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Mushrooms Rise Far Above Their Dark, Damp Heritage

By Michael Roberts Los Angeles Times Service

The cultivation of mushrooms, known since the 17th century in France, boomed during the Napoleonic era, and mushroom farms sprang up in abandoned quarry tunnels on the outskirts of Paris.

I once had friends who 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 friendly conversation.

Mushrooms are saprophytes - that is, they must live off the remains of other organisms because they are unable to photosynthesize sugar into energy. That accounts for why mushrooms are found in dark places; they need little light. They often grow at the base of trees, from whose roots they extract the necessary sugars. But, there’s no free lunch, as they say, and mushrooms give trees soil minerals in return for their sugars.

Other than the common cultivated white mushroom, certain highly prized wild species have always been popular visitors to the dinner table during the damp spring and autumn months.

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.

Traditional cooking has used mushrooms more as a condiment than as a food. This is a happy coincidence, as mushrooms are not known to be nutritional powerhouses. They are very rich, though, in glutamic acid, which makes them a natural source of MSG. They add their own 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. Knowing this, 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. Shiitake 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 unsalted 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 freshly chopped thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

2 pounds mushrooms

1/2 cup whipping cream

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

Meanwhile, wash mushrooms and puree them in food processor. Add mushrooms and cream to hot liquid, replace cover and continue to simmer another 5 minutes. Serve piping hot soup immediately.

Yield: 6 servings.

Warm Mushroom Loaf With Tarragon Sauce

3 pounds assorted mushrooms, washed

3 medium onions, finely minced, about 2-1/4 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 together in food processor. Place them in large skillet, add sherry, thyme, salt and pepper and place over medium heat on stove. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes, or until mixture is dry.

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

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

Meanwhile, pour wine in saucepan. If using dried tarragon, add it now. Place over medium heat and cook until liquid reduces by half. If using fresh tarragon leaves, add them now. Remove from heat, whisk in butter, set aside and keep warm.

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

Yield: 8 servings.

Mushroom Pasta

1-1/2 pounds assorted mushrooms

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon finely minced shallots or onions

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sherry or Madeira

1/2 cup whipping cream

12 ounces fresh pasta or 8 ounces dried

Grated cheese

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.

Bring 4 quarts cold, salted water to boil over high heat on stove.

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

Add sherry, increase heat to high and cook 2 minutes. Add cream and cook until liquid reduces to saucelike consistency and is thick enough to coat spoon. Remove from heat and keep in warm place until pasta is finished cooking.

Add pasta to boiling water, cook until desired doneness, drain and toss with mushrooms. Place on serving platter or in large serving bowl and serve immediately. Offer grated cheese.

Yield: 4 servings.

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