Twenty years ago, you couldn't give portabella mushrooms away. Today, growers can barely keep up with the demand, as a chef-driven trend fuels interest in the big, meaty mushrooms.
"What we did for years was throw them away," says Mark Moran, a mushroom farmer and distributor in Kennett Square, Pa., an area that boasts the highest concentration of mushroom farms in the country. "We couldn't even send them to the canner."
The mushroom was a fully mature cremini, or brown mushroom, says Michael McLaughlin, author of "The Mushroom Book" (Chronicle Books, $12.95). Flat, fully opened, with visible gills, it didn't fit the American aesthetic for mushrooms. And it didn't have that fancy name -- yet.
Today, portabellas, as they were dubbed in the 1980s, are springing up in restaurants and grocery stores like, well, mushrooms after a spring rain. They're used in everything from portabella fajitas to dark, gnarly-looking portabella pasta.
"It does have quite a different flavor -- a much richer, woodsier flavor," says Giuliano Hazan, author of "The Classic Pasta Cookbook" (Dorling Kindersley, $24.95) and son of cookbook maven Marcella Hazan.
But many home cooks are still mystified by the meaty mushroom giants, which commonly measure 4 to 5 inches across.
Grilling and toasting are the most common treatments, although portabellas go anywhere a button mushroom goes, from soups and salads to stir-fries. Mr. Hazan likes to combine them with small brown mushrooms and dried porcinis to make a three-mushroom pasta sauce.
"There is general agreement that they need to be cooked," says Dallas cooking teacher Kyra Effren, who developed the recipes for this story.
"They marinate well," Ms. Effren says -- and that's the case before or after cooking. She suggests marinating them overnight in a vinaigrette.
Marinades turn them darker brown; merely brushing with olive oil and a little salt before grilling or broiling lightens them.
You can marinate portabellas in just about anything you'd use on meat, poultry or vegetables -- flavored or hot oil, wine, lemon or lime juice, soy sauce, flavored vinegar, fresh herbs, ginger, shallots or garlic.
Most chefs like to marinate them, then slap them on a grill. From there, they are added to other dishes, although they can be served straight off the fire.
"There's a restaurant in Wilmington, Del., where they grill it, . . . marinate it, then serve it at room temperature with a little mascarpone with fresh chives, a little lime juice, minced garlic and shallots," says Jim Angelucci, a spokesman for Phillips Farms in Kennett Square.
Portabellas whole run about $6 to $6.40 a pound, and many stores sell them sliced in 6-ounce packages for $3. No matter how you chop that, they're competitive with steak. But shoppers aren't deterred.
"We saw almost a 100-percent increase in portabella sales in the last 12 months," says Mr. Moran, a spokesman for South Mills Mushroom Sales in Kennett Square. That followed a 100-percent jump the year before, he says.
Still, portabellas are a relative speck in the mushroom world. Of the 700 million to 800 million pounds of mushrooms Mr. Moran estimates will be produced in the United States this year, portabellas account for less than 1 percent.
But speck is a long way from oblivion -- the fate of the brown mushroom in this country for decades.
"Before the '40s, the brown mushroom . . . was the common mushroom in this country," says Mr. McLaughlin. It was also called the cremini, Prataioli, Italian brown or common brown. But the popularity of white buttons swept brown mushrooms off the scene, he says.
"People in the United States have never cared for mushrooms that reach their maturity," Mr. Angelucci says. "When they saw mushrooms open and mature and the underside dark, they assumed it had passed its 'expiration date.' "
The beloved round-topped white button would flare out, dry out and show its gills, too, were it allowed to mature, he says.
"Sometime after the '70s -- when cultivated, exotic mushrooms started to be a growing market segment -- someone decided to " remarket brown mushrooms," Mr. McLaughlin says.
Along with remarketing came new names: Roman. Doubloon. Portabella.
"Because we were eating an earthy, brown, Italian-sounding thing, they took off again," he says.
Makes 6 servings
6 whole portabella mushrooms, cleaned, stems removed (see note)
1/4 cup vinegar
3/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
To make vinaigrette: Combine ingredients in a lidded jar: Shake well just before using.
Lay clean mushrooms in a shallow baking dish and pour 1/2 cup of dressing over. Cover and marinate for up to 24 hours, turning the mushrooms once.
When ready to cook, drain dressing; reserve for another purpose.
To grill: Place on grill over warm coals for 5 to 10 minutes, turning once. To broil: Place on a baking sheet and set under broiler for 5 to 8 minutes. To bake: Place baking dish in preheated 425-degree oven for about 15 minutes.
Note: You may substitute sliced portabellas. However, you may need to grill them on a piece of foil to avoid breakage. Poke holes in the foil to assure a good smoky flavor.
Per serving: calories: 76; fat: 7 grams; no cholesterol; sodium: 90 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 79 percent.
Makes 6 servings
6 whole portabellas
Italian dressing or favorite marinade
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup flavored croutons, crushed
2 tablespoons Parmesan
6 tablespoons pine nuts
6 fresh basil leaves (optional)
Clean portabellas; remove and reserve stems. Place mushrooms shallow baking dish and pour Italian dressing or marinade over. Cover and marinate up to 24 hours.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Finely chop reserved stems. Saute the onion in the oil until soft. Add the mushroom stems and garlic; continue stirring until limp. Remove from heat.
Combine the croutons, cheese and pine nuts; set aside.
Place mushrooms in a lightly greased shallow baking dish and top with sauteed mixture. Sprinkle crouton mixture evenly over mushrooms. Bake 12 to 15 minutes. Before serving, garnish with basil leaves, if desired.
Per serving: calories: 176; fat: 15 grams; cholesterol: 1 milligram; sodium: 172 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 72 percent.
Portabella Mushroom Salad
Makes 6 servings
6 grilled portabellas (see recipe above)
1 head butter lettuce
6 ounces goat cheese
1 cup toasted, skinned hazelnuts
1/2 cup vinaigrette dressing (see note)
Slice mushrooms and lay slices on lettuce leaves. Scatter small pieces of goat cheese over the mushroom slices and sprinkle the nuts on top. Spoon dressing over salad.
Note: You may use any vinaigrette, or the reserved dressing from the Grilled Portabellas or the reserved dressing mixed with 3 tablespoons mayonnaise.
Per serving: calories: 317; fat: 28 grams; cholesterol: 25 milligrams; sodium: 482 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 77 percent.
) Universal Press Syndicate