Portobellos Are Mushrooming


January 14, 1996|By ROB KASPER

I found them in the first course of a meal in Phoenix, Md., where the gentlemen wore tuxedos and the ladies fine dresses, and where dinner lasted three hours.

I found them at the Sunday-morning farmers' market in Baltimore where everybody wore jeans. There they were grilled and sold as three-bite sandwiches, by Stan Edmister, a Baltimore mushroom farmer. They were portobello mushrooms. This is a type of a mushroom that is making so many appearances at so many different venues around Maryland that you might think it was running for elective office.

"It is a very trendy mushroom," said C. Anthony Talucci, executive chef at the Hillendale Country Club. He cooked the three-hour meal mentioned above. It was a seven-course event for the Baltimore chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, a food and wine appreciation group.

The mushroom course was the first course. Talucci marinated the portobellos in a reduction of dried mint, vinegar, bay leaf and extra-virgin olive oil. Then he grilled them, sliced them and served them with red pepper coulis.

Portobello is sometimes a misunderstood mushroom, Talucci told me. "Because it is big and dark, most people think it is has a heavy flavor."

He also told me that when he proposed putting portobellos on the menu for the Chaine dinner, some people objected, saying it would be "like eating a steak for the first course."

But Talucci convinced the doubters that despite the portobello's hulking appearance, it produces a delicate flavor, one that would not overpower the subsequent courses at the dinner. They included hot snapper salad, California squab breast, and lamb chops wrapped with shrimp and chicken sausage. As someone who ate his way through that dinner, I can testify that the chef was right.

As somebody who got a bite of the three-bite mushroom sandwich I bought for my kid at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, I agree with my kid. He said the grilled portobello sandwich was better than chicken.

While the name portobello sounds Italian, most of these mushrooms come from mushroom farms in southeastern Pennsylvania. That is what Jack Czarnecki told me. He is proprietor of Joe's Restaurant in Reading, Pa., and author of two books on mushrooms, the latest being "A Cook's Book of Mushrooms" (Artisan 1995, $30). During a telephone interview, Czarnecki told me about the portobello's background. He gave me a few tips on how to handle the mushroom. And he discussed a few recipes.

He said the portobello is a cultivated mushroom. This means that rather than growing wild in the woods, it grows at mushroom farms. Basically, the portobello is a bigger, darker relative of the white button mushroom that is often found in supermarket produce sections, Czarnecki said.

In addition to being taller than the supermarket mushroom, the portobello also has a larger top, or cap. When this cap opens and the "gills" underneath begin to darken, the flavor of the portobello is at its peak, he said.

Czarnecki said the first portobello mushrooms he saw in American were imported from Italy. "In the late 1980s, some Italian portobellos were showing in fancy American food markets. They were terribly expensive, about $11 to $12 a pound, and not in very good shape. So I didn't pay much attention to them."

A few years later, however, at a mushroom symposium in Kennett Square, Pa., he met some portobellos that turned his head. "They had that big, full cap, and that wonderful aroma." They had been grown in a Pennsylvania mushroom farm, Phillips, near Kennett Square. Soon, Czarnecki said, other farmers began turning out portobellos and the mushrooms' price began to drop. Nowadays the price usually fluctuates between $3 and $6 a pound, he said.

Czarnecki also told me why the name portobello sometimes appears as portabello or portabella. Various mushroom farmers change the vowels as a way of distinguishing their brands, he said.

As for how to handle the mushrooms, he said that portobellos do not take kindly to baths. The best way to clean a portobello is to wipe away any grime, or brush it lightly with a mushroom brush.

On the subject of eating portobellos, Czarnecki mentioned two recipes from his book. One called for making little pizzas out of portobellos. He told me how slices of the mushroom are first painted with a mixture of oyster sauce and chipotle chilies, then twice baked and served with a topping of melted Monterey Jack cheese and poblano chilies.

Another recipe called for grilling the mushrooms and serving them on a grilled cheesesteak sandwich, using Roquefort, blue or Gorgonzola cheese.

To hear Czarnecki tell it, if on a dark night, you have that cheesesteak, with the portobellos and a glass of a hearty zinfandel, winter will lose its chill. Depending on your mood, such meal could last either three hours or three bites.

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