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Making magic with fall mushrooms

With autumn comes a new crop of wild mushrooms in Northwest forests. But unless you’re hunting your own fungi, the ones you’ll encounter in specialty food stores will cost you dearly. On the other hand, because most mushrooms are relatively light for their volume, a little can go a long way. So even the average household budget can accommodate a small indulgence — perhaps a simple saute to crown a platter of creamy pasta, or as a flavor boost to a bowl of lightly steamed and buttered asparagus.

Then it’s back to the workhorse of the mushroom world, the more affordable and accessible Agaricus bisporus. This common supermarket variety is my ‘shroom of choice when making one of my favorite mushroom-based savories, a finely minced melange of mushrooms, onions and butter created by the great 17th century chef Francois Pierre La Varenne. He called it duxelles, and it has become a classic.

“Larousse Gastronomique” describes this magical potion as “a mushroom hash.”

On a fairly regular basis, I find myself standing over a skillet of sizzling bits of mushroom, breathing in their musty-rich aroma as they are transported from the state of fresh to divine.

In the basic duxelles recipe, onions and mushrooms are sauteed in butter. The mushrooms release their liquids, and the mixture will look like a swamp. Several more minutes over a relatively hot burner produces a dry and thick product. The recipe needs heat and time to achieve its delicate, caramelized character, so don’t fudge with the process.

I can think of three very good reasons for converting mushrooms into this delightful melange. First, the basic mushroom flavor is enhanced significantly by the addition of onions and butter. La Varenne had a keen palate and most likely knew instinctively that by bringing these flavors together the impact would be phenomenal.

Second, the mushroom “hash” is a handy method of applying an intense mushroom flavor to anything from toast points and beef roulades to sauces and stuffings.

Third, by turning mushrooms into duxelles, you will extend their shelf life dramatically, because it can be refrigerated for about a week or frozen for several months.

It’s also important to know that through time and use in countless kitchens, variations of the classic preparation now abound. Adding heavy cream or creme fraiche to the basic duxelles will thin the mixture slightly and taste wonderful in casseroles. To your favorite creamed pasta sauce, stir in several spoons of the basic duxelles that have been seasoned with a tablespoon of tomato puree. Or add a teaspoon of chopped garlic and crushed chile while sauteeing the onions in the basic recipe to make a savory addition to tacos, refried beans and chili.

Make it now then store it in your refrigerator or freezer and you’ll have a convenient flavor enhancer for soups, sauces, risotto, mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables. It even makes a delectable hors d’oeuvre when served with simple crackers, as you would a fine pate.

Beyond duxelles, I’m sharing a couple of my other tried-and-true mushroom recipes, including my ever-popular sauteed mushrooms — a dish that is comfortable alongside any number of other dishes, from roasted polenta to grilled meats.

Basic Duxelles

1/2 cup butter

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped onion

2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 pound fresh mushrooms

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. While the butter is melting, place the onions, shallots and about one third of the mushrooms in the work bowl of a food processor. Finely mince the mixture by using the “pulse” or “on-off” button on the processor. Scrape the minced mushrooms into the pot with the melting butter and repeat the mincing process with remaining mushrooms, adding them to the pot.

Stir the minced mushrooms with the butter, thoroughly coating them and continue to saute, stirring frequently, until all of the liquid that is released from the mushrooms has evaporated (about 15 to 20 minutes).

Once the mushrooms have darkened slightly, add salt and pepper to taste. Yields about 2-1/2 cups.

Note: For a quick and delectable hors d’oeuvre, spoon duxelles into a bowl and surround with crostini or a fine, lightly-flavored cracker. It’s wonderful.

Duxelles will keep refrigerated for slightly over a week, or frozen for about 6 months. Before using, you may want to reheat gently over low heat or in the microwave to soften.

Tomato Duxelles Variation: To the basic recipe, add 2 tablespoons tomato paste and a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar (if necessary, to offset the acid in the tomatoes).

Garlic Duxelles Variation: Saute about 1 tablespoon of finely chopped garlic along with the onions during the preparation of the basic recipe.

Herbed Duxelles: Stir in about 1-1/2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh herbs. Basil is a wonderful herb to use, as is fresh dill or savory. However, a combination can also be wonderful, and one of my favorites is a mixture of parsley, thyme and just a tiny pinch of marjoram (the total measurement shouldn’t be over 1-1/2 tablespoons).

Cream Duxelles: Add 1/2 cup heavy cream and 2 tablespoons of creme fraiche (or sour cream) at the very end of the process and cook down slightly to evaporate and thicken a bit.

Quick Chicken Saute with Duxelles

Place boned and skinned chicken breasts between two sheets of waxed paper or in a plastic bag and gently pound each one at its thickest portion with the flat side of a rolling pin or wooden mallet until it is of relatively even thickness. Lightly season the breasts with salt and pepper, then saute in a small amount of butter or olive oil until beautifully golden on both sides. Before serving, spoon about 2 tablespoons of warm duxelles over each breast. If desired, deglaze the pan with about 1/4 cup of white wine or water, stirring and scraping up all the cooked-on bits of food. Serve with these pan juices and garlic mashed potatoes.

Couscous with Duxelles

Makes 6 servings

1 cup duxelles (see basic duxelles recipe)

6 slices bacon, diced and fried

3 cups couscous (Use the “instant” variety)

3 cups boiling chicken broth

In medium-sized saucepan, re-heat duxelles over medium heat to soften. Stir in bacon and couscous and remove from heat. Pour on the boiling chicken broth, stir to coat all of the grains and cover. Let the couscous stand, covered, for 6 minutes. When ready to serve, fluff lightly with fork. It’s a wonderful side dish to poultry, lamb — even meatloaf.

Mushroom Spread with Cream Cheese and Prosciutto

This is a very delectable variation on duxelles. If you take it along on a wine touring expedition this fall, just know that this dish goes fabulously with pinot noir.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1 pound mushrooms, minced

1/4 cup Madeira (or dry sherry)

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 ounces cream cheese

1 egg yolk, room temperature

2 tablespoons finely minced prosciutto or Black Forest ham

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh and crusty baguette, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick slices

Heat oil in heavy large skillet over low heat. Add shallot and stir constantly until translucent. Add mushrooms and cook over low heat until mushrooms become dark, about 20 minutes; stir often to prevent sticking. Add Madeira and continue cooking over low heat until it evaporates, approximately 45 minutes. Add cream and cook until absorbed. Add cream cheese and stir until melted. Stir in egg yolk, prosciutto, lemon juice, thyme, salt, pepper, nutmeg and the Parmesan cheese.

Spoon mixture into 1 or more crocks, cover surface with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The duxelles will become firm, so it travels well to your picnic.

Zesty Mushroom and Feta Cheese Gratin

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

This wonderful make-ahead mushroom casserole never ceases to induce a round of raves whenever I serve it. It’s a great brunch or light supper dish. I also recommend it for autumn picnics.

1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter (if avoiding butter, substitute 2 additional tablespoons olive oil)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (more to taste)

About 1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Salt and white pepper to taste

8 ounces traditional feta cheese, drained and crumbled

8 ounces shredded extra-sharp Cheddar

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

6 eggs

2 cups half & half

Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

Pinch of white pepper

In a very large skillet, saute the mushrooms in the olive oil over medium-high heat until the mushrooms have released their liquid, then continue cooking until the liquid has reduced and the mushrooms are getting very golden brown, shaking and stirring them so they all get evenly cooked.

Drizzle on the Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco and continue stirring, scraping and sauteeing until the Worcestershire sauce has been reduced and the mushrooms are even more golden. Add the balsamic vinegar and continue to saute and stir until the vinegar has reduced and the mushrooms are very brown. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Spread the sauteed mushrooms over the bottom of an 11-by-17-inch baking pan. This will only make a shallow layer. Sprinkle on the feta cheese, shredded cheddar, and Parmesan. With your fingers, toss some of the mushrooms with the cheese, so portions of the cheeses are snuggled down within and beneath the mushroom layer.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, half & half, salt and pepper. Ladle enough of this custard mixture over the mushrooms and cheese so it evenly covers them, with pieces of mushroom and cheese poking out the top (in other words, don’t completely cover the mushrooms with the custard; you may have some custard left over).

You may prepare the gratin up to this point and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.

Bake the mixture in a 400-degree oven until the top is golden and the custard tests firm when pressed with your finger, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Email her at janrd@proaxis.com, or see her blog at www.janrd.com.