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Learning to Love Mushrooms, With an Assist From Julia Child

Carol Egbert illustration

Carol Egbert illustration

The first mushroom I knew about was the red one with white spots that killed the king of the elephants in The Story of Babar. Then, there were those stories that included frogs, toads, toadstools, kissing and princes, yuck! When my father’s friends gave us wild mushrooms, their promises that none were poisonous did not encourage me to try the black, slimy concoction they became. Mushrooms, no thank you!

The turning point in my relationship with mushrooms came when I saw Julia Child cook them. Her method was simple and the lightly browned mushrooms could be served at any meal. Inspired by our upcoming trip to London in a couple weeks, I made my favorite English breakfast, sauteed mushrooms served with whole-wheat toast and a pot of tea. It was a low fat, high flavor, savory and quick breakfast. Here’s how I did it:

Sauteed Mushrooms
(With a Nod to Julia)

1/4 pound button mushrooms

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon lemon juice

a pinch of dried thyme

salt and pepper to taste

2 slices whole wheat bread, toasted

I washed and dried the mushrooms and trimmed the stems. I heated the butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet until it had foamed but not browned and then added the mushrooms. After a quick stir, I added the fresh lemon juice, thyme and salt and pepper. In less than five minutes the toast was ready, the tea was brewed, the mushrooms were lightly browned and breakfast was on the table.

Using Julia’s method, I saute mushrooms to add to omelets, soups, pastas, pizzas and more. I made a mushroom soufflé for lunch to thank a friend who will be taking care of Gracie, our golden retriever, while we’re away. A souffle sounds complicated, but it is just a seasoned white sauce lightened with egg whites, then baked. Here’s how I made it:

Mushroom Souffle

1/4 pound button mushrooms, sliced

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all purpose flour

1 cup whole milk, heated to a boil

pinch of cayenne pepper

4 large eggs

1/2 cup coarsely grated Swiss cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

I pre-heated the oven to 400 degrees, buttered a six-cup, ceramic souffle mold and sprinkled in the Parmesan cheese. I sauteed the mushrooms in the butter and seasoned them with salt and pepper and set them aside.

For the white sauce, I melted the butter in a small saucepan, stirred in the flour and cooked the mixture over medium heat for two minutes. I took the pan off the heat and used a wire whisk to stir in the boiling milk, the salt and cayenne pepper. When it was smooth, I put the pot over medium heat, stirred constantly and boiled it for one minute before I removed it from the heat.

I separated the eggs and beat the yolks into the warm white sauce and then added the sauteed mushrooms. I beat the egg whites, along with a pinch of salt, until they were shiny and formed soft peaks.

I stirred in about a quarter of the egg whites and then used a spatula to gently fold in the rest along with the Swiss cheese, reserving a tablespoon of the cheese. I turned the souffle mixture into the prepared mold, sprinkled the rest of the Swiss cheese on top, put it in the oven and immediately turned the heat down to 375 degrees. In 35 minutes the top of the souffle was golden and stood two inches over the rim of the mold. Remembering the rule that it is the diners who wait, rather than the souffle, I served it immediately.

Mushrooms are a low-fat source of vitamins and minerals, and they also deliver plenty of umami, also called the fifth taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Adding mushrooms to most savory dishes make them taste better. Mushroom Pilaf is one of my favorite potluck offerings. This vegetarian dish was made with barley rather than rice and topped with sour cream.

Mushroom Pilaf

1/2 pound mushrooms, sauteed (see above recipe)

2 medium onions, sliced

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup pearl barley, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 1/2 cup vegetable stock, heated to a boil

2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley

a pinch of cayenne

salt and pepper to taste

Sour cream to garnish

I pre-heated the oven to 350 degrees and sauteed the mushrooms and set them aside. I sauteed the onions in the butter in a two-quart saucepan. When the onions were translucent, I stirred in the barley and cooked it for two minutes. I added the wine and stirred until it came to a boil and then transferred the barley mixture to an ovenproof casserole, added the vegetable stock and the sauteed mushrooms. I put the covered casserole into the oven and after 40 minutes, the liquid was absorbed and the barley was tender. I used a fork to fluff the pilaf and stirred in two tablespoons of chopped flat leaf parsley, a pinch of cayenne, salt and pepper and passed a bowl of sour cream at the table.

The most common varieties at my market are white button mushrooms, Portobello, and shiitake. They are interchangeable in most recipes and available year-round. I used white button mushrooms in these recipes, but any single variety or combination of mushrooms (as long as you are certain they are non-poisonous) will work.

Carol Egbert lives in Quechee, where she paints and cooks. Her food blog can be found at http://www.carolegbert.com.