Dear Eric: When I fry mushrooms, I heat the pan, put in a small amount of butter, and then add the mushrooms. They begin to brown nicely, and then they become very watery. What am I doing wrong?
Dear Linda: In Julia Child's classic book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she warns that when you sautÃ© (fry) mushrooms, don't try to cook too many at once, or they'll steam rather than brown.
Mushrooms have high water content, something that becomes evident when you start cooking them.
When they heat in the pan, the once dry-looking mushrooms will start to have that water content leach out of them. If you load up the pan with mushrooms, the bottom of it will soon be covered with water and the mushrooms won't brown, they'll simmer and steam.
If you're making cream of mushroom soup, where the mushrooms don't necessarily need to be browned, that's not a big deal, but if you want beautifully browned mushrooms to set atop steak or chicken, it is.
To get those mushrooms nicely browned, there should be a little space between each whole or sliced mushrooms you cook. If there is, and the pan is properly preheated, the water leaching out them will have room to quickly evaporate, not amass in the bottom of the pan.
Julia Child advises medium-high heat and, in one method, cooks the mushrooms in a mix of butter and oil. Adding some oil helps prevent the butter from burning. Child says as soon as the butter's foam starts to subside, a sign the fat is hot enough, that's when you should add the mushrooms to the pan.
If you need to brown a lot of mushrooms, use two pans. Or, cook the mushrooms in batches, transfer to a heatproof serving bowl, and keep warm in 200 F oven until all are browned.
Another thing that could cause your mushrooms to steam rather than brown is how or if you clean them before cooking. I don't wash them, but sometimes I'll use paper towel to wipe off any noticeable debris on them.
If you are determined to wash them, fill a bowl with cold water, add the mushrooms and very quickly and gently swirl to clean. Lift out of the water and dry on paper towels. Don't ever let them soak in the water, or they'll start to absorb the water and will never brown.
SautÃ©ed Mushrooms with Garlic, Lemon and Parsley For Two
Serve these aromatic, nicely flavoured mushrooms with grilled steaks, veal chops or chicken breasts.
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 6 to 7 minutes
Makes: 2 servings
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
16 small to medium white mushrooms (about 3/4 lb.; see Note)
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 to 2 Tbsp lemon juice
? dashes of Tabasco and Worcestershire
? salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Place the butter and oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. As soon as the foam from the melted butter subsides (a sign the fat is hot enough), add the mushrooms to the skillet.
Cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes, until nicely browned. Add the garlic, lemon juice, Tabasco and Worcestershire and cook 2 minutes more, or until mushrooms are tender. Remove from the heat.
Season mushrooms with salt and pepper, sprinkle with parsley, and then serve.
Note: The caps of the mushrooms used in this recipe were about 1 1 /2 inches in diameter.
Dear Eric: I am one of those people who cannot stand bell peppers - be they red, green, yellow or orange. Almost every maindish recipe these days seem to call for them. I've tried leaving them in and just not eating them at the end, but the flavour is too much for me. I often can't decide what to use as a substitute, so I just leave them out. Do you have any suggestions?
Dear Judy: I have a sister-in-law and friend who also don't care for the taste of bell peppers, so I can assure you that you're not alone in not caring for them.
In dishes that require the particular taste of peppers, there really is no substitute for them. For example, if a recipe for grilled chicken breast is served with roasted red pepper sauce, it isn't going to be roasted red pepper sauce without the peppers.
Also, in cuisines that are infused with the taste of bell peppers, they won't have that distinct taste unless they are used. One that comes to mind is Louisiana Cajun cuisine.
In their variation of mirepoix, for example, instead of combining chopped carrot, celery and onion to add flavour and aroma to stocks, sauces, soups and other foods, Cajun cooks use bell pepper, celery and onion. Bell peppers, unlike deep-rooted carrots, grow above ground - and this is an important issue for people living in swampy Louisiana.
Just to demonstrate how important it is, in Cajun cuisine, the combination of bell pepper, celery and onion is known as "the holy trinity." It is used as the base for many dishes, such as gumbo and jambalaya.
Judy could make them with out bell peppers, but without them they just aren't going have an authentic taste.
That being said, in other cuisines and recipes, such as a North American-style stir-fry, soup or stew, bell peppers are often used to add colour to the dish, not to strongly influence its flavour.
In those circumstances, Judy could simply omit the bell peppers and bump the amounts of other vegetables used. Or, she could try substituting another vegetable for the bell pepper called for in the recipe.
For example, to replace the colour of green bell pepper, she could use green zucchini, green beans or asparagus. For yellow bell pepper, she could try yellow beans, kernel corn or yellow zucchini. If a recipe called for orange bell pepper, carrot might work as a substitute. For red bell pepper, cherry tomatoes might work or, if it's a salad, radishes.
If Judy does substitute another vegetable for the bell pepper, she'll need to make sure it's cut into a similar size and shape as called for in the recipe. She may also have to look at cooking time. For example, while a red bell pepper may be added to a stir-fry at the beginning of cooking - because it takes several minutes to cook - if you're using cherry tomatoes (whole or sliced) instead, you would toss them in near the end of cooking.
Eric Akis is the author of the best-selling Everyone Can Cook series of cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
Eric welcomes your cookery questions and will try to answer them in his Sunday column. Email Eric or write to Ask Eric, Times Colonist, 2621 Doouglas St., Victoria, V8T 4M2.
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