There’s been a lot of chatter this month around Cooking Light about vegetables and vegetarianism. Now back in the late 80s, I went vegetarian for about 3 years, a decision which in Alabama was met with the kind of reaction one might get if one showed up at a cotillion ball with Ulysses S. Grant’s great-great-great granddaughter or announced that one was starting to support Notre Dame football. Lots of raised eyebrows with a bit of derisive pity thrown in for good measure. And unlike today, when you can’t swing a whole-grain baguette without hitting some soy-based product at your local Whole Foods, vegetarian options were few and far between, especially when dining out. But ultimately it wasn’t the steady diet of lentils, brown rice, and salads that drove me back to omnivore status, but rather I just missed something: namely, the experience of eating meat.
I mean I absolutely adore quinoa, but perfect protein or not, the Royal Chef of Machu Picchu couldn’t have made it into something that gives you the same satisfaction of noshing on a BBQ rib. Now in my 40+ years, I have come across a couple of vegetable experiences that have approximated the same visceral sensation of consuming meat. One of which was at a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley, CA (Long Life Veggie House) that could do things to soy that would make General Tso himself think he was scarfing down a Rhode Island Red, and the other was just recently here at the Cooking Light test kitchen.
We got a hold of some wild mushrooms a few weeks back from this place called Far West Fungi, and a couple of varieties were mind-blowingly succulent. Two in particular, Lion’s Mane (shown at right) and King Trumpet (shown above), stood out in particular. We cooked them just like you would—you guessed it—a piece of meat. A little salt and pepper, seared in a bit of butter, and roasted in an oven to finish. Both produced a robust, caramelized exterior and the response at the table was one of wonderment. “Wow!” was, in fact, the first word out of three of the five tasters’ mouths after downing the Lion’s Mane. Its creamy, unctuous interior elicited comparisons with a sweetbread or liver even, while the King Trumpet’s smooth, buttery texture was unbelievably reminiscent of the richness of a scallop. And, heck, we didn’t even try the Beef Steak, Fried Chicken, or Lobster varieties. Now, I certainly don’t see myself giving up meat permanently anytime soon (we’ll file that under: you can’t teach a dog new tricks), but given that it’s a goal of mine to increase the proportion of vegetables to meat in my regular diet, I’ll certainly be looking at mushrooms a lot more now not just as a side dish, but as an entrée option that can hold its own in terms of center-of-the-plate satisfaction with just about any contender.
Caramelized Onion and Shiitake Soup with Gruyère–Blue Cheese Toasts from October 2008 is one of my favorite mushroom recipes (that’s light on meat), and would be perfect this time of year.