C'mon, you know you're thinking it.
How can something so ugly taste so good?
Dried mushrooms may not win any beauty contests, but I love their shriveled caps, curly stems, gritty texture, woodsy odor, and concentrated flavor.
Even if I didn't use them in my favorite risotto, I'd keep dried mushrooms in my pantry. Stored in an airtight container, they last longer than fresh (a year or more, but read on for true confessions), and are available year-round.
Reconstitute dried mushrooms by soaking them in a bowl of boiled or very hot tap water, for 20-30 minutes, depending on the thickness. The soaking liquid often gets added to the recipe; pour carefully, as grit from the mushrooms usually will congregate at the bottom.
When Julie of Kitchenography asked me recently about how price and quality do (or don't) correlate, I had to admit to my own puzzlement. She noted that "the imported Italian ones from my local ultra-cheap Italian deli are twice as expensive as the domestic ones from always-more-expensive Whole Foods — and even the inexpensive ones are expensive." I've been lucky over the past few years; I bought a huge bag, a couple of pounds, of dried cepes at a street market in France, and (true confession) had them for at least five years. Now I'm working down a precious supply of Oregon wild mushrooms that my friend Candy brought from a farmers market. Both the French and Oregon mushrooms were "fresh" from the farm, well trimmed and dried, and full of flavor.
Could it be that simple? Buy local. Buy from areas known for the best fresh mushrooms — France, Italy, the Pacific Northwest. China. Poland. How do you know what's good and a good value? The same way you learn about any food — taste, and find your own favorite.
Be sure you're buying large, identifiable slices or whole pieces. If you can't see the difference between a chanterelle and a porcini, you're not buying good quality mushrooms — you're buying kibble. (I'm not kidding; that's what it's called. Kibble is the dried equivalent of "stems and pieces" in a can.)
Most important, don't expect to buy sliced mushrooms at kibble prices. Online, I found Porcini Extra A, a very high quality, ranging from $6.80 for three ounces to $13 for four ounces, and from $41 to $49 per pound. Sounds expensive, but think about this: three ounces of dried mushrooms equals one pound of rehydrated or fresh mushrooms. A little does go a long way.
Here's another true confession: when cooked, most mushrooms taste the same to me. Except portobellos, which really are meatier. And shiitakes, which I just don't like. The texture may vary, but a cooked mushroom is a cooked mushroom. Same with dried mushrooms. Can you really tell the difference between a dried, reconstituted, minced and cooked porcini or cremini? Neither can I.
In most cases, you don't need to spend your money on the fanciest mushrooms. After all, why toss a $30 bottle of wine into a long-simmering stew, when a $10 bottle works just as well? Come to think of it, take the money you save by not buying exotic imported mushrooms, and treat yourself to a nice bottle of wine with this mushroom paté.
Adapted from the first edition of the Moosewood Cookbook, this paté is an unusual appetizer that can be dressed up or down. Bake it in an earthenware crock, as we do, or in a loaf pan. Serves 6-8.
1/4 cup dried mushrooms (porcini, cepes, chantarelles)
4 Tbsp butter
2 cups chopped onion
1 lb fresh mushrooms (cremini or plain old white mushrooms), coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp salt, or less to taste
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp dill weed
black pepper, to taste
cayenne pepper, to taste
3 Tbsp dry white wine
1/4 cup wheat germ
8 oz cream cheese
2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
Sweet paprika, for garnish
In a glass measuring cup or bowl, heat 1 cup of water in a microwave on high heat until near to the boil, 2 minutes. Soak the dried mushrooms in the hot water, for at least 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large skillet, sauté the onions in butter over medium heat, until soft. Add the mushrooms, salt, mustard, dill, black pepper and cayenne. Remove dried mushrooms from the soaking liquid, and mince. Add to the pan. Stir and cook uncovered over medium heat for another 5 minutes. Add the wine, and cook another 5 minutes. Sprinkle in the wheat germ, stirring the mixture as you sprinkle. Stir and cook 1-2 minutes more (it will be quite thick), then remove from heat. Drop the cream cheese in small chunks into the mixture, and stir to incorporate.
Using an immersion blender, or in a food processor fitted with metal blade, puree the mixture. Transfer the puree to a large mixing bowl and whisk in the ricotta cheese.
Pour the mixture into a buttered (or sprayed with a nonstick spray like PAM) earthenware casserole, or into 2 loaf pans lined with wax paper and buttered. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake for 1-1/4 hours, uncovered. Chill thoroughly before serving. (Can be made ahead; store, covered, in the refrigerator.)
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