Having the flu put a crimp in my plans for a healthy start to the year. I had plenty of chicken soup, but also little energy. Unfortunately I attempted to overcome my frustration by eating leftover holiday candy.
Winter Comfort Food
Now that I’m feeling better I’m ready to shed a few pounds, but the cold weather makes me crave comfort food. My favorite solution is to make dishes that have a deep earthy quality. One of the most readily available ingredients for creating rich winter flavors is the mushroom.
High in nutrients (particularly B vitamins) and low in calories, mushrooms are a popular substitute for meat. While they are a perfect accompaniment to grilled steaks, the mushroom’s umami flavor imparts heartiness to any dish.
The mushroom’s ability to impart the illusion of richness helps me stick to my to my diet goals in two ways. The umami flavor keeps me from feeling deprived because I associate meatiness with a filling dinner. Also the sheer abundance of sliced mushrooms on the plate convinces me that I am having a big meal.
I have always liked sautéed mushrooms and onions together. They make a great snack on toasted pita spread with cream cheese or in an omelet with a handful of grated cheddar.
It was as an adult that I realized the true versatility of the mushroom. I owe my epiphany to chef Donald Link’s, Herbsaint in New Orleans. It was there that I first tried a salmon dish topped with mushrooms. The succulent fish married perfectly with the savory decadence of the mushroom sauce. While my recipe does not do justice to his invention, he expanded my vision of how to use the ingredient.
Salmon not only contains healthy Omega-3 fatty acids it also has a decadently rich quality when roasted to perfection. Combined with a sauce of mixed mushroom varieties, it turns a low calorie dish into a satisfying meal. If I have leftover mushrooms, I add them to a lunchtime salad of spinach and shaved Parmesan with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Two of the most transformative packaged food products available are Traditional Balsamic Vinegar and Balsamic Condiment. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is the more expensive and valuable of the two, and is only produced in Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy. A teaspoon per person added to a finished dish exponentially enhances it’s complexity. Thick and syrupy, it’s sweetness tastes of fig, cherries and chocolate.
I know cookbooks and chefs are always encouraging people to buy the best products they can afford, but in this case it’s worth it. While the price of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar starts at around $35 a bottle, Balsamic Condiment is an excellent value, similar in quality to Traditional Balsamic Vinegar it can be purchased for only $20. Italy’s tight regulations on food products can cause balsamic vinegar made by the same process, but not originating from the Modena or Reggio Emilia to be labeled a Balsamic Condiment. A bottle lasts for months. I have definitely spent $20 on farmer’s market vegetables that went bad before I could prepare them. The lower price point makes drizzling the unctuous liquid affordable. Do not heat Traditional Balsamic Vinegar or Balsamic Condiment. Add them to a finished dish.
Supermarket Balsamic Vinegar
Supermarket balsamic vinegar is often similar to standard vinegar, just a little sweeter; it is inexpensive and often highly acidic. If this is what is available I warm it up with a little maple syrup and reduce it until it becomes a thick, syrup . Also, if I am adding the sauce to vegetables, I warm the finished vegetables in the sauce so it completely infuses them.
Roasted Salmon With Balsamic Vinegar Sauce
1/2 lb. salmon of (non-wild) salmon filet
1/2 of a lemon
Herbes de Provence
Mushroom Sauce with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar or Balsamic Condiment
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 shallot minced
1/2 lb. assorted mushrooms varieties wiped clean with a damp paper towel and sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons dried thyme
pinch of salt
Fresh ground black pepper
A few drops Traditional Balsamic Vinegar or a drizzle Balsamic Vinegar Condimen
Balsamic Reduction Sauce
1 cup supermarket balsamic vinegar
1-2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cinnamon stick
1 slice orange peel
1/2 lb. assorted mushroom varieties
Fresh ground black pepper
Roasted Salmon: roasting is my favorite way of cooking salmon because the fish remains rich and moist. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Squeeze fresh lemon juice, a sprinkle of salt, and Herbes de Provence over the salmon 15- 20 minutes before cooking. Do not wait more than 30 minutes before putting the fish in the oven or the lemon juice will begin to cure the salmon. Roast for 20 minutes. Cut a small slit into the thickest part of the fish to see if it is completely opaque. Return to the oven in 2 minute intervals until opaqueness is achieved. Let the fish rest for 5 minutes out of the oven covered with foil before serving.
Mushroom Sauce with Balsamic Vinegar Traditional or Balsamic Condiment
I prefer using an array of different mushrooms to add variety and texture to the dish. Nevertheless, the sauce will still be enjoyable with ordinary button mushrooms. In a large frying pan saute the shallots in olive oil over low heat until translucent. Increase the heat to medium and add the mushrooms, thyme and salt. Let them cook together until the mushrooms release their liquid, the liquid evaporates and the mushrooms are lightly browned. Remove the mushrooms from the heat. Add a couple drops of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar or a drizzle of Balsamic Condiment, a few grinds of fresh black pepper and toss before serving over the salmon.
Balsamic Reduction Sauce
Add 1 cup of supermarket balsamic vinegar to a sauce pan with the maple syrup, orange peel and a cinnamon stick. Simmer until reduced to 1/2 or 1/4 cup (The orange peel and cinnamon add complexity to the sauce, however, simply reducing it with the maple syrup will still improve it enormously.) The sauce should be thick and able to coat a spoon like syrup. Discard the orange peel and the cinnamon stick. Warm the cooked mushrooms in the sauce. Top the sauce with a few grinds of black pepper and serve over the roasted salmon.
I’d love to learn other mushroom recipes. Please share your ideas with me!