Mushrooms are one of my favorite foods. They’re an irresistible source of extraordinary flavors, textures, and aromas, and can be baked, fried, sautéed, mixed with meat, chicken, turkey, eggs or a myriad of vegetables.
I love them in my baby lamb chop appetizer, mixed into my stuffed baked potatoes, sautéed and baked into a quiche, mixed with caramelized onions and smothered on rib steaks and veal chops, and stuffed into Cornish hens — all of which I love to serve on Friday nights when having company.
Everyone I know loves mushrooms, except for my friend David Weber. His wife, Aviva, warned me that he didn’t like mushrooms, but in the 29 years since I met him and Aviva in Forest Hills, he never turned down my baby lamb chops in pastry dough, which were stuffed with mushrooms and smothered with mushroom sauce. Just goes to show that even to those who dislike mushrooms, if prepared properly, they can taste really good!
Most of us don’t realize that mushrooms are not plants. They were reclassified in the 1960s as fungi. The part of the fungus that we see is only the “fruit” of the organism. The living body of the fungus is a mycelium, made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae and usually hidden in the soil, wood, or another food source.
All mushrooms are fungi but not all fungi are mushrooms. Fungi also include yeasts, slime molds, rusts and several other types of related organisms. There are an estimated 1.5 to 2 million species of fungi, of which only about 80,000 have been identified.
In some ways, mushrooms are more closely related to animals than to plants. Like us, mushrooms take in oxygen for their digestion and metabolism and “exhale” carbon dioxide as a waste product. Fungal proteins are similar in many ways to animal proteins. Mushrooms grow from spores, not seeds, and a single mature mushroom will drop as many as 16 billion spores!
Here are some more interesting facts about mushrooms:
Hieroglyphics found in the tombs of the Pharaohs suggest that the ancient Egyptians believed the mushroom to be “the plant of immortality.” The mushroom’s distinct flavor so intoxicated these demigods, that they decreed mushrooms to be food for royalty alone, and prohibited any commoner from handling the delicacies.
Some South American Amazon tribes have one word that refers to both meat and mushrooms; they consider mushrooms as equivalent to meat in nutritive value.
Early Romans referred to mushrooms as the “food of the gods.”
Lastly, mushrooms are an excellent source of niacin, selenium, dietary fiber, potassium, Vitamins B1, B2, and D. They contain no cholesterol, are low in calories, fat and sodium and contain anti-oxidants to support a strong immune system.
One of my favorite types of mushrooms is the Portabella variety. One Portabella mushroom generally has more potassium than a banana. It also is often used in place of meat in many dishes, making them great for vegetarians and earning them the name “beefsteak for the poor.”
Mushrooms, particularly the Portabella, are often used in place of meat in many dishes, making them great for vegetarians.
Stuffed Portabella Mushrooms
4 portabella mushroom caps
4 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for oiling pan and baking dish
1 cup red pepper, chopped
4 large green scallions, white and light green parts, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1 tsp. fresh garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 slices whole wheat bread, crusts removed, torn into small pieces
1 cup pasta sauce, homemade or from a jar
1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, or cheese of your choice
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wipe mushroom clean with a dry paper towel. Carefully scrape out black part underneath mushroom cap to reveal the off-white skin below. Lightly oil a small skillet or grill pan over medium heat. Place top part of mushroom down first and cook 3 to 5 minutes until slightly brown and mushroom begins to “sweat.” Turn over and cook for just another minute or two to soften slightly. Remove and set aside.
To make stuffing mixture: In another small skillet, over medium heat, place 4 tsp. olive oil and sauté red pepper and green onion for 2 to 3 minutes, just until vegetables begin to soften. Add minced garlic, thyme and oregano. Stir and cook about one minute. Add torn bread pieces. Stir together for an additional 30 to 45 seconds. Season lightly with a little salt and pepper, stir again.
Place the stuffing mixture in the portabella caps and place in a lightly oiled baking dish. Cover with pasta sauce and grated cheese.
Cover with aluminum foil, making sure foil is not touching the cheese, and bake ten minutes. Remove foil and put the dish under the broiler for about another minute, just to slightly brown the top.
This dish can be served as a main for lunch or brunch, an appetizer for dinner or on a buffet table. It’s sure to be a hit with your guests … unless you’re having David Weber.
A version of this column was published in 2012.