Food & Drink

Morels, other mushrooms star in vegetarian spring dishes

Welcome houby season with main courses that manage to be both light and satisfying

The earthy, sweet and highly prized houby can make even the most upstanding citizen dare to trespass a neighbor's acreage. (Courtesy photo: Lisa Williams)
The earthy, sweet and highly prized houby can make even the most upstanding citizen dare to trespass a neighbor's acreage. (Courtesy photo: Lisa Williams)
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In my 20s, I lived the single life as a sometimes vegetarian. This was out of convenience mostly — it was easier to forgo meat than to structure my life around when I needed to thaw the roast.

Meals without meat didn’t seem like a great sacrifice. My parents grew an abundance of vegetables that made up most of our dinners and suppers when I was growing up. We ate fried chicken, to be sure, and venison and beef, but that was a few times a week, not every day.

Therefore, when my husband declared a preference for meat-free meals a few years into our marriage, it was an easy transition because I’d already been cooking that way.

One of my favorite ways to fashion a vegetarian meal is to let mushrooms be the star of the show. Their rich flavor and slight chewiness works well as a stand-in for meat. And while we may think of mushrooms as part of autumn’s bounty, they definitely have a place on the springtime table — right now, in particular, because morel season is approaching. The earthy, sweet and highly prized houby can make even the most upstanding citizen dare to trespass a neighbor’s acreage.

When we lived in Michigan, we had a “supplier” from whom we’d purchase a pound or so. My husband would come home with a sack in his hand and I’d start preparing supper.

The occasion called for a celebration. Our favorite way to enjoy morels was and still is in a sherry cream sauce served over soft polenta. Usually with a fried or scrambled egg to further gild the lily and fresh asparagus for something green.

Outside houby season, I might use dried morels, which can be found online or at some grocery stores. Dried morels taste as good as fresh — especially when you have no other choice. A major bonus from using dried mushrooms is that you have a highly flavored soaking liquid left over. This can be used as a broth or to add a touch of umami in other dishes.

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Another favorite recipe is a dried porcini and fresh mushroom tart. A sturdy, whole-grain pastry shell is brimming with more than one pound of mushrooms held together with a light custard. I’ve made this several times for guests and it manages to be both light and satisfying at the same time.

I like to serve it with a vivid and pretty shredded carrot salad dressed with lime juice.

Winter and its heaviness is a fading memory. Welcome houby season and the rest of spring with these vegetarian main courses.

 

Dried Porcini and Fresh Mushroom Tart

 
  • 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (purchase online or at some grocery stores)
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry or white wine
  • 1 9-inch tart shell (see recipe below)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or and combination of olive oil and butter, plus a little oil to finish
  • 1 large white or yellow onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 pound white or button mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick or less
  • 1/2 pound Portobello mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick or less
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 parsley sprig and a few thyme or marjoram sprigs, minced
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup half-and-half, cream or a stock made with mushrooms

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Put the porcini in a saucepan with the wine and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover and set aside for 30 minutes. When the porcini are tender, pour the liquid through a fine strainer into a bowl. Then chop the mushrooms into 1/2-inch or smaller pieces. (I like using kitchen shears.) Reserve the soaking liquid.

Prepare and freeze the tart shell.

Heat the oil in a wide skillet. Add onion and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until it starts to color, about 5 minutes.

Add the fresh mushrooms. Raise the heat to high, season with 1 teaspoon salt and cook, tossing occasionally, until they start to color, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste ad a few tablespoons of the mushroom soaking liquid. Then add the porcini and continue cooking, adding more mushroom liquid in small amounts, until the mushroom are tender and glazed, about 15 minutes. Add half the herbs, then taste for salt and season with pepper.

While the mushrooms are cooking, par-bake the tart shell.

Beat the egg with the half-and-half. Spoon the mushrooms into the par-baked tart shell and pour the custard over. Bake until the custard is set, 25 to 30 minutes. When done, sprinkle the remaining herbs over the top and dab a few drops of oil on the mushrooms to make them shine.

Source: “Vegetarian Suppers” by Deborah Madison

 

Tart Shell

 

Feel free to use your own favorite savory tart shell recipe, but I like this one because the whole wheat flour adds a heartiness that complements the mushroom filling.

  • 1/2 cup whole wheat or whole spelt flour
  • 1/2 cup unbleached flour
  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 Tablespoons cold butter, cut in small pieces
  • 2 Tablespoons sour cream
  • Cold water

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix flours and salt in a food processor and pulse a few times. Add butter and pulse to form small crumbs. Add sour cream and pulse again. Add a little ice water, up to 1 Tablespoon, until the crumbs look damp. Turn dough onto the counter and form into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and put in refrigerator for 15 minutes.

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Remove dough from refrigerator and roll into a 10 inch circle. Carefully place dough in a 9-inch tart pan. Use your fingers to form the sides until they are about 1/4 inch thick. Prick a few holes in the bottom and sides of the shell to prevent bubbles forming. Freeze for 15 minutes. Place tart pan on a baking sheet and put in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, pricking any bubbles that form with the tip of a sharp knife. Remove from oven and set aside.

Source: Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Suppers

 

Morels in Sherry Cream Sauce Over Polenta

 

Serves 4

This is an extravagant and rich meal that always feels a bit celebratory. Using a cream sauce stretches precious morels without losing flavor. Adding a fried or scrambled egg just makes it richer and rounds out with a bit more protein. Leftovers? Are you kidding?

  • 8 ounces fresh morels, cleaned and halved lengthwise (if using dried morels, see note)
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 shallots or 1/4 cup onion, finely minced
  • 1 small clove garlic, finely minced
  • 2 Tablespoons dry sherry
  • 1 cup morel soaking liquid (if using dried morels) or other broth of your choice
  • 1 cup heavy cream or half and half
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Hot cooked polenta
  • Optional: 1 egg per person, fried or scrambled as you prefer

Bring the morel soaking liquid or broth to a simmer in a small saucepan. Simmer gently until the volume is reduced by half. Remove from heat and reserve. This will be used to adjust the thickness of the sauce.

In a medium saucepan, sauté shallot in butter until tender, about 5 minutes. Add morels and continue cooking until they are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the sherry and scrape the bottom of the pan. Simmer for about one minute. Gently stir in the cream and turn heat to low, allowing the sauce to thicken. Introduce the reserved broth a few tablespoons at a time to reach your desired consistency. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over polenta.

Note: If using dried morels, you’ll need about 1 to 2 ounces. Place the morels in a bowl and pour boiling water to cover, about 1 1/2 cups. Let sit for 20 minutes, then strain in a fine sieve, retaining the broth. Before using, rinse morels in lots of water to remove any grit. Slice in half lengthwise and proceed with recipe.

 

Creamy Polenta

  • Serves 4 generously
  • 5 cups water or broth
  • 1 cup medium or coarse cornmeal or polenta
  • salt to taste
  • 2 Tablespoons butter or olive oil

Add water/broth to a large saucepan and put over high heat. Sprinkle in cornmeal while whisking. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Let boil until polenta thickens enough to start spitting. Lower heat immediately until it’s no longer spitting. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon or a spatula and scrape the bottom to prevent scorching. After about 50 minutes, it will thicken and start to pull away from the sides of the pan. Season with salt and stir in butter. If it gets lumpy, use a whisk to remove. Add a little water or broth if it gets too firm. Pour into a wide rimmed bowl and top with morel sauce.

Source: Serious Eats

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