Recipe 22: Maitake Mushroom Mac – a Weekly Mac Original!Posted: May 21, 2012
Although I have what I’d like to consider a fairly diverse palette, I do recognize that I can get weirdly picky about certain foods. Take spinach, for example: Raw is always fine, but sometimes when it’s wilted and half the time when it’s fully cooked it tastes gross to me; and despite many attempts to discover it, I have yet to determine where exactly that line is between Good and Not Good. For someone who has not had qualms about trying eel, alligator, or escargot, among other unusual things, I can get very specifically persnickety about certain very common foods.
Mushrooms are one of those foods. For many years the only exposure I had was those mushy slices on pizzas or the slimy jarred specimens. Nothing about either appealed to me or made me curious to try more. They were flaccid – there was no other word for it – and tasted foul to me. I did not understand how people could actually willingly consume these bizarre fungi.
However, there were some tentative forays into the mushroom possibilities. My mother, another mycophobe, tried a chicken-mushroom soup that she enjoyed, and when making it herself, she cut the little shrooms extra small so as not to offend even her own palette; I liked it too. A few years later, at the salad bar in college, one day I decided to be bold and add a couple of raw button mushrooms to my leafy spread. Still a tad spongy, but definitely not the squishy grey blob I’d had before, and with a pleasant mild earthy taste. The door was opened to further explorations.
Still, as the years passed, I didn’t go running for the shrooms in the produce aisle. I knew it could be all right, but I was still leery. Old food prejudices die hard, I suppose – I mean, they are a fungus, after all; that’s hard to get over. When Loverman and I were dating and he told me about some Polish dish he liked that was mainly button mushrooms, I expressed my uncertainty, but reluctantly permitted him to make it. My mouth did not reject the mushroom-laden plate, and in fact I really enjoyed it. But there were still some times when I’d have mushrooms and get grossed out, so it was – and is – still trial and error.
I want to have a diverse palette. Not even necessarily a sophisticated palette (as a rule my favorite wine choices are ridiculously sweet, for example), but I’d like to be one of those people who enjoys the majority of food choices out there. Every so often I’ll try a new food or one that I have been cautious of trying again just to see if I will like it. In the case of mushrooms, I have bought buttons here and there to try in dishes. I even bought a pack of “mixed mushrooms” which contained shiitake, maitake, and oyster mushrooms – mainly because I had seen a green-friendly product that would allow you to grow your own oyster mushrooms, and I was curious whether or not I would like them. Turns out, oyster mushrooms were not for me.
The maitake, however, were all right. I was only recently reminded of this by the most recent issue of Edible Finger Lakes, which featured an interview with Eugenia Bone, who recently wrote a book on mushrooms, and a small one page bit on mushrooms that can be foraged locally. One of these is maitake, AKA hen-of-the-woods, not to be confused with chicken-of-the-woods, which is apparently a different mushroom. It has been described as having such a hearty, almost meaty texture that it has reportedly helped some aspiring vegetarians make the switch from meat. Well, aspiring vegetarian I am not, but I do aspire to expand my culinary horizons – and hey, there is nothing wrong with reducing one’s meat consumption.
There are plenty of places that can help you learn about foraging for mushrooms safely. This is not one of them – unless you want help going to the local fancy-pants grocery store and picking up a pack, as I did. I used most of it in a non-mac recipe that was excellent, but I still had a fair amount leftover. What better use could this leftover chunk have than to become my next mac and cheese creation?
Funny thing: The Internet abounds with recipes for macs and cheese that include mushrooms, but not many that call specifically for maitake mushrooms. Apparently a restaurant or two makes one, but the recipes are not immediately available – and what is the Internet for if not instant gratification? No good. So, in the spirit of culinary courage, I researched some cheese pairings that work well with maitake (I didn’t want to smother the natural umami of the shrooms but rather compliment it), consulted a few other mac recipes, and concocted my own recipe. So here I stand before you (well, OK, I am sitting on the couch), humbly presenting the very first Weekly Mac Original Recipe.
Much as I am not a professional chef, I am likewise not a professional recipe author or tester. I hope I’ve made this clear enough for anyone, but please feel free to ask for clarification if I’ve fallen short, either by leaving a comment below or by e-mailing me at weeklymacATyahooDOTcom
Maitake Mushroom Mac (a Weekly Mac original!)
- 8 oz. pasta of choice – I used corn elbows
- 1 or 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, plus more for later
- Half of a medium-sized yellow onion, diced (any other sweet onion would work well, too)
- 3.5 oz maitake mushrooms, cleaned off and roughly chopped into bite-sized pieces… I’m sure 3 oz. or 4 oz. would be just fine, too; this is just how much my leftovers weighed.
- 1 Tablespoon flour or gluten-free flour substitute
- 1 Tablespoon butter
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 3/4 cup shredded Gruyere cheese (this is approximately what I had leftover from the last recipe)
- 1/4 cup shredded Pecorino Romano, or just use the same amount of Parmesan or Gruyere
- 1 1/2 cups shredded Colby Jack cheese (a mild cheddar would probably work too)
- 1/3 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese (use the real stuff if you can; it’s so much better than shaky-cheese)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Pre-heat oven to 350F. Boil pasta according to package directions.
Meanwhile, add olive oil to a medium pan and put heat at medium-low to medium. Add onion and sauté until onion is very soft and translucent, about 5 minutes or so. Increase heat slightly and add maitake mushrooms to the onions, cooking until most of the moisture has left the mushrooms, maybe 3 – 5 minutes. If the mixture seems too dry, add a little more oil, but I didn’t need to. Your mileage may vary. When this has been cooked, set aside – or if the pasta is cooked and drained by now, add it to the pasta. Don’t put the pan in the sink yet; you’ll need it later.
Now in a medium pot, melt butter and add flour or flour-substitute, making a roux by stirring the flour into the butter. Try to keep it white, but I usually mess this up and let it get brown (although not this time – go me!), so unless it’s burned horribly, you’re probably OK. Gradually add the milk, stirring continuously. Add the Colby jack, Gruyere, and Pecorino Romano – slowly so it won’t turn into glop – continuously stirring to incorporate the cheese into the milk-mixture. Taste it, and if it needs salt or pepper, add some. I tend to just add a dash of each for good measure, but I only added a bit of pepper, as I felt the Pecorino lent it enough saltiness.
Once the cheese is thoroughly incorporated, the sauce is ready: Thoroughly combine the pasta, onion and maitake mixture, and cheese sauce in a 7”x11” dish. If you’re really worried about it overflowing or you’d prefer a thinner mac, then go ahead and use a 9”x13” – I just prefer my mac thicker, plus with the volume of food I didn’t see need for the larger dish.
In the same pan in which you cooked the onions and mushrooms, add another healthy glug of olive oil (yes, that’s a technical term – approximately another 2 Tablespoons if you’re looking for something more scientific) and turn heat to low. Add the breadcrumbs, rosemary, and thyme, and stir to incorporate thoroughly; if it is too dry and not coming together well, you didn’t glug enough – add some more olive oil. When it is incorporated and starting to become fragrant, remove from the heat and allow to cool. Once cool, mix in Parmesan cheese. Add the breadcrumbs-Parmesan mix to the top of the pasta-cheese mixture – make sure you spread it evenly!
Put in the oven and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the top turns a nice golden brown. Then wait 5 – 10 minutes for it to cool before glomming it down like the marvelous mac-monster you are
Not to toot my own horn, but toot-toot!
OK, it’s not the best mac I’ve ever tried, but for it being the first time I’ve tried concocting my own recipe, I feel I went pretty darn well. I think making it again I would leave the mushrooms a bit chunkier, since I think some of that nice, meaty texture got lost. Loverman felt it needed to be a bit cheesier, so maybe increasing the cheddar or the gruyere would help. I do also think that – despite what I usually think – the bread crumbs were a bit much. Maybe just 1/4 cup or so might be enough? I do like the thyme and rosemary to compliment the savory flavor of the maitake – clearly there, but not overwhelmingly so.
If any of you try this, please let me know! Even if you don’t like it, let me know anyway (but politeness is appreciated – and suggestions appreciated even more). I hope this will just be the first in a series of original recipes… And nowhere to go but up from here (hopefully).