Portobello mushrooms hit the big time

March 01, 1995|By Jane Snow | Jane Snow,Knight-Ridder News Service

There's a mushroom as big as a bread plate in the produce department. It looks like a mutant vegetable from a science fiction movie.

Portobello mushroomshave migrated from ritzy restaurant menus to supermarkets, and now are trying to make their way into your homes.

Portobellos, which can grow up to 7 inches in diameter, are rich and meaty, yet mild-enough tasting to please even timid palates.

The flavor is similar to that of regular white mushrooms but slightly more pronounced. That follows, because portobellos are mature versions of brown crimini mushrooms, the first cousins of regular white mushrooms.

"I leave it whole and I let them cut it like a steak," says chef Dave Russo of Liberty Brewing Co. in Akron, Ohio, where portobellos are dusted with Cajun seasoning and served over pasta with smoked tomato sauce.

The mushrooms have come a long way in the seven or eight years they've been on the market. Sales of portobellos are the fastest-growing of the exotic mushrooms, says Rick Angelucci, president of Pennsylvania Exotic Mushroom Sales Inc. of Kennett Square, Pa., a top supplier.

In decades past, criminis were the most popular mushroom to grow for canning, and portobellos -- giant criminis -- were chopped and sold as mushroom stems and pieces.

In the 1970s, consumers began to prefer white canned mushrooms, so criminis faded away. They weren't resurrected until the recent explosion in popularity of exotic mushrooms. A few mushroom companies figured consumers would go for the brown criminis, and portobellos were a happy byproduct.

Their meatiness is one of the keys to their success. When pan-seared in olive oil and finished in a hot oven, portobellos are as juicy as a piece of good beef.

The mushrooms have the best texture and flavor when cooked rather than eaten raw. Brush the slices with olive oil (or use olive oil spray) and grill along with your steaks. They're awesome.

If it's too cold to grill, spray a nonstick pan and pan-grill the slices over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes on each side. Then add a splash of red wine and allow it to boil away. Enough will absorb into the mushrooms to add a rich flavor.

Here's an interpretation of Mr. Russo's creole-seasoned portobello with pasta in smoked tomato sauce. We followed his directions for cooking the mushroom cap, but for ease substituted commercial pasta sauce.

Cajun Portobello Pasta

Serves 2

1/2 pound angel hair pasta

2 whole portobello mushroom caps (about 4 inches in diameter)

1 to 2 teaspoons creole seasoning

1/2 cup flour

1/4 cup (about) olive oil

12 ounces commercial red pepper or marinara pasta sauce, preferably the refrigerated kind

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cook pasta in boiling water until tender.

While pasta is cooking, remove mushroom stems and gently wash caps. Pat dry, leaving slightly damp. Sprinkle each cap on both sides with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon creole seasoning, depending on level of spiciness desired. Dust caps with flour, shaking off excess.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, oven-proof skillet. There should be about one-eighth inch of oil. When hot, add mushroom caps and brown on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Place in oven and bake 4 to 5 minutes, until cooked through.

Meanwhile, microwave sauce on high power for 2 minutes or until hot. Drain pasta and return to pan. Add sauce and toss to coat. Divide among 2 dinner plates. Top each with a mushroom cap.

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