cream

3/4 cup white wine

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

6 tablespoons butter

Puree mushrooms and onions in food processor. Place in large skillet and add Sherry, thyme, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is dry, about 45 minutes.

Transfer mushroom mixture to mixing bowl and stir in bread crumbs, flour and baking powder. Add eggs 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in cream.

Pour mixture into greased 2-quart loaf pan or bundt mold. Cover, place in water bath of boiling water and bake at 375 degrees 2 hours. Loaf is cooked when toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Remove loaf from oven, remove from water bath and set aside.

Pour wine into saucepan. If using dried tarragon, add now. Cook over medium heat until liquid is reduced by half. If using fresh tarragon leaves, add now. Remove from heat, whisk in butter, set aside and keep warm.

Unmold mushroom loaf and cut into 1 1/2-inch slices. Arrange slices on plates, spoon tarragon sauce over corner of each slice and serve.

8 servings. Each serving:

363 calories; 723 mg sodium; 151 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 27 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.60 grams fiber.

MUSHROOM PASTA

4 1/2 pounds assorted chanterelle, cultivated, shiitake and oyster mushrooms

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon finely minced shallots or onion

Salt

1/4 cup Sherry or Madeira

1/2 cup whipping cream

Water

3/4 pound fresh pasta or 1/2 pound dried

Parmesan cheese, grated

Wipe mushrooms, if necessary, to remove any sand or dirt. Slice chanterelles and cultivated mushrooms; trim and discard stems of shiitake mushrooms; trim and discard root tips of oyster mushrooms.

Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat and add mushrooms, garlic, shallots and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, 15 minutes.

Add Sherry, increase heat to high and cook 2 minutes. Add cream and cook until liquid is thick enough to coat spoon. Remove from heat and keep in warm place.

Bring 4 quarts cold, salted water to boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook until desired doneness. Drain and toss with mushrooms. Place on platter or in large bowl and serve immediately. Pass grated cheese for garnish.

4 servings. Each serving with 1 tablespoon cheese:

556 calories; 280 mg sodium; 61 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 69 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 4.01 grams fiber.

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