Mushroom Powder

January 14, 2012

And its multifarious uses!

I adore mushrooms.  I love shiitakes stir-fried with strips of flank steak, I love the earthy funk of fresh morels in cream sauce, I love porcini-and-pea risotto – I even love the unjustly-maligned white button mushroom (which is, you may not be aware, the exact same thing as a brown crimini or portobello mushroom – they’re all agaricus bisporus, and they don’t taste different in the slightest.).

Why is an Algonquin spirit selling mushrooms, anyhow?  I guess there's probably a Mushroom Manitou, but I would have associated that sort of nature spirit with, y'know, higher phyla like... chordata.  Or angiospermae.  Whatever, this undercuts my thesis that mushrooms are great, so ignore it.

I also love that my parents have a membership at Costco, where rather large quantities of dried mushrooms can be had for not too much money.  They recently picked up a big ol’ jar for me, at my request, since I’d used up most of the Chinese Black Mushrooms (same species as the shiitake, Lenintula edodes) that my friend Allison gave to me as a host present.  Thanks, Allison!  They were delightful, and giving people dried mushrooms is the best tradition.

Anyway, Carolyn and I were at Volo again, and we had the BMG flatbread on their current menu.  That menu won’t be around forever, since it’s seasonal, so here it is for posterity:

12        B M G     F l a t b r e a d
Berkshire bacon, mushroom, goat cheese

There’s no way that could be bad!  And of course, it wasn’t.  There were chunks of cooked mushroom, little batons of bacon, and half-teaspoon-sized dots of goat cheese – and simply typing that makes me salivate.  But the interesting part was the smell.  Cooked, fresh mushrooms don’t have a particularly intense flavor most of the time.  It’s the dried mushrooms that have that intense, musty flavor.  There was, I noticed, a dusty coating on the flatbread.  I asked the waitress, “Is this powdered mushroom?” and she was like, “Good eye, yes it is!”

So that was one of those things that I tried and immediately knew I wanted to steal.

Mushroom Powder
Not exactly a spice, not exactly a condiment

The Setup

You will need:

  • 1 cup (by volume) of dried shiitake mushrooms (or other dried mushrooms, but shiitakes are relatively inexpensive)
  • A clean and odorless coffee or spice grinder

I'm not particularly concerned about sand or grit, because it's going to get ground so fine you won't even notice it's there.  Whatever, it's good for you.

The Heist

1. In batches, grind the mushrooms into a rough powder, and gradually add in the mushrooms until they’re all ground up, and continue to process until they become a relatively fine powder.  You could grind them into a superfine, almost cakey powder, if you wanted, but I think you’d have to add salt (the added agitation of the salt helps grind other, softer stuff).

2.  Put the resulting powder into a bowl – you should have, by volume, about a half-cup.  Store in a tightly-lidded plastic container, out of direct sunlight, for a few weeks to a month or so.  Whole dried mushrooms have a shelf life of about half a year before they start to lose a lot of their flavor, so I figure the ceiling on this powder is maybe two months.

It looks like sand but smelled like mushroom!  I felt like a WIZARD.

It won’t last that long, however, because once you make  a batch of this stuff, you’ll want to put it on everything, like…

Mushroom Popcorn!

The Setup

You will need:

  • 4 parts mushroom powder
  • 2 parts kosher salt
  • 1 part black pepper
  • oil
  • popcorn
  • a large, heavy pot with a lid

The Heist

1. Combine the mushroom powder, the salt, and the pepper in your spice grinder and process until everything turns into a fine powder.  For a half-cup (unpopped) serving of popcorn, I’d use 2 teaspoons of mushroom powder, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, and 1/2 a teaspoon of pepper (and feel free to use the whole peppercorns here – they’re getting scrunched up anyhow)

If you need me, I'll be downstairs, with the shopvac.

When combined, it’ll look kinda like this:

You can call, but I prob'ly won't hear you, because it's loud with the shopvac on.

That is, rather like sawdust and pencil shavings.  Never fear, though; this stuff is delicious.

2.  Get some potholders ready.  Heat a few teaspoons of oil in your heavy pot, measure out your popcorn (more than 1/2 a cup of unpopped kernels in a 6-quart pot will result in I Love Lucy-esque overflow hijinks, so be forewarned.), and stir briskly over high heat for a minute or so, until the kernels begin to turn opaque.

3.  When this happens, cover the pot, and wait for the sound of popping kernels.  At this point, take hold of the pot’s handles with your potholders, and shake the pot vigorously, making sure it stays in contact with the heat.  Don’t shake it up and down, just side to side.  Give it a good shake at least once every ten to fifteen seconds so nothing gets stuck on the bottom.

4.  When the space between pops exceeds, oh, 10 seconds or so, turn off the heat, and let the pot stay covered for about a minute to protect yourself from rogue poppers.  Then decant into a large bowl, and from a relatively high height, sprinkle the mushroom seasoning mixture over it, and toss until coated and tasty.  You probably won’t need any additional oil to make the mixture adhere to the popcorn, since the grains are so small they’ll fit in the nooks and crannies of the popped kernels.  Health food!

Food blogger's secret: I test the recipes in full proportion, but sometimes, for photography purposes, I just make enough to create a single serving.   There is a second, smaller prep bowl underneath that popcorn, to give the appearance of greater volume.  The more you know!

I guess lots of upmarket restaurants, at least in Chicago, are giving out pre-dinner popcorn instead of bread.  Graham Elliot is known for it, and so is decorated newcomer Ruxbin.  It makes sense.  Popcorn is cheap, not particularly labor-intensive, and easier to customize on the fly than bread is.  It’s also less filling than bread, but it takes as long to eat.  Graham Elliot does theirs with parmesan and truffle oil; Ruxbin does it with furikake.  I’d like to put my mushroom popcorn right up against theirs.  I also love to douse popcorn in garlic oil, but we’ll get to that.

If popcorn’s not your speed, then allow me to return to a Clean Platter standby: Macaroni and Cheese!

Mushroom Mac
A recipe identical to the Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese, with emendations in bold text.

  • 1 stalk of celery
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/4 of a medium onion – about 1/4 cup, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk, any type of fat (I used skim and it was fine.)
  • 3 ounces, by weight, grated/dry mexican cotija cheese (or parmesan)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons mushroom powder
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced (optional but awesome; I didn’t have any fresh on hand)
  • 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni noodles
  • a 2-quart saucepan
  • a 6-quart pasta pot
  • a colander

The Heist

Prepare identically to the Essential Stovetop recipe:

1.  Dice the celery, garlic, and onion; measure your milk, cheese, fat, and flour.  Slice the mushrooms.

2.  Start heating the pasta water.

3.  Melt the butter in the 2-quart saucepan and cook the celery, garlic, and onion until soft, 5-7 minutes.  Add in the flour and mix into a paste over medium heat, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes.

4.  Add the milk a little at a time, and stir vigorously but not extravagantly, until all traces of roux-lumps are gone.  Continue to stir and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the mixture is pleasantly thickened.  Reduce heat to low.

5.  Add in the mushroom powder, stir, and taste.  Don’t add any salt, because the cheese is plenty salty.

6.  Yeah!  Add the cotija or parmesan cheese.  High-five the person nearest you.  Kill the heat, stir to combine.

7.  Cook the sliced mushrooms in oil over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until they’ve lost most of their liquid, shrunk, and browned.  Cook in a single layer.

8.  Cook the macaroni in the boiling, salted water, and cook until al dente – then drain and incorporate into the cheese sauce.  Add the mushrooms, stir to combine, and serve.

I only made a little bit, and I made it without the fresh mushrooms, and I should have put it in a ramekin and not a plate, but it’ll look something like this.Who serves Mac and Cheese in such a flat way?  It must be heaped, like a righteous, bounteous pile!

But with tasty chunks of mushroom on top.

Anyway.  I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a version of Volo’s bacon, mushroom, and goat cheese flatbread, but with an addition of my own – garlic oil!

Garlic oil!

You will need:

  • a head of garlic or two
  • a cup of good-quality olive oil
  • a clear plastic squeeze bottle – these should usually cost about 1 to 2 bucks.
  • a small saucepan.

Instructions:

1.  First, separate and peel all the cloves of garlic and, once peeled, tumble them into a saucepan.  Fill the pan with oil to cover the garlic, and put it on the stove over low heat – at the barest simmer.  You don’t want to really cook the oil here; you want to heat it enough to soften up the garlic, but you want to keep the oil as bright-tasting as you can.

2.  Let it go for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the kitchen smells magnificent.  Hot olive oil smells surprisingly fruity, so you may find yourself sniffing around for an unexpected banana (like ya do).

3.  Once the garlic is soft, remove it with a slotted spoon.  Let the oil cool off, and then pour it into a measuring cup, then a squeeze bottle.  Keep it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

4.  Do something wonderful with the oil-poached garlic cloves.  Slather them on a toasted baguette, eat them plain, throw them into a batch of mashed potatoes, dab them behind your ears – I don’t care.  They’re going to be delicious, whatever you do.

Bacon, Mushroom, and Goat Cheese Flatbread with Garlic Oil
Makes either 2 full-size pizzas or 4 little flatbreads

The Setup

You will need:

  • A recipe of pizza dough
  • Garlic oil (see above)
  • Mushroom powder (see above)
  • a 4-ounce log of goat cheese
  • 4 ounces of bacon, cut into little sticks
  • 4 ounces of mushrooms, sliced thin.

The Heist

1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F.  Cut your dough into either two or four balls, depending on your preference, and roll them out; place them on an oiled baking sheet.

2.  In a small skillet, cook the bacon over low heat until cooked through but not crispy.  Reserve the bacon, and cook the sliced mushrooms in the fat until they give off their liquid and turn brown.  Take off the heat and place in a bowl.

3.  Drizzle each flatbread with a teaspoon or so of garlic oil, then dot them with bacon pieces, mushrooms, and half-teaspoons of goat cheese.  Dust generously with mushroom powder!

4.  Bake in the 450-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until the dough is crisp and brown around the edges.  Let cool for two minutes, then cut and serve.

Well.  I think that’s enough for one day, don’t you?

Happy cooking!

-D

So, with the onset of the colder months, like I’ve been saying, I think it’s time to hunker down.  The winds of winter are going to slice through the cracks between the wall and the windows, shred through your clothes, and freeze your blood, so you might as well fill yourself with food that keeps you warm.  To that end, I’ve decided to begin a new series on macaroni and cheese.

Actually, I think this was Editor Girlfriend’s idea.  Carolyn’s really good at saying, “Hey!  You should write about Thing X,” and providing an excellent rationale for it.  It’s not like she tricks me into thinking that something was my idea in the first place (that’s not her style), but she can just be very quietly persuasive.  Anyway, one of my most popular recipes on the blog is my Thai Red Curry Macaroni and Cheese.  I didn’t advertise it or anything; people just find it through Google searches.  And I want to provide recipes that people are looking for.  So I’m doin’ this series.  Let’s get to it!

Here comes everybody!  Also, that macaroni is whole wheat, yo.

There are three schools of mac and cheese in this country:


Type I: Blue-box Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  You cook the pasta, you drain the pasta, you add milk and a powder mix.  This stuff is well-loved for its comfort value, but I didn’t grow up on it, so I find it rather grainy, gummy, and glossy in that plasticky way, for my tastes.  Besides, making it barely counts as cooking.  But it is in a class of its own, and I’m sure it’s by far the most popular school of mac and cheese in the United States.  From 2008 to 2010, sales of packaged macaroni and cheese rose by 25%.

Type II: Macaroni Casserole.  You undercook the pasta, drain and rinse it, and toss it in a cheesy, eggy custard, and pour it in a casserole pan, dust the top with bread crumbs, and bake it until it firms up.  This is the sort of macaroni and cheese you’re the most likely to be served in a restaurant, because it’s really easy to do the prep on it, portion it out, and “bake it off” in individual servings.  It’s also easy to do in a cafeteria setting, because you can do exactly the same thing with an enormous aluminum tray of the stuff as you could with a single ramekin.  It’ll keep in the fridge, unchanged, for hours or even days until it needs to be baked.

Type III: Stovetop Macaroni.  I like to imagine that this was the version that Thomas Jefferson commissioned in 1802, although it is most assuredly not.  It was, however, in the early 19th century that Antonin Carême developed his classifications of the Four Mother Sauces, which Éscoffier would later revise and expand into five sauces.  Stovetop macaroni is dressed with a Mornay sauce, which is a cheesy version of the milk-and-roux-based Béchamel mother sauce.  This is the version we’re gonna be working with.

This is going to become a series on macaroni and cheese, and so a number of recipes are going to be referring back to this page quite often.  After a lot of testing, I have determined that this is, to be certain, my master recipe for Stovetop Mac and Cheese.  I may, at some point in this series, try and come up with a good Type II recipe, or even a Type I knockoff (although I don’t think I have the materials and wherewithal to make cheese powder.  I could be wrong! I haven’t even begun to research that.).  But I’m going to stick with Type III for now.

I’m not going to wax political for particularly long here, but I think the global recession has affected our stomachs.  It may just be how it looks from where I’m standing, but El Bullí is closed now.  It’s not 2007 anymore, and although sous-vide cookery is probably here to stay, and it’s still a nine-month wait to eat at The French Laundry, I think the era of conspicuously consumptive food is over.  At least until the next boom cycle.  America is aching – hurt, unemployed, uninsured, unhappy.  Now is the time for meatloaf, macaroni, cupcakes.  We just want a little comfort, something to take solace in while, bruised and brooding, we sit, blanket-huddled, with our friends and loved ones.  Something to allay the gnawing feeling that nothing’s going right for you.

Well.  I’m looking out for you, America.  Mac and Cheese is food for a period for austerity, but it sure as hell won’t feel like it.  Not the way I make it.  Make this recipe, close your eyes, take a bite, and allow yourself to feel, for a moment, that things are going to be okay.  Then lift your head high, get out there, and kick some ass.

Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a side dish

The Setup

You will need:

  • 1 stalk of celery
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/4 of a medium onion – about 1/4 cup, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk, any type of fat (I used skim and it was fine.)
  • 3 ounces, by weight, sharp cheddar cheeze
  • 1 ounce (by weight) of parmesan cheese (or 1/2 teaspoon salt)
  • 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni noodles
  • a 2-quart saucepan
  • a 6-quart pasta pot
  • a colander

The Heist

1. First, do your mise-en-place.  Dice the celery and the onion very small – 1/8th-inch dice, if you’re up for it.  Hell, if you can, brunoise them.  Why not, right?  And mince the garlic, too.  Measure everything out now, because sauce-making can be kind of tetchy work, and you want to have your full attention on making sure nothing burns, so what’s the harm?  Measure your flour, your milk, and your cheeses.

Yeah, that's totally not a brunoise.  I didn't say I was that good.

2.  Start heating the pasta water, too.

3.  Melt the butter in your saucepan and cook the aromatics (the celery, the garlic, and the onion), stirring occasionally, over medium heat, until the onion is translucent and smells cooked – approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

Carolyn says that the celery kind of gives the whole thing a very faint white wine taste.  I'm not sure I disagree.

4.  Add in the flour, and stir briskly until everything begins to come together in a chunky paste, about two minutes’ worth of stirring.

Like that!

5.  Add the milk, and stir briskly (but not overexuberantly!) for about a minute or so, until all the lumps of roux-paste are gone.  Continue to stir and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the mixture thickens to the point where it coats the back of your spoon or spatula.

Here's your completed béchamel!  It should exhibit this kind of coat-a-bility.

6.  Give the nearest person a high-five.

7.  You may wish to season the mixture further, here.  I’ve added a teaspoon of homemade chili powder.  For funsies.

We'll cover how to make that chili powder in another entry.  I promise.

8.  Once thickened, kill the heat and mix in the cheddar cheese and parmesan (or salt, if you don’t have –  or want to use – parmesan).  Stir until it’s all incorporated and melted.

Other recipes want you to add way more cheese.  I think this is overkill, and something can only taste so cheesy, honestly.  It's just not going to get super powerful in a creamy sauce like this - that's just not really the way butterfat or milk interacts with the tongue - everything is kind of diffuse.  You want intense, pointed flavor?  Make a cheese sorbet.Actually, if you make a cheese sorbet, I will be frigging impressed.  I want that recipe, if you've got it.

9.  Cook and drain your pasta, and then plop it all in! You’re done.

Le plop.

10.  Eat with pride.  You’re going to come through this just fine.  There’s macaroni and cheese and you’ve made it.  We’re all going to make it.

The macaroni wants you to be happy.  You can do it!

Happy cooking.

-D