Friday, December 10, 2010

A feather in my cap

There's a fine line, there is always a fine line. I always wondered what the big hoopla was about the humble mushroom. I'v been subjected to nose wrinkling, poisoned stares and annoyed expressions through the course of mushrooms whenever ordered or made. 

This is a little anecdote year's ago, when mushrooms had just become popular in and around town. We had gone on a road trip down south with extended family and had stopped over at an udipi for lunch. Since we were a large group, peak summer afternoon sun beating down mercilessly, we were ushered into a private terraced area of the restaurant covered with banana baby trees and money-plant leaves veining their way through the walls and ceiling , brushing dangerously close to the waka-waka fan. We were seated on a pink, sunmica covered table with steel mugs of chilled water and plates laid out, spotlessly clean. Once our gang decided to accustom ourselves to the surroundings (not used to stopping over in a small unknown town, abruptly for lunch) and took our places, the laminated menu was brought out (complete with a retro poster of a bollywood movie? and Om Puri staring out at you with a grumpy expression amidst pictures of random South Indian dishes?). Everyone ordered the usual:

Group Member 1: One Idli and one Sada Dosa, two chutneys, no sambhar
Group Member 2: I'l have one Sada Dosa with a plate of Idli and make it one Idli one Medu wada in one plate
Group Member 3: One Butter-Masala-South Indian-Special-Cheese-Onion-Chilli-Dosa for me, avoid the Coriander please (like that was a hindrance)
Group Member 4: Lime Juice Soda - Sweet (poor fellow, threw up in the car. There has to be 'one' car sickness member in the group, otherwise it's not a road trip)
and so on... 
One person stood out (not me), and asked the waiter: What's todays special?

What came, was special. A simmering and spicy concoction of baby button mushrooms (not the horrid, briny, tinned ones) in a coconut gravy, true Manglorean style with steaming white fragrant rice with just a hint of chilli. Now that was what I would call a gourmet inspired dish - so what if it was in a small town, and so what if mushrooms were just in vogue. 

We landed up ordering a few of those plates, barring a few, who were tucking in the normal fare with the usual nose wrinkling - annoyed expression which was fair competition to our friend "Om Puri". 

The argument here is, why do people STILL perceive mushroom as some sort of non-vegetarian ingredient. I have seen (again, I go back in time) triumphant yelling on devouring a whole mushroom, like it was an achievement by itself. Yes, we all know its a kind of a 'edible" fungus (whoever said 'edible' and 'fungus' at the same time, scary) but it is so. I still know of a lot of people, especially vegetarians, who detest mushrooms, purely because they assume it to have a life of its own and probably a dish equalling hunting down your own game and roasting it, and somehow, that ideology just does not seem to die in some people. Well, to one's own I guess. As for those who attempted it, their triumph equalled that of crossing the thin line from vegetarianism to hardcore meat eaters (whatever makes them happy).

I enjoy this humble ingredient, always have! I have had many an experiment which rarely failed. I love stir fried mushrooms and there is an art in getting the right texture to your mushroom before using it in your final dish. Ideally mushrooms should never be washed as they absorb the water in which they are washed like a sponge, but you can and must clean them with a dry cloth, and then peel them. Look closely at the point where the stem meets the cap, with a sharp knife, reach under the cap and peel a fine layer from the stem right till the top. It should peel of easily like a hot knife on butter. Do it on all sides and you will have a perfectly dry  and pristine white mushroom cap without the need of washing it. 

You will observed that when cooked, mushrooms (especially the white button ones), which consist of a high percentage of water, release a lot of it (but natural). So if you are going to wash your mushrooms, they are going to absorb and release water while cooking. In the process, they shrivel up and turn slightly rubbery, in the process losing their earthy flavors. The right way to cook mushrooms is to thrown them in the pan with a little oil which is kept on high heat. Toss around quickly with a wooden spoon and ensure you dont squeeze any of them. No salt, no additives should be added at this point. Once you feel the oils coated the mushroom and the steams pouring out, immediately turn off the gas and plate it out, keep aside to use, as required. You can add, garlic, dry herbs or anything during the cooking process (as an added flavouring, complimenting the dish you are creating) as long as there is no water based ingredient. This is what the right texture of mushrooms in a mushroom dish should be. You can add these to gravies, sauces, pastas or anything for the matter. 

I have created a delicious dish, a spontaneous creation as I love using seasonal ingredients and mushroom being versatile, can be mixed and matched with many ingredients. This is a juicy concoction of baby Green Tomatoes, Green Garlic, tangy lemon and Stir Fried Mushrooms in an Asian stir fry sauce. 

1 pckt Button Mushrooms - Halved
2 Baby Green Tomatoes (Diced)
4-5 shoots - Green Garlic (Finely Chopped, including the green shoots)
1/2 Lemon - Sliced Thinly
1 tablsp Olive Oil
1 tsp Chilli Flakes
1 tsp Light Soy Sauce
2 tablsp Oyster Sauce (Vegetarian version can be used)
Salt & White Pepper Powder
A dash of bitters (optional)
A pinch of dried celery (optional)
In a wok, heat the olive oil on high heat, throw in the mushrooms and toss around on high heat. When just about ready, throw in the chopped garlic and stir fry till fragrant and till the garlic has browned in a bit. Add the Soy Sauce and Oyster Sauce stir fry and tossing well without lowering the heat and add all the seasoning's. Add the lemon slices, dash of bitters and tomatoes and stir fry till the sauce coats the ingredients evenly. 

Plate it out in a shallow dish and serve immediately.   

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