Yummm-mmm! As well as it also being National Biscuit Month, September is also the home to National Mushroom Month. It’s tough to make a national food holiday out of an entire kingdom of living organisms! Mushrooms, as we’ve all learned in junior high biology, aren’t plants, even though they both grow in the ground: mushrooms, like all fungi, absorb their nutrients either through the soil or the substance they have attached themselves to, like a tree root. It’s just as difficult to classify edible mushrooms in the culinary world as it is to classify fungi in the biological world! Most people use them as a vegetable, chopping them up along onions and peppers to be used in stews, stir-fries, and soups; but different varieties can also withstand high heat and have a surprising amount of nutrients and protein, and are even used as meat substitutes! Are your mushrooms the protein or the fiber of your dish? They can be both!
Mushrooms have been used in cuisines all over the world for thousands of years, dating back to ancient China. They’re rich in nutrients, specifically Vitamin D, and can also have medicinal properties. They’re a magic kind of food that is relatively easy to cultivate, plentiful in the wild, super nutritious and good for you in more ways than one, and supremely delicious! (This isn’t even talking about the actual “magical” mushrooms, which aren’t considered a viable food by the FDA. Boo!)
I really wanted to highlight some of the different mushroom varieties commonly used in worldwide cuisines. Too often you go into a grocery store or restaurant and a food label just plainly says “mushrooms,” and the bland, boring, common white button one is looking back at you from its shrinkwrapped blue carton. Yes, they are mushrooms; but there are so many other varieties out there to try, with different tastes and textures to bring spice to your life! I’m tired of there being only one overwhelmingly large choice for “mushrooms” when you cook or eat, so here are some great dishes in New York celebrating those other mushroom varieties you may not even know about–but you’re soon going to love!
Marco Canora, celebrity chef and mastermind behind New York restaurants Craft and Hearth, is definitely one of the masters of mushrooms in the city. He’s championed using less-popular mushroom varieties that have different, earthier tastes, and because of the added attention he’s given them, these varieties have actually soared in popularity! Take the maitake mushroom, also known as hen-of-the-woods: Canora takes this mushroom, once relegated to the country bistros of Europe, and pan-roasts them, accenting their woodsy flavor without making them tough or gamey. It’s a simple recipe that anyone can make at home, but the way Canora has spotlighted this mushroom almost demands that you take notice. It’s become such a hit at both Craft and Hearth that many other chefs around the city are incorporating hen-of-the-woods into their own menus, making the maitake the choice fungus of the moment. So many people who visit Hearth order the roasted mushrooms as a side dish and are astonished to find out it overshadows the entrees. Quite a feat for a humble fungus!
403 E 12th St (between 1st Ave & Avenue A)
“Giving a restaurant a single name is intended to brand it: part mantra and part haiku. By this standard, ‘Hearth’ works. It suggests an expansive coziness–Tuscany and your grandmother’s house wrapped in one, with a little smoked bacon on the side. Marco Canora, the chef, used to work at Craft, and he carries the torch here. A dish of roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, direct from Craft, could not be better. Have your fork ready when they arrive; even good friends will betray you. And that’s just a side dish.”–The New York Times
“Marco Canora—the chef largely responsible for elevating the fungus to “It” ’shroom status, first at Craft and now at Hearth—relies on the less expensive cultivated variety (available at Greenmarket year-round or through Marché aux Delices at auxdelices.com).”–New York Magazine
“The best thing we’ve tried at Hearth has been the pan-roasted hen of the woods mushrooms. They sound like a simple side dish on the menu, but they are to die for. We more recently discovered his ribolitta – a Tuscan kale soup topped with a generous amount of parmesan – which is also a favorite.”–Culinary Colleen
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“The sides? The greens were sharp and tasty and the Hens of the Woods? Mushrooms so meaty and tasty, I hate to say it but that dish was the hit of the table.”–S L.
“This week we dined at Hearth for the fourth time in 12 months. For the fourth time, Heath left a lasting impression. Here’s the deal, for those who do not want to read through my notes…Hens of the Woods. Again, I repeat…Hens of the Woods. Amazing. The best mushrooms we have ever tasted (4 times…).”–P J M.
And if we’re talking maitake mushrooms here, we’ve got to start talking about shiitake as well: the East Asian mushroom is a delicacy in many Asian cuisines as well as a medicinal mushroom, and are used in stir-fries, soups, and even pickles! The most interesting thing about shiitake is that they are supposedly better when dried and rehydrated than fresh: the dehydration process helps draw out the natural umami flavor of the shiitake. This may be one of the few times that an imported ingredient is preferred over a locally-grown version! And if we’re also talking Asian restaurants in New York, the name that will inevitably come up is “Momofuku.” David Chang’s modern spin on Asian classics is always a hit–which is why there seems to be a different Momofuku in every neighborhood–and one of the best examples is their shiitake steamed baos, or buns. The traditional steamed pork buns are given a makeover for the new millennium here, with just the right amount of delightfully fatty pork flavor cooked into the mushrooms. The salty hoisin sauce added with the pork fat-sauteed shiitake might be too much in a regular serving, but it’s tempered by pickled cucumber and the soft, puffy mildness of the steamed bun. It’s a delicate balance of flavors and textures that could have led to burned mushrooms and soggy buns, but trust in Momofuku to do it up right. They serve it with a side of sriracha dipping sauce, but in my opinion these babies are good all on their own.
Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 1st Ave (between 10th St & 11th St)
“steamed buns or baos stuffed with shiitake mushrooms…delicious! the mushrooms were so flavorful…while these buns are traditionally made with pork- it was not missed at all! i don’t think i can say anything about david chang’s momofuku or his famous steamed buns that hasn’t already been said. all you really need to know is pure genius! definitely stop by the noodle bar next time you’re in NYC.”–Sweet26
“There were three different buns available–chicken, shiitake and pork. I knew the pork buns would be delicious and super fatty, and since I had been walking the streets of lower Manhattan for over 4 hours, I thought I’d try something lighter and ordered the shiitake buns. The waiter assured me that all the bun fillings were delicious, since they are all cooked in pork fat. He was right…the shiitake buns were delicious. Thinly sliced, inside the white flour-y bun with hoisin sauce, with pickled cucumber and a little sriracha dipping sauce; they were the perfect amount of greasy + melt in your mouth goodness. I wasn’t up for an Oriental slider, so the texture of the crunchy shiitake, umami flavor, combined with the sweet salty hoisin, sweet bun and heat of the rooster was perfect.”–The Green Girls
“I always order the Ginger Scallion Noodles and the Steamed Shiitake Buns,again naked of bacon. I twirl the room temperature noodles around the chopsticks, never quite getting them perfect, which invites a little slurping. And I can’t talk while eating the shiitake buns. I am too heavily involved. Upon the server laying those sweet, white, fluffy shiitake stuffed buns in front of me, the world goes quiet, I give a little shimmy and zero in. I realize, I am painting a vision of lovely. Screw visions of sugar plum fairies dancing through my head, it’s these little pillows of heaven that get above title credit in my dreams.”–Knifestyles Of The Fit And Fabulous
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“We started out with the shiitake steamed bun. It was melt-in-your-mouth, moan-out-loud delicious. And I don’t even really care for shiitakes. Seriously, if you go to Momofuku Noodle Bar you HAVE to get the shiitake steam bun. My mouth is watering just thinking about them.”–M H.
“Glorious. Had been hearing local Chicago comparisons to Urban Belly and knew we needed to make a field trip while in New York yesterday. The shiitake steamed buns were amazing. Sweet, subtly vinegar plum sauce against thin cucumbers and a soft pillow of a toothsome bun. It turned out to be the forebear of things to come.”–Jessi L.
But the one thing I do want to pull away from this post is that, while mushrooms are varied and delicious, they don’t have to be upscale! You might not have pockets deep enough for Hearth or an in to get into a place like Momofuku, but you can still enjoy a great mushroom (that’s not the white button kind!) for a little price. Those who work in Midtown already know about Tony “The Dragon” Dragonas, the master with a hot griddle food stand on 62nd Street and Madison Avenue, and if you don’t, I bet you’ve smelled his amazing cooking wafting through the neighborhood and looked down at your salad with regret. His street food is elevated to the point where you expect this quality of cuisine from a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but that’s the key to The Dragon’s charm. For instance, would you ever imagine waiting in line at a food cart for a ribeye steak and portobello mushroom hero for $9?!? The fact alone that it’s a 5-star quality sandwich being served from a food cart is reason enough to try it, but once you taste how juicy the steak is, how the meatiness of the portobello is evened out by the arugula and makes a perfect balance of the powerful flavors in every bite…you’ll be hooked. It’s gutsy altogether for a food-cart chef to serve up ribeye steak and portobello mushrooms for lunch, but with the way The Dragon masters it, you’d think his little cart had Michelin stars.
Tony “The Dragon” Dragonas
62nd St and Madison Ave
“In a typical lunch-hour line, you’ll find an oddball assemblage of Bloomberg number-crunchers, fashionable Madison Avenue retail clerks, stout delivery guys, and traitorous cooks from nearby kitchens including Aureole, Amaranth, and Nello. Speaking of Nello, says Tony, “he wanted me to go into business with him.” He’s not the only one: “You’re the best! You’re the best!” barks a man wearing a black T-shirt, cargo shorts, and a mullet one recent afternoon. “I tell ya, Tony, I’m working on capital; we’re going to take this enterprise national.” What’s the reason for all the hoopla? Chicken breasts, shish kebab, burgers, sausage, steak, and an excellent prosciutto-mozzarella-and-basil sandwich.”–New York Magazine
“The special steak hero was $9, but it was HUGE. The first bite tasted of portobello mushroom, garlic, and arugula. The portobello mushroom was thick and meaty and could have been a sandwich unto itself – but there was steak on the hero too. The steak was a real steak – not the thin sandwich steaks you get in some places – and it had that great grilled flavor. There was a little bit of fat around some of the edges, but not enough to downgrade the sandwich quality. You could tell the mozzarella was fresh. It barely melted, and there was no grease at all. The arugula had a bitterness that went well with the steak and mushroom. It wasn’t just some leaf on a hero – it added to the overall taste of the sandwich.”–New York Street Food
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“This is a HUGE sandwich and to truly appreciate the meal, you must watch him every step of the way. First he melts the mozzarella onto the roll for a good five minutes until the mozzarella hits a stretchy, melty heavenly state. The roll then has a nice crunch on the outside and is soft and chewy on the inside. He then places the delicious 1/4 inch ribeye onto this roll and heaps on grilled portobello mushrooms, onions and peppers (all cooked perfectly) onto this CREATION. The Dragon doesn’t just give you GREEN peppers. You get RED, ORANGE AND YELLOW PEPPERS. Um, can you say FLAVOR!! I got my sub topped off with BBQ sauce and extra tzatziki sauce and was in HOG HEAVEN every bite of the way.”–Adam L.
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