Gravy, at its best, richly coats the gullet with intensely savory flavors. It enlivens the blandest mashed potatoes, the most dried-out turkey, and…whatever else people sauce up. That is why the best gravy ever invented melds together dried mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, butter, wine, and salty vegetable stock.
George invented this gravy, an instant classic, and now Mark Bittman is mooching off his genius! The last two mushroom dishes I researched in Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian both suggested the combination of dried mushrooms and fresh mushrooms for that extra mushroomy goodness. This sort of combo is admittedly a trick of the trade. Cook a soup with dried thyme and top it with fresh thyme. Sauté garlic into a pasta sauce and add a touch of raw minced garlic. You intensify and sophisticate (not a verb, I know) the flavor when you double it up.
But the mushroom idea was definitely George's first. He should have patented it, except of course you can't patent an idea, only a specific expression of it. (Thanks, grad school copyright law tutorial!) Despite Bittman's intellectual thievery and apparent bugging of our kitchen, I gave his two ideas a chance.
First I tried Sautéed Mushrooms. We hosted a pot luck and people planned to bring macaroni and cheese, wine, and we didn't know what else, so we decided mushrooms would be a nice side that could go with a lot of things. George and I made it together. First we soaked a few dried shiitake mushrooms in hot water for a half hour until the mushrooms were soft. Then we sliced them up thinly because they were waaay too chewy. (Mark Bittman recommends dried porcini instead and he's probably right, but we buy dried shiitakes super cheaply at East Asian markets, so that's what we had in the pantry.) We sliced up a pound of ordinary mushrooms too, then heated up a mixture of oil and butter in a pan (you can stick with oil if you're vegan) and sautéed the mushrooms together until they were tender and browned.
At this point George added 1/4 cup sake (Bittman recommends dry white wine but wine turns to vinegar fast and sake doesn't so that's what we always have on hand). It bubbled for a minute and then George turned down the heat and added a minced garlic clove or two. He cooked another minute, added salt and pepper, and set it aside. We served it room temperature. People liked it. The mixed texture made it enjoyable to chew, and the mushrooms were quite flavorful and extra mushroomy. Also, it paired well with mac n' cheese.
Score 1 for a Bittman-George collaboration. As in George's gravy, combine oil or butter, wine, and fresh and dried mushrooms and it's hard to fail.
The second dish didn't go down as well. I made a Mushroom Linguine. I boiled and drained one pound of good quality whole wheat linguini. Again I soaked dried shiitakes in hot water and chopped 'em up, but this time I strained and reserved the mushroom-soaking water. I used a pound of button mushrooms, also chopped up. I sautéed the fresh and dried mushrooms together with some minced garlic. Then I tossed together the hot pasta, plenty of the mushroom water, and the mushrooms. I added some salt.
The flavor of the pasta surprised me. It was what I had thought I wanted: deeply earthy and mushroomy, with the earthiness of the whole wheat linguine adding to the overall, well, earthiness. Earthy as in soil. It tasted like essence of mushroom and soil.
George ate some but didn't bother with seconds. I don't blame him. The dish just needed some livening up. An earthy base is fine but bright notes on top should balance it out. Some feta cheese made a huge difference. Also, I think a lot of fresh lemon or lime juice might have helped, or fresh cilantro and hot spice. Something fresh. Suggestions, anyone?
Butternut Squash muffins will save your soul - The MOST forgiving muffin recipe ever (as in, you can make a zillion substitutions and they will still taste really, really good) is from Vegan With a Ve...