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Pairings: Wild and Wonderful Mushrooms

With today’s broad palate of exotic and esoteric mushrooms, the traditional pairing with Pinot Noir is no longer the only way to go.

When you hear mushroom lovers describing their favorite fungi, their vocabulary sounds very much like the language of wine: Chanterelles are redolent of apricots, porcini are woodsy, shiitakes are smoky, morels are earthy, and portobellos taste meaty. Horse mushrooms smell of almonds, wood mushrooms have an anise scent, and the list goes on. For eons, if you asked which wine to pair with mushrooms, the answer would invariably be Pinot Noir. Today, however, the variety of exotic fungi that is, literally, mushrooming in your local produce department positively cries out for more creative matches.

According to Bruce Cass, executive director of the Pacific Rim Wine Education Center in San Francisco and mushroom forager par excellence, Pinot Noir’s reputation as the mushroom grape owes to the fact that colder climates give the wine an earthy or leathery quality that is often equated with the flavor of mushrooms. (The French call it sous-bois, or forest floor, which happens to be the incubator of some of the most delectable fungi.) Some Pinots are described as rich, almost feral, sauvage—characteristics also shared by some wild fungi. Portobellos are an ideal match for cool-climate Pinot, while porcini (called cèpes by the French and boletes by mycologists) are good with richer varieties.

The porcini, a strong-flavored and widely available mushroom with thick stems and caps that range in color from brown to taupe to red, are ideal with risotto, and good in stews, soups, and egg dishes, or brushed with olive oil, grilled and added to salads. Classic herbs often used with porcini mushrooms are marjoram, thyme, and Italian parsley. Because of their strong flavor, a little goes a long way, so many cooks like to mix porcini with blander white button mushrooms or cremini. When game birds such as quail or squab are cooked with porcini, vibrant reds such as Syrah or Cabernet Franc often show really well.

The portobello, another natural Pinot Noir partner, is milder than the porcini but still robust in flavor. This trendy, meaty mushroom is actually a larger, cultivated cousin of both the cremini and the cultivated white mushroom. White mushrooms, also called button mushrooms, are mild, with round beige caps. Cremini are typically bigger, darker in color, and more intense in flavor, but can pretty much be substituted for white mushrooms. Portobellos are the biggest member of the family, and their size makes them excellent for grilling, broiling or stuffing, but they’re also tasty sliced and sautéed in olive oil. Depending upon the recipe, portobellos can also work well with a range of Italian wines, from Chianti (when cooked with cheese and tomatoes) to Barolo (when herb-stuffed and baked in a bit of the same).

The delicate chanterelle is not a mushroom to eat with Pinot Noir—even a woody Chardonnay is too strong for it. Also called girolle, this golden morning-glory-shaped mushroom has a buttery, fruity flavor, and often smells of apricot. It’s wonderful sautéed in butter and served with chicken, veal, or eggs, or in cream sauces with pasta or polenta. Some cooks like to take advantage of the chanterelle’s fruitiness by cooking it with apricots or other fruit; others like its synergy with nutmeg. Its cousin, the horn of plenty or black trumpet, is similar in flavor and shape but with slightly thinner, and sometimes tougher, flesh; the two are popular not only for their flavor but for the color variation they provide in multimushroom dishes. Simple dishes featuring these mushrooms go nicely with a scantly wooded Sémillon, a Chablis, or a leesy, toasty Champagne.

My personal favorite is the morel. Nature made these conical fungi with honeycombed flesh just right for stuffing or soaking up sauce. The color of morels ranges from yellow to tan to brown or black. A distant cousin of the truffle, the morel has a flavor that is earthy, with a hint of nuttiness; dried morels may have a touch of smokiness, owing to the fact that they are dried over wood fires. Accompaniments that work nicely with morels are cardamom and tarragon. Morels are typically cooked with poultry or tender vegetables, and in such cases work well with strongly flavored but bone-dry Rhône (or Rhône-style) whites.


If you love the flavor of mushrooms and can’t quite describe why, the word you’re searching for might just be umami. A concept developed in Japan nearly a hundred years ago, umami is posited as the fifth taste (after sweet, salty, sour and bitter). It’s described by some as “savoriness”or “the goodness of meat,” an apt description for mushrooms that are prized for their “meaty”flavor.

Tim Hanni, Master of Wine and president of Napa, California-based WineQuest, is an umami zealot. Umami, he says, is a quality of “deliciousness” found not just in meat and mushrooms, but in certain vegetables and dairy products. He explains that foods with strong umami (like mushrooms) are high in the amino acids called glutamates, which occur naturally in some foods, or as a result of aging, cooking, curing, smoking, pickling and fermentation. Glutamates often occur in tandem with another group of compounds called ribonucleotides. The combination of the two further ups a food’s umami quotient.

Umami is what makes food delicious and satisfying. But its presence can also affect the flavor of wine—for good or ill. We already know that wine affects the taste of food and vice versa. Umami acts much like bitter foods (especially greens), underscoring any bitterness in your wine.

Hanni says that a little salt or lemon juice can resolve the problem: “Once you reach the perfect balance of sweet and umami, mitigated properly with acidity and salt, the dish will be delicious, interesting and full of character.”—K.B.

Still other fungi, such as oyster mushrooms, are far milder and tend to take on the flavors of the foods they are cooked with. These cream-colored fungi have a delicate flavor and smooth texture; some taste slightly of shellfish. For flavor, they can be used interchangeably with white mushrooms, although their graceful, fluted caps make for a more interesting presentation. Common wisdom has it that oyster mushrooms are best cooked with chicken, veal, pork, and seafood, or with cream sauces, but because they absorb flavors readily, they’re good with beef, too. Cass, who is also the general editor of the Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America (due out in November), says he often cooks oyster mushrooms with steak and pairs the meal with a Syrah or Merlot.

Just a little experimentation will prove that mushrooms present terrific opportunities for creative wine pairings. Pinot Noir, that old stalwart, is just the beginning.

Sautéed Steak with Oyster Mushrooms

Cooking the mushrooms and onions in the pan in which you have sautéed the steaks allows the flavors to meld and gives the mushrooms an irresistibly meaty flavor. Finish the dish with a little of the wine you’re going to serve with it.

Wine suggestions: Any classy red, be it Brunello, Bordeaux or American Merlot, will dance with this lusty meat and mushroom combination.

  • 2 boneless top loin steaks, such as New York strip or club,
    about 8 ounces each, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt plus more to taste
  • 1 medium Vidalia or other sweet onion, sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 10 ounces fresh oyster mushrooms,
    washed, trimmed and drained
  • 1/4 cup Merlot or other red wine
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

Over high heat, heat a heavy skillet that is big enough to hold the steaks in a single layer. Sprinkle in 1/2 teaspoon salt.

While the pan is heating, slice any large oyster mushrooms in half.

Place the steaks in the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, until beads of moisture form on the top. Reduce the heat to medium and turn the steaks. Scatter the onion around the steaks, stirring them occasionally so they don’t stick. Continue cooking the steaks until done: for rare, about 7 minutes; for medium, about 10 minutes; and for well done, 12 minutes. Remove the steaks from the pan and let them rest.

Add the tomato paste and stir until all the onions are coated. The onions should be soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally for 1 to 2 minutes to let them release their liquid. Add the wine and cook for about 5 minutes or until all of the liquid has evaporated and any acidity from the wine has mellowed. Taste to check acidity, season with salt and pepper to taste, add the parsley and stir to incorporate.

Place the steaks on individual plates and divide the mushrooms and onions between them. Serve immediately. Serves 2.


Fresh Tuna Steaks wth Marsala and Mushrooms

Marsala and mushrooms is an old Italian cooking favorite. Here’s a delicious new twist designed to accompany fish. (This recipe is adapted from Every Night Italian by Giuliano Hazan, Scribner, 2000).

Wine suggestions: Marsala’s sweetness makes for a difficult pairing; try a ripe, oaky California Chardonnay with some sweetness.

  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
    (sliced lengthwise)
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 ounces cremini mushrooms
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 fresh tuna steaks, about 6
    ounces each, 3/4 to 1-inch thick
  • About 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons dry Marsala

In a large skillet set over medium heat, sauté the onion and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes, until the onion turns a light caramel color.

Meanwhile, wipe the mushrooms clean with a soft mushroom brush or damp paper towel. Trim the stems and thinly slice the mushrooms lengthwise.

When the onion is done, add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Cook the mushrooms until all the water they release evaporates; this can take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. The goal is not to sear them but to let them cook slowly so that they become concentrated with flavor.

Remove the mushrooms and onion from the pan and set aside. Put the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the pan and place it over high heat. Coat the tuna steaks with the flour and shake off the excess. When the oil is hot enough to make the fish sizzle, carefully slide in the tuna steaks. Do not overcrowd the pan. They should fit comfortably in a single layer; if necessary, cook them in two batches. Cook 2 to 3 minutes on each side, depending on how rare you like your tuna. It should be at least pink in the middle, however, or it will be tough and dry. Set the seared tuna steaks on a platter and season with salt and pepper.

Pour the Marsala into the hot skillet while it is still over high heat. Keep your face away from the pan in case the Marsala flames up. Stir with a wooden spoon to loosen all the tasty bits on the bottom of the pan.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and return the mushrooms and onion to the pan. Heat them through, add the tuna steaks, and turn them in the sauce just long enough to reheat them. Remove from the heat. Serves 4.



Chicken Breasts and Morels Stuffed with Port-Laced Duxelles

This is an elegant special-occasion dish I’ve adapted from one that I learned when I studied at Le Cordon Bleu; it is well worth the time and effort it requires. A pastry bag fitted with a small tip makes the job of stuffing both the chicken breasts and the morels easier. Disposable pastry bags make clean-up a breeze. Or make your own pastry bag by rolling parchment paper into a cone with a small hole at the end.

Wine suggestions: A strongly flavored dry white Rhône such as a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage or Condrieu.

  • 1 to 1-1/2 ounces dried morels
  • 8 to 10 ounces sliced white mushrooms,
    cleaned and thoroughly dried
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium shallot, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsely
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup Port
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • 2 cups chicken stock or low-sodium canned chicken broth

Soak the morels in enough water to cover for 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid. Rinse the mushrooms again to remove any remaining sediment. Drain well and blot with paper towels.

Strain the mushroom liquid. Measure 1/4 cup for the sauce and if you wish, reserve the rest for another use.

Cut the stems off the morels so that they are open at one end. Gather up the stems, loose pieces, and very small morels and chop them coarsely with the white mushrooms.

In a large skillet set over medium heat, melt 1-1/2 teaspoons butter in 1-1/2 teaspoons oil. Sauté the shallot for about 1 minute, until soft. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, pour in the lemon juice and toss well. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently for 5 to 7 minutes or until the mushrooms are tender and the liquid they release has evaporated. Stir in 2 tablespoons parsley, remove from the heat and cool a bit.

Meanwhile, using a very sharp knife, cut a pocket into each of the chicken breast halves: Place each breast smooth-side down on a cutting board, insert the blade into the thick, narrow end, and cut carefully, moving the blade first to one side and then the other. Try not to poke the blade out the other end.

Place the sautéed mushrooms into a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the egg yolk, 1/4 cup cream. Port, 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper (or to taste) and 1/2 cup bread crumbs, and process until smooth. If the mixture seems too liquidy, add more bread crumbs.

Spoon the mushroom mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a narrow tip. Pipe the mixture into the chicken breast pockets. Gently pipe it into the morels, taking care not to tear them. (Note: This procedure can be a bit messy.).

Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large skillet set over medium-high heat, melt 1-1/2 teaspoons butter in 1-1/2 teaspoons oil. Season the stuffed breasts with salt and pepper and place them into the hot pan. Sear for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown.

Lightly oil a baking pan big enough to hold the breasts in a single layer. Pour in 1/4 cup stock and place the seared breasts into it in a single layer. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the chicken is no longer pink and any juices run clear. .

Meanwhile, set the same pan over medium heat and melt 1-1/2 teaspoons butter in 1-1/2 teaspoons oil. Place the stuffed morels into the butter and oil and turn to coat. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes and remove from the heat. Five minutes before the chicken is done, add the morels to the baking pan. When the chicken is done, remove from the oven and let it rest..

To make the sauce, pour 1-3/4 cups chicken stock and 1/4 cup mushroom liquid into a pan set over high heat. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, cook for about 1 minute, and add 1/4 cup cream. Cook for about 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and is reduced in volume to about 1 cup. Taste and season with salt and pepper only if necessary.

Place 4 of the largest morels on a cutting board, and with a sharp knife, slice them into rounds.

To serve, place the baked chicken on individual plates and scatter the whole morels around them. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, carefully place the morel rounds on top of each breast, sprinkle with the remaining parsley and serve. Serves 4.


Portobellos layered with Black Forest ham, smoked mozzarella, sautéed zucchini and a quick-and-easy fresh tomato sauce make a zesty first course, or a colorful lunch entrée to serve with salad.

Wine suggestions: This works nicely with a Chianti, Sangiovese or BarBera.

  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped.
  • 8 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 8 whole portobello caps, cleaned and patted dry
  • 1 small zucchini, sliced on the diagonal to make at least 8 oblong pieces
  • 8 thin slices smoked mozzarella
  • 4 thin slices Black Forest ham

Season the inside of the quails with salt and pepper, then stuff with about one-third of the grapes. Truss with a piece of pork fat around each quail. Brown quickly on top of the stove in a heatproof pan big enough to hold 6 quails at once, without any other fat. Discard the melted fat and wipe the bottom of the pan.

Heat 2 teaspoons oil in another skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the chopped shallot and sauté for 1 minute, or until soft and translucent, but not browned. With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, scrape all the shallots from the pan and set aside. Place the zucchini slices into the pan in a single layer and sauté for 3 minutes, or until slightly softened.

Add another 1-1/2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet, add 1/8 teaspoon tomato paste, and stir to incorporate into the oil. Carefully place the portobello caps into the skillet in a single layer; if necessary, do this in two batches. Season with salt and pepper and cook the portobellos, turning a few times, for 10 to 12 minutes, until they are lightly browned and soft. Remove from heat.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly oil a baking sheet, and lightly spread about 2
tablespoons of the tomato sauce over it. Arrange 4 portobello caps in the pan, smooth-side down. Place a slice of mozzarella on each. Spread equal amounts of the sautéed shallots in each mushroom cap. Fold each slice of ham in quarters and place the folded slices on top of the shallots. Top each with two criss-crossed slices of zucchini so that the edges drape over the sides of the portobello slightly. Spoon 1 tablespoon of tomato sauce over the zucchini, and top with a slice of mozzarella and a portobello cap. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the tomato sauce over each cap. Bake for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is nicely melted.

To serve, divide the remaining tomato sauce between four serving plates. Using a metal spatula, carefully place a portobello napoleon into the center of each plate, and drizzle with the pan juices and any sauce remaining in the pan. Serve hot. Serves 4.


Pasta with Wild and Golden Mushrooms
Pasta lets the flavors of a mélange of exotic mushrooms shine through. Use any combination of exotic mushrooms such as chanterelles, black trumpets, porcini, oyster and shiitake. If you wish, you can include fresh white mushrooms in the mix. (You can also use the mushrooms sautéed as an accompaniment to poultry, beef or pork.)

Wine suggestions: Try this with a light fruity wine like a Dolcetto d’Alba. Cass also suggests serving it with a fruity French-American hybrid such as Baco Noir or Chambourcin

  • 1 pound fresh or 3 ounces dried exotic mushrooms
  • 1/4 pound pancetta
  • 1 pound tagliatelle or fettucine
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped celery (about 1 stalk)
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup dry Sherry, optional
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

If you are using fresh mushrooms, wash, trim, drain well, and blot with paper towels. If you are using dried mushrooms, soak them in enough water to cover for about 20 to 25 minutes or until soft. (Chanterelles take 30 to 35 minutes.) Drain the softened mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid for another use, if desired. Rinse the mushrooms again to remove any remaining sediment and remove any hard stems. Drain well and blot with paper towels.

Meanwhile, fry the pancetta for 3 to 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Or microwave it at 60 percent power for 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels, blot any excess fat, and crumble or tear into small pieces.

Cook the pasta according to package directions.

In a nonstick skillet set over medium heat, melt the butter in the oil. Add the celery and cook for 1 or 2 minutes, until it begins to soften. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds; be careful not to burn it. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, pour in the lemon juice, and toss well. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently for 5 to 7 minutes or until the mushrooms are tender and the liquid they release has evaporated.

Toss in the raisins and pancetta. Add the Sherry, if desired, and cook until it is evaporated and any acidity has mellowed. Add the cream and cook, stirring gently to incorporate all the ingredients, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly. Taste and season with salt and pepper again if necessary. Drain the pasta and toss it with the sauce. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve. Serves 4.



Mushroom lovers often avoid washing fresh mushrooms because the fungi absorb water like sponges, and in doing so, lose flavor. In many cases, they can be wiped with a damp paper towel or brushed clean. Inspect mushrooms carefully for dirt, especially those with hollow caps and crevices where dirt can lodge, and if they need it, rinse them under running water. Avoid soaking fresh mushrooms in water for extended periods.

Dried mushrooms must be reconstituted by soaking them in water for 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the variety (dried chanterelles are among those that take a long time). Follow package instructions. Once the mushrooms are softened, lift them out of the water and rinse once or twice to remove remaining sediment. If you wish, reserve the soaking liquid, strain it well through a coffee filter or paper towel, and use it as a base for soups, sauces and stews. About 3 ounces of dried mushrooms is equivalent to about 1 pound of fresh mushrooms. Dried mushrooms have richer, more robust flavors than the fresh or frozen versions, so some recipe experimentation may be called for when substituting dried mushrooms for fresh.

Don’t gather wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely sure you can identify them safely. If you want to learn how, contact your local mycological society; many lead foraging hikes.

If your foraging is limited to the store, wild mushrooms can be quite expensive. (I recently priced fresh morels at $38 a pound.) To extend wild fungi in sautées, stuffings, soups and such, mix in some white or cremini mushrooms.

Mushrooms are delicious when simply sautéed in butter or oil with a little salt and pepper, and if you wish, chopped garlic or shallots. If you opt for butter, a little vegetable oil will keep the butter from burning and a drop of lemon juice will bring out the mushrooms’ flavor and maintain their color. (Some varieties can turn grayish when cooked.) Just resist the temptation to add too much lemon or it will overpower the mushrooms. While white mushrooms often appear raw in salads, many wild mushrooms do better when cooked; the cooking process mellows any bitterness in the mushrooms. —K.B.


Karen Berman studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. She writes for newspapers and magazines and is the author of American Indian Traditions and Ceremonies.