The Humble Little Button Mushroom

Ah, the button mushroom! I sometimes forget that mushrooms are vegetables in their own right -except when it's wild mushroom time, of course! But the humble button is a lovely vegetable, that truly has no season: it is grown in dark, damp and slightly warm places like a cellar, a heated shed, or even rehabilitated mine shafts. As far as I know, they are also grown just about everywhere, so you can easily get your hands on local 'shrooms.

Packaged mushrooms now contain a whole variety of fungi, from cremimi/coffee/portobellini to oysters, enoki to shiitake, but I will only dwell on the humble white. They  are fairly inexpensive (averaging 2.50$ for a 227g pack, or 99¢ when on sale), and can be the basis for a very filling meal. Add a small handful (4-6 buttons) to a tomato sauce and you can treat 2 to 4 people to a nice pasta dinner. Quarter the whole pack of mushrooms, and you can stir up a vegetarian goulash for two. If you must have meat, add one thinly slivered steak, and you can easily appease 4 to 6 hungry bellies.

Contrary to what we have been told countless times, mushrooms can be washed in water. In fact, you can even dunk 'em in a sinkful of cool water, and need not worry they will turn watery: mushrooms are already over 50% water, so chances are that all that juice in your pan comes from the 'shrooms themselves. So wash away buddy! You've got nothing to fear but fear itself! If you choose to not wash your fungi, you've little to fear too, most of the dirt can be brushed off, and it's sterile compost anyway. To wash or not to wash your 'shrooms, it's all up to you.

White button mushrooms sometime get a bad rap: empty calories, waste of a good chew, no nutrional value... Well, it's all bunk! They are very low in calories, yet are surprisingly packed with nutrition.They are also one of the few vegetal sources of vitamin D (the other being sundried shiitake mushrooms), so they are a great winter food when most of us get too little exposure to direct sun.

Mushrooms are also a natural source of glutamate: that 'evil' ingredient in ready-made foods that make them sooo addictively tasty. Artificial sources of glutamates add to instant foods' high sodium content, but those found naturally in foods are all flavour: they give that meaty, protein taste to dishes high in mushrooms. So all you veggies out there who (sometimes) miss meat, but don't want to eat the fake stuff, eat mushrooms.

Goulash is perfect winter fare: its 'stewiness' is absolutely heartwarming in a stick-to-your-ribs kind of way, but it does not require a regular stew's long cooking time. This goulash is my version of the dish. I am sure that people of Hungarian descent will not recognize their national specialty. In fact, for the longest time, I thought this was a vegetarian Stroganoff. Well, I was wrong, but it's still tasty. And quite filling. It also makes use of  the industrial sized package of Hungarian Paprika my brother brought me back from Budapest.

Although I do not think you absolutely need to have Hungarian paprika to make this goulash -sweet Spanish paprika is rather nice too, especially Dalia brand (!)-  you do need fresh paprika. I've heard so many people exclaim that paprika was the most tasteless spice they've ever had, others called the poor powder 'red dust'.  The only problem was the spice's age: fresh paprika taste of ripe, red peppers with a hint of bite. It has a vegetal flavour and  brings voluptuousness to any dish, especially stews.

By the way, there are some pretty old spices in my cabinet, but paprika is the only one I have that is ground: whole spices actually have a surprisingly long shelf-life, but anything ground should be used as quickly as possible, or kept in the freezer. 

Smoked paprika is also another spice I use in this dish: it brings extra 'meatiness' to the mushrooms. It is not a necessity, so don't go out of your way to find some if you don't have it, but it does adds a subtle smokiness to the goulash, which is always a plus. Maybe it all harkens back to my meat-eating past, but there is something really comforting about smokey foods. It's so lovely in the winter, anyhow.

Mushroom Goulash (serves 2, or 4-6 if using meat)

1 package (227g/ ½lb) white button or cremimi mushrooms
1 medium onion
1 Tbs butter
3 large cloves garlic
3 Tbs sweet paprika
1 tsp smoked, sweet paprika
1 generous pinch thyme
salt and pepper
1 generous splash (±¼ cup) wine -red or white- optional
3 heaping Tbs leftover tomato sauce, optional
1 (±75g) slab salt-cured bacon, or 4 rashers bacons, cut into lardons, optional
1 (±120g) steak -any cut- cut into thin slivers, optional 
sour cream, regular cream, or crème fraîche/crème épaisse for garnish, optional

 *If you are using the bacon and meat: start by frying of the lardons in a bit of hot oil at medium heat (for some reason, this is a necessary step, lardons tend to burn if you leave the extra oil out. Skip the oil if you are using chopped bacon rashers.) When the bacon is nice and brown, remove to a plate, crank up the heat to high and throw the beef in. Quickly brown the slivered steak, then remove to a plate. You can discard the bacon fat and start anew with butter (extra tasty this! and it'll cut down on excessive smokiness) or you can forgo the butter, and use the bacon fat to cook the vegetables.*  

Peel and quarter onions. Cut into medium-thin slices.
Melt butter on medium heat, add onions, thyme, crushed garlic. Leave to sweat out.
Wash and quarter mushrooms, add to the onions when these have turned translucent.
Stir mushrooms around, as they should not colour too much. If they start browning, add wine and tomato sauce -if using- otherwise throw a small glassful of water to cool the pot down.
Add the paprikas, stir about and cook out for 5-10 minutes.

You can stir in the sour cream if you like a creamier goulash, but it is not necessary at all. 
Serve with buttered noodles or rice and peas (frozen!)

This dish reminds of the Beef Stroganoff my Mum used to make when I was a kid. Though I now know that Stroganoff is not quite what I thought it was, by any other name, it still makes for a scrumptious meal.

Bon app'!


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