An opinion common to the children of America is that mushrooms are bad. They express this viewpoint with crinkled little noses and furrowed brows, picking mushrooms out of their food with chubby little fingers. "I don't wike these," they say. "They'we gwoss."
Another opinion common to the children of America is that Transformers is the awesomest movie ever made. What I am saying here is that children have garbage opinions, and that the extent to which your mushroom opinion aligns with theirs also measures the extent to which you are a fraidycat and a weenie.
Right now, out there among us, holding down actual jobs at which actual other people actually depend upon them, are physically mature individuals—adults, nominally and externally—who cringe at the sight of mushrooms like big, gross babies. Perhaps you know one of them. Perhaps you are one of them! I shudder to think of it, the way I do at the thought of sharing the world with murderers, or Dinesh D'Souza, or St. Louis Cardinals fans.
By rights, this state of affairs should horrify the rest of us; that we have suffered these sad wieners to live and live among us and thrive is a moral failure. That we have not brought these fools forth into the light of mushroom enjoyment is the shame of mankind. I ask you—you! right there! reading this now with your finger in your nose! Steve or whatever!—what have you done to repair this great dereliction? Nothing? Probably nothing. Dammit, Steve or whatever.
Listen. Mushrooms are wonderful. They're complex and diverse and exciting; they're meaty and earthy and rich in umami, the magical fifth flavor; they smell great and taste even better and they go with damn near anything—and, they're at their absolute best right now, this minute, in the last days of this soggy, gray stretch before the weather turns real-deal cold. This is the time for shedding the fear of mushrooms—for shedding your own shameful fear, or the fear of the mushroom-fearing overgrown toddler you love for whatever reason.
We'll ease into it, to start, by cooking a familiar, user-friendly dish and adding just a tiny number of finely chopped mushrooms, just to get the flavor in th—
Psych. Nah. Bullshit. Let's just make a big pile of roasted mushrooms and eat 'em. It'll be like jumping off the high dive! Come on. You can do it. Ready?
To begin, acquire a bunch of fresh mushrooms. Like, oh, two pounds' worth. At this time of year, a decent supermarket will have a pretty good selection of mushrooms—white and brown and button and portobello cremini, plus hen-of-the-woods, shiitake, oyster, king oyster, enokitake, and so on, maybe even porcini, chanterelles, and morels if you're very lucky and wealthy—and you're free to suit yourself, here. Flavor-wise, they're all over the map; thankfully, it's not a very big map, in the sense that they all taste good, and they're all recognizably mushroomy.
(Note: One thing not to do is to acquire mushrooms by, like, going outside and grabbing some mushrooms that are growing in the shaded patch of grass you pass by on your walk to work each day. Unless you are a very experienced mushroom forager, this is a terrific way to put yourself in the hospital. Even expert foragers have been known to mix up the tasty and harmless straw mushroom with its relative the death cap, which is approximately as toxic to humans as a stick of dynamite.)
If your supermarket has a variety to choose from, go ahead and sniff around; for the most part, your nose will give you a reliable preview of what each mushroom will taste like when cooked. Maybe you'll go for the slight anise edge of oyster mushrooms, or the musty truffle-ish foot-stink of porcini, or the familiar mushroominess (and affordability) of cremini. Let's talk about those cremini for a moment.
White mushrooms, brown or "baby bella" mushrooms, button mushrooms, and portobello (or portabella, or portobella, or however you like to spell it, unless you like to spell it nacho cheese chalupa, in which case sorry, that name is taken) are all the same kind of mushroom: cremini. They taste the same, and they cook pretty much the same, but they're not priced the same, because suckers get all dreamy-eyed at portobello mushrooms and go, "Ooh, those are Eye-talian!" and pay extra for them, even though the only difference between them and regular-ass brown mushrooms is size. Portobello mushrooms are regular cremini that have fully matured. That's all they are.
Which is fine, if you're looking for a mushroom that you can grill like a steak or flip upside-down and fill with stuff or use as a frisbee in a pinch. Portobellos are fine mushrooms. For our purposes today, though, there's no particular reason to get them, since you'll have to spend extra needless time chopping them. If you want a nice meaty mushroom, go for cremini, but go for the smaller ones.
So, which kind(s) of mushrooms should you use, if you're indecisive? Go for a pound of cremini, and a half-pound of oyster for that delicious hint of anise flavor, and then for the remaining half-pound, just fuggin' grab something for the sheer adventure of it. Hen-of-the-woods (also called maitake or sheep's head) are enjoyably scary-looking, but mildly-flavored; they'll do nicely, if you just cannot make a goddamn choice for yourself.
Whichever varieties of mushroom you go for, eventually you'll bring them home and be ready to cook them. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Set the rack in the middle.
Next, prepare your mushrooms for cooking. This means brushing any big clumps of dirt off of them, first of all. Don't bust out your tweezers for this—they don't need to be immaculate, as some tiny quantity of rich, dark soil entering your body will not harm you, ya big chicken—but give 'em a once-over and brush or knock off any wads of earth you spot. Also, if any of your mushrooms have any rootlike stuff hanging off the bottom of their stems, chop that stuff off and get rid of it.
Now, chop all your mushrooms into pieces roughly half the size of one of the smaller cremini in your assortment. You may have to quarter the larger cremini, and you'll just have to kinda hack the oyster and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms into pieces. You're not looking for perfection, here; just get 'em chopped, and dump them into a big bowl.
Are they chopped? What do you mean, "are what chopped," for chrissakes it was one paragraph ago, the mushrooms, are the mushrooms chopped. Yes? Good. Now, mince a few big cloves of garlic, finely chop some fresh flat-leaf parsley, slice some chives into tiny rings, and slice a lemon in half. I promise there won't be any more chopping after this.
Once you're done chopping, add the minced garlic to the bowl with the mushrooms, drizzle a couple glugs worth of extra-virgin olive oil over the whole thing, and start tossing, with your bare hands, to get all the mushrooms coated with oil and garlic. No, there is no other way. Yes, your hands will get oily as hell and will smell like garlic for a week. No, this will not endear you to your fellow mass-transit riders. Yes, you must do it anyway. Toss and toss and toss.
When the garlic and oil are pretty well distributed, and the mushrooms are glistening and garlicky-smelling, haul out your biggest roasting pan or cookie sheet and dump the garlic- and oil-coated mushrooms into your vessel. If you can accomplish a single layer here, that's great, but don't sweat it if you can't. You want as many of the mushrooms as possible to be exposed directly to the hot air inside the oven, so they'll roast and get brown and cook evenly, so wider is better—but, they'll still taste great even if some of them are sitting on top of others.
Now, season your mushrooms with a modest pinch of kosher salt, a fuggin' lotta freshly cracked black pepper, and—yes, goddammit, yes!—two tablespoons of drained pickled capers. Oh man, the weenies just recoiled so hard they crashed through the walls behind them. Mushrooms and capers? This is too much. It's too much! Yes, damn you: capers. Those briny, mustardy, aggressive-as-hell little anger-peas. They're good, and they'll make your roasted mushrooms taste great, and that is all there is to that, so do it. Be courageous!
Give all of the stuff in your pan another halfhearted toss or two, then sock it in the oven and set a timer for 20 minutes. You're very nearly done. As your mushrooms roast, a rich, meaty, garlicky aroma will rise from them and fill your kitchen and home and lungs and brain; do try to keep yourself occupied with something other than gnawing the handle off your oven door.
After 20 minutes, the timer will go off; with oven mitts or thick dishrags or a pair of embarrassing old novelty t-shirts from a vacation best forgotten, yank the pan out of the oven. Your mushrooms are deep brown and oh god, the smell, the smell of roasted mushrooms, stop trying to hug it, seriously you are weirding out your guests.
Toss a hunk of room-temperature unsalted butter, a squeeze of juice from the lemon, and some of the chopped parsley and chives with the mushrooms, until the butter has melted and coated the mushrooms, and you can smell the herbs. There. That's it. You roasted some mushrooms, and now, by God, you will eat them.
Your roasted mushrooms are wonderfully versatile: You can scoop them over a steak, or some mashed potatoes or cauliflower, or some roasted or steamed asparagus, or whatever. Or! You can cut an inch-thick slice out of a loaf of crusty bread, top it with a gloriously sloppy heap of roasted mushrooms, sprinkle some good grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on there, and fire mouthward. That configuration is outrageously satisfying; the bread adds crunch and heft and pleasant density without in any way distracting from that earthy, rich mushroom flavor, accented and flattered on all sides by the complementary stuff you arranged around it.
And, hey, wouldja lookit that! Why, this is nothing to be afraid of! This is good for all the same reasons a well-cooked hunk of red meat is good, and then some wonderful other reasons, too. These mushroom things are good—great, even, and delicious, ecstatic, heavenly—after all. What a fool you've been. What a damned fool.
You will have to eat a lot of mushrooms, from now on, to make up for wasted time. That's a pretty sweet deal, as penance goes.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at email@example.com. Image by Sam Woolley.