Why do you think fairies or gnomes sit on tufty mushrooms or shelter beneath their fine frill-feathered eaves? This has been lore for centuries in many different cultures, probably caused by the clandestine growth patterns of these delicious, nutritious, wonderful fungi. Even the word “fungus” is problematic for many—free-associating it with the unwelcome kind that infect toenails or damp walls.

Well, what would you think if a circular cluster of soft, plump, buttony balls (or fringed-cap toadstools) flirting around the rooted, barked boles of trees, appeared out of nowhere, overnight? And especially if they were eaten and caused discomfort and illness—or, when nibbled,  inflated consciousness past reality, to a miasma or a mirage?  It was the devil’s work, surely!

The word fungophobia was finally coined in 19th-century England. Mushrooms can be edible, toxic, psychoactive, or medicinal. Magical indeed!

Mushrooms are the fruit of a network of parasitic underground stems, without leaves or roots,; they propagate by powdering the ground beneath the cap with spores to spread the network further. Mushrooms are not to be sniffed at!

They are parasitic only in that they rely on the moldy detritus of plants for their nutrients, since photosynthesis is unavailable for them. Recently it has been shown that when exposed to UV light, mushrooms produce vitamin D, and many of our store-bought mushrooms are treated this way. Commercially they are grown on pasteurized horse manure combined with straw and sawdust.

Mushrooms are airy and spongy, soaking up moisture eagerly. Refrigerate them in an air-accessible cardboard container so any moisture will evaporate and will not get soaked up by the caps. Washing is not necessary or advised. Just brush the “dust” off them gently with a soft cloth, paper towel. or brush.

Mushrooms are sometimes referred to as “vegetable meat” and can happily be used as alternatives for vegetarian guests. as they have a dense flavor and texture that can pair in a similar way to meat proteins and wine.

Consider yourself as the dresser for a fine lady. Your job is to design and construct a whole dish that will enhance, not diminish. her. Pairing accompaniments to a robust item has to be approached with respect for the flavor profile. Adding more assertive boom-bang-wallop will bombard the palate to the point where the dish will turn into a mush-mess in the mouth “What am I tasting?” quickly translates to “I don’t like this.”

Here is a fast, loaded-with-dense-flavor mushroom dish that we pair with simple, smiling-lady’s-maid, enhancing polenta.

 

Madeira Mushrooms with Parmesan Polenta

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Yield: Six portions as an appetizer, 60 mini toasts for cocktail nibbles

Equipment: Cutting board, chef’s knife, measuring cups and spoons, three medium metal bowls, small metal bowl, medium saucepan, wooden spoon, stiff metal whisk, medium 11-inch sauté pan, pastry brush

Ingredients
6 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil
2 ¼ cups finely minced onion
3 tablespoons minced garlic

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 quarts diced mushroom caps and stems
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
3 tablespoons chopped rosemary
¼ teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 cup Madeira
2 cups heavy cream
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups cornmeal
2 cups water

3 tablespoons butter
¾ cup finely minced onion

6 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water, 4 more if loose polenta is preferred
1 cup grated Parmesan
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Method
For the mushrooms, heat a medium sauté pan. Add olive oil. When simmering add onions and sauté till golden. Reserve.
Heat a large sauée pan and in two batches add half olive oil. Over high heat add half the mushrooms and sauté to caramelize. Reserve in waiting bowl. Repeat with the second batch. When caramelized, add back the first batch and onions over medium heat. Add the herbs and seasoning. Add Madeira and cook off alcohol. Add cream. Taste for seasoning.
For the polenta, in a medium bowl stir water into cornmeal.
Heat a four-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add butter and onions. Cook over moderate heat till softened and translucent.
Add stock or water. Heat. Add cornmeal and stir. Over medium heat, stir till thickened—about 15 minutes. Season.
To serve, gently reheat polenta, covered, in 350 degree oven.
Reheat mushrooms gently till warm and bubbling.

 

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