Both Danny and I are proud omnivores. There is very little we won’t eat. It used to be that I felt bad about even just the two or three things I don’t like (raw large tomatoes, eggplant, and very large bivalves); I would guard them as deepest secrets, admitting my distaste only when confronted with the possibility of a plateful of them. But eventually, I learned that even food nerds whom I revered held back their hearts and mouths from some things, and I made my peace with it.
When I met Danny, after declaring to each other our love for (well, each other… and) Pretty Much All Foods, I learned there were a handful of foods he did not love. I demanded to know which ones, and the reason for his aversion. (When you’re into food and you’re courting someone, you find these things out ASAP before they essay forth from your kitchen.) It was revealed that many of these things – fish, fried eggs with runny yolks, and mushrooms – were avoided merely as a matters of tradition: at given points in Danny’s personal food history, he had tried and detested each of these for reasons he now wouldn’t be able to name. He wore his aversions proudly but with some silliness, like old Boy Scout badges; the vestiges of a picky kid. Because I happen to love fish, runny yolks, mushrooms, and projects (and Danny), I took this as an invitation to evangelize him. He would be Saved.
And, one by one, we hit upon preparations, applications, and delivery systems that turned things around. There are some things he still won’t eat, just as there are some things I still won’t eat. (Note: the three at the top still stand. Sorry but not.) But I’ve perfected an herby, peppery crust on sockeye salmon, every incarnation of peasant breakfast crowned with a gorgeously runny yolk, and a method for cooking mushrooms that renders them meaty, not slippery, not to mention woodsy, herbaceous, and perfect on a pizza.
You can use any collection of mushrooms you like – with the right seasonings, and some time, even plain white button mushrooms will do in a pinch. I generally grab some cremini mushrooms (the browner, woodsier cousin to the buttons), and if it’s Friday night and/or I’m feeling the gourmand vibes, I’ll also get a package of whatever “chef’s sampler” variety I can find, which usually includes some oyster, nameko, and clamshell mushrooms. (The types don’t matter – the variety of size and texture is the best thing about this!) I also usually have a small jar of dried porcini mushrooms on hand, whose flavor and convenience are genius for something like this. Bonus points, of course, if it’s early Spring and you can find fresh morels. You only need a few to impart their flavor across the rest of the mushrooms – if you can find them in bulk, just buy three or four, and you’ll get a million dollar meal for an extra $3.
As I mentioned, this method is perfect when you’re making a mushroom pizza at home. Pizza shop mushrooms are generally either raw (dry and flavorless) or canned (slimy and flavorless), and seem bearable only in a Meaty Garden Supremo type of situation, hiding behind the fennel sausage and black olives. Of course Danny always thought he hated mushrooms; I would, too, if the ones I had only served to darken the memories of every delicious pizza I had ever tried to love. These mushrooms can really stand on their own on the pizza – the only other thing you need is cheese (and even then, for our vegan pals, you can really live without it; they’re that good).
The trick here, if you can even call it that, is simply about drying out the mushrooms in the pan. The “ick” factor that some people experience with mushrooms often has to do with the fact that they’re still too wet – an easy mistake to make, since mushrooms are comprised mainly of water and humans are impatient. We clutch our aprons in terror at the thought of getting any extra water on the mushrooms in the initial cleaning process, but quickly forget that water evaporates with heat, and that we are cooking with heat. I hope you’re sitting down, because I am letting you know here that I rinse my mushrooms thoroughly in cold water. I don’t, and won’t, own a vegetable brush, and wasting a kitchen towel or paper towel on garden dirt is utterly silly to me. (I have it on good authority, aka Alton Brown, that mushrooms don’t really take on all that much more water, even if you were to soak them. Horrors! The more you know!)
The secondary trick is about seasoning and timing: what seasonings to use, and when to use which one(s). Most folks know about not salting the mushrooms until they’ve given up their moisture, but I’ve found that the actual time it takes for the mushrooms to give it all up is longer than you might think. So it’s about just noticing those stages – casually and without fuss, of course. (Gives you a few minutes to crack that bottle of wine.) I’ve also found that a generous amount of cracked pepper and a few sprigs of fresh thyme really round it all out nicely.
In general, if you can caramelize onions, you can make these mushrooms. It’s the same technique, and the same kind of patience.
This week, for Valentine’s Day, Danny and I will have our customary donuts at Dinkel’s at breakfast time (incidentally, donuts were always another food I never found myself craving… until Dinkel’s), and these mushrooms on a pizza for dinner. It’s not quite morel season yet, but we will, of course, nab a fancy variety pack of mushrooms, plus some burrata and taleggio, half of which we will accidentally-on-purpose snack on after opening the wine. Nothing says love like exotic fungus and luxury cheese.
A couple more notes:
- I’ve been making and using the pizza dough recipe I wrote about here for the last several months. I keep a few balls of dough in the freezer for any and all occasions, and it thaws quickly and quite nicely. Feel free to use store- bought dough, though avoid the pre- or par-baked crusts. Even a sheet of frozen puff pastry would be great with these simple but deep flavors.
- We really like these mushrooms for a white pizza, so I don’t use sauce here, beyond just rubbing down the dough with olive oil once it’s rolled out. You can experiment with some sauce – maybe a very light, raw tomato sauce would be good, if you must have one. Deep, funky cheeses like taleggio or fontina Val D’Aosta work great with this, and if you’ve got any cooked bitter greens lying around, you can add those too.
- The non-pizza applications for this are endless. They’re a great add-in for risotto, mushroom soup, on top of chicken or beef, folded into some eggs with ricotta and more fresh thyme, layered into a sandwich, etc etc.
- 1 lb fresh mushrooms – any variety, and any combination is fine. If using dried porcinis, you can add 4-6 to the fresh mushrooms. Do reconstitute these according to package instructions first, then drain them, reserving the soaking liquid
- About 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 Tablespoon butter (or just 2T olive oil, for vegans)
- Freshly ground black pepper
Clean the fresh mushrooms using whichever method you like best. This is also a good time to get those dried porcinis soaking in hot water, if you’re using them. Once cleaned, slice or quarter the mushrooms – it’s up to you. (I like slicing them so they give up maximum moisture.) Drain off and chop the porcinis if you’re using them.
Heat a large sauté pan over high heat. Once it’s hot, add the olive oil and butter and swirl it around the pan. As soon as the butter has just melted, throw in all the mushrooms, and stir to combine into the fats. Add the thyme sprigs, extra herbs if you’ve got them, and the black pepper to taste, then give the pan a few shakes – you’ll start to see a couple of the mushrooms’ edges turn brown – and lower the heat to medium once at least half of the mushrooms have colored a bit. Keep stirring or shaking the pan occasionally until you start to see moisture seep out of the mushrooms. Let all of the moisture seep out and evaporate – you can do this by staring at it, stirring it a bit, or walking away and opening that wine you were thinking about. The process might take several minutes, so just relax. Once you see that all of the water has evaporated, add the salt – about 1 teaspoon (or more to taste). Stir again, and lower the heat all the way. Go drink your wine; don’t come back for another 5 minutes, at least.
OK, you’re back! Taste a mushroom. Is it meaty and supple? Is it slippery? (The answers should be yes, and no, respectively.) If it’s still slippery, no big deal. Give the mushrooms a couple more minutes and go cut up the cheese for the pizza. Once you’ve tasted a mushroom and you love the texture, turn off the heat. You can scatter these straightaway on your pizza, or jar them up and save them for future use. They keep for about a week in the fridge.