Meaty Mushrooms on Cheesy Polenta

Seared Mushrooms on Polenta

Mushrooms are scary. Eat the wrong one, and it can kill you or make you think you’re Jesus (luckily, if you think you’re Jesus and it kills you, you can raise yourself from the dead). As a child, I absolutely loathed raw mushrooms in salads at pizza restaurants. That was my first impression of mushrooms: these spongy, weird, white things that ruin a very crisp experience. Blech.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to really dig mushrooms. The key was learning how to transform those rubbery little funguses into meaty superheroes, mainly by browning them really well in butter and olive oil.

Raw mushrooms

There’s no better way to practice the art of transforming a mushroom than with the regular old button mushroom (the same one I used to hate sliced up in salads). When I cooked with Chef Michel Richard for my cookbook, he said that button mushrooms were his favorite mushrooms because “even the old ones have flavor.” It’s true: if you buy a box of button mushrooms, keep them in your fridge, you can wait a week or two, take them out, and brown them in butter and they’ll still be delicious. That’s powerful stuff.

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But, like a gateway drug, button mushrooms will propel you into a more dangerous world of forbidden mushrooms: the world of shiitakes, the world of creminis, the world of porcinis. And then there’s the extreme stuff. On Sunday, I was at the farmer’s market in Atwater Village, and I approached the mushroom stand cautiously. There, on the table, were two kinds of mushrooms I’d never cooked with before (or at least not in recent memory, fact checkers): oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms.

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I talked to the mushroom man about how to cook them: “Just like regular mushrooms. Dust ’em off first, brown ’em in butter.” “That’s it?” “That’s it.”

Sure enough, it really was that easy. I got home, I wiped ’em down with wet paper towels (my preferred mushroom strategy), heated butter and some olive oil (OK, you want measurements? About 2 tablespoons of both) in a large non-stick skillet. I broke up the oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms into large chunks and when the butter stopped foaming, I threw them all into the skillet and sprinkled them with salt.

While they were cooking, I sliced 3 to 4 cloves of garlic and chopped a bunch of parsley. Meanwhile, I’d been cooking a pot of polenta: Anson Mills’ white polenta, which I bought at the Cookbook store in Echo Park. It’s pretty incredible stuff: I used a combination of homemade chicken stock (from my freezer) and milk and, as directed on the package, cooked it for an hour. At the end, I stirred in about 3 tablespoons of butter and half a container of high-quality pre-ground Parmesan cheese (look for the 2-year aged stuff at your grocery store; it’s my new favorite time saver: pre-grated, high-quality Parmesan cheese.)

When the mushrooms were a deep, chestnut brown all over, I added the garlic to the pan, stirred it around, and turned off the heat just as the garlic became fragrant. Then I stirred in the parsley to stop the cooking. (A squeeze of lemon juice might’ve been nice.)

To plate, I ladled polenta into two bowls and piled the mushrooms on top. That’s it. There might’ve been a fried egg, but it didn’t need it. This really was the meatiest vegetarian dish I’ve ever made: the maillard reaction (oh yeah, I went there) really works wonders.

So if you’re a mushroom hater like I was, just get a pan really hot, add some fat, and drop in some mushrooms. You’ll convert faster than someone who falls in love with a person of a different religion! How’s that for an awkward last sentence? Goodnight.

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1 comment

  1. I have shiitake, oyster and butter cap mushrooms waiting in my fridge as I write this – thanks for an awesome suggestion for dinner!

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