I never liked mushrooms. Growing up, they were slimy grey slugs snuck onto pizzas, unnecessary soggy additions to perfectly good turkey tetrazzini, and musty grey aliens tossed into decent salads. No explanation as to why they might be added to reasonably good food made sense as my mouth gave me all the reason to not eat the dish I needed. I passed up many meals when I identified the presence of a mushroom.
One of my first jobs was in a pizza shop. The mushrooms for the pizza came in canned. Opening the can filled the kitchen with the smell of wet tomb. The texture as you’d scoop them into a pan for service felt like scooping cold guts. And when I had to dip my fingers in there to pick them out to spread on the pizza, disgusting. Canned mushrooms. Who could have thought to can mushrooms? Why would people eat this nastiness?
My commitment to disliking mushrooms lasted into adulthood. Even after I’d gotten past a childhood dislike of olives, moved on from my fear of sushi, and embraced the oyster on the half shell, I still would not consider mushrooms. It wasn’t until I worked the sauté station at the Occidental Grill in Washington DC that I got over my dislike for mushrooms.
We served a number of sides there, steak house fashion, that came off my station. Onion crisps, sautéed spinach, fries, a seasonal selection (spaghetti squash, corn ragout, etc.), and sautéed mushrooms. The mushrooms were a mix of cremini, shiitake, and oyster. We sautéed them in a very hot skillet with butter and shallots, seasoned them fully, and finished them with Fines Herbs.
The key to the dish was to get the skillet hot enough to get caramelization on the mushrooms without burning the butter black, then adding the minced shallots once the pan had cooled enough that they would not burn but would lightly brown and develop their sweetness. Herbs would get tossed in quickly right before the mushrooms went into the dish. And of course, we seasoned à la minute with salt and pepper.
And, when you season with salt and pepper, you have to, much to my dismay, taste the item. Learning to cook this dish, I had to eat mushrooms repeatedly to make sure I had succeeded in preparing them correctly. And what I found was that, when done correctly with a crispy edge and rich but not mushy center, mushrooms can be delicious. Especially when properly seasoned and cooked in butter!
Since then, I have embraced the mushroom. If you cook mushrooms hard and fast, you can develop great flavors on the outside while maintaining texture on the inside. There are occasions where soft-cooked or raw mushrooms are acceptable, for sure, but this is more the exception than the rule.
Grilling works on the same principles. Larger mushrooms, portabellas, porcinis, and larger shiitakes grill very well. I like to rub them with oil, just enough to lightly coat the surface but not so much that they are soaked. Season the surface of the mushroom well with salt and pepper, much like you would season a burger or steak, and grill over hot coals. I grill the top side first to get nice marks the follow up by flipping it to finish cooking the gill side. Use caution when cooking the gill side since the oil that collected there will drip down with some of the liquid that is exuded by the mushroom causing flare ups. Cook on the gill side for a few minutes, then serve.
At Mad Mex, we have embraced the grilled portabello. I really like the smoky meatiness of grilled portabellos to give depth and character to vegetarian dishes. Here is the portabello in the purest Mad Mex vegetarian burrito environment.