Dinner of Champions

Meaty Mushrooms on Cheesy Polenta

Seared Mushrooms on Polenta

Mushrooms are scary. Eat the wrong one, and it can kill you or make you think you’re Jesus (luckily, if you think you’re Jesus and it kills you, you can raise yourself from the dead). As a child, I absolutely loathed raw mushrooms in salads at pizza restaurants. That was my first impression of mushrooms: these spongy, weird, white things that ruin a very crisp experience. Blech.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to really dig mushrooms. The key was learning how to transform those rubbery little funguses into meaty superheroes, mainly by browning them really well in butter and olive oil.

Raw mushrooms

There’s no better way to practice the art of transforming a mushroom than with the regular old button mushroom (the same one I used to hate sliced up in salads). When I cooked with Chef Michel Richard for my cookbook, he said that button mushrooms were his favorite mushrooms because “even the old ones have flavor.” It’s true: if you buy a box of button mushrooms, keep them in your fridge, you can wait a week or two, take them out, and brown them in butter and they’ll still be delicious. That’s powerful stuff.


But, like a gateway drug, button mushrooms will propel you into a more dangerous world of forbidden mushrooms: the world of shiitakes, the world of creminis, the world of porcinis. And then there’s the extreme stuff. On Sunday, I was at the farmer’s market in Atwater Village, and I approached the mushroom stand cautiously. There, on the table, were two kinds of mushrooms I’d never cooked with before (or at least not in recent memory, fact checkers): oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms.


I talked to the mushroom man about how to cook them: “Just like regular mushrooms. Dust ’em off first, brown ’em in butter.” “That’s it?” “That’s it.”

Sure enough, it really was that easy. I got home, I wiped ’em down with wet paper towels (my preferred mushroom strategy), heated butter and some olive oil (OK, you want measurements? About 2 tablespoons of both) in a large non-stick skillet. I broke up the oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms into large chunks and when the butter stopped foaming, I threw them all into the skillet and sprinkled them with salt.

While they were cooking, I sliced 3 to 4 cloves of garlic and chopped a bunch of parsley. Meanwhile, I’d been cooking a pot of polenta: Anson Mills’ white polenta, which I bought at the Cookbook store in Echo Park. It’s pretty incredible stuff: I used a combination of homemade chicken stock (from my freezer) and milk and, as directed on the package, cooked it for an hour. At the end, I stirred in about 3 tablespoons of butter and half a container of high-quality pre-ground Parmesan cheese (look for the 2-year aged stuff at your grocery store; it’s my new favorite time saver: pre-grated, high-quality Parmesan cheese.)

When the mushrooms were a deep, chestnut brown all over, I added the garlic to the pan, stirred it around, and turned off the heat just as the garlic became fragrant. Then I stirred in the parsley to stop the cooking. (A squeeze of lemon juice might’ve been nice.)

To plate, I ladled polenta into two bowls and piled the mushrooms on top. That’s it. There might’ve been a fried egg, but it didn’t need it. This really was the meatiest vegetarian dish I’ve ever made: the maillard reaction (oh yeah, I went there) really works wonders.

So if you’re a mushroom hater like I was, just get a pan really hot, add some fat, and drop in some mushrooms. You’ll convert faster than someone who falls in love with a person of a different religion! How’s that for an awkward last sentence? Goodnight.

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  • Reply Lisa February 9, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    This also sounds great to a mushroom lover! I’m printing this one, thanks Adam!

    • Reply Wasant February 18, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      My hero Jacques Pepin made a Buche de Noel (a Yule log) which he decorated with mreungie mushrooms, first time I ever saw them. Given your love of the forest, that would be an awesome dessert to try. And if Jacques Pepin made it, it is not very complicated.I watched an episode of Top Chef Masters where another one of my chef heroes, Hubert Keller, had to make a dessert for Girl Scouts. He won by making mreungie swans. What girl would not fall for that?! This one sure did!

  • Reply Julie February 10, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Chanterelle or Morel mushrooms browned with shallots, then tossed with sherry and a little cream over pappardelle? Life changing.

  • Reply Laura February 11, 2016 at 9:54 am

    I was also hesitant to love mushrooms, until I met a mushroom man at a farmer’s market when I was in college, and he sold me some lion’s mane mushrooms! He sold me others, but the lion’s mane were my favorite. I’d make a mushroom pasta, or wine sauce, or just brown ’em up, so GOOD!

  • Reply Janice February 11, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    I don’t know. I’ve had so many bad experiences with mushrooms that by now I’m sure it’s just psychological. I’m afraid to even try them now. I love the taste (like in a mushroom broth) but it’s a texture thing.

  • Reply Ttrockwood February 18, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    I love nearly all mushrooms! I stock up on those fat stem king mushrooms in chinatown and roast them with a splash of soy sauce- i serve the mushrooms over rice and keep the delicious liquid they give off to sip as a cup of broth on the side.

  • Reply Slutty Kitchen February 21, 2016 at 9:50 am

    I hear you on the salad bar mushrooms – they belong in a 1970’s salad with beets, kidney beans and Thousand Island dressing. Blech. Your dish, however, makes me want to slurp up those beautiful fungi with abandon (and butter on my chin). Nice touch on the cheesy polenta as well -what do you think about aged Gouda as a cheese instead of the parm? Might be a nice pairing for the earthiness of the shrooms, but might be too heavy in texture.

  • Reply JosephineTomato February 28, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    The taste of Lion’s Mane mushrooms is sometimes compared to delicate crab. How did you find them?

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