I have a lot of love for mushrooms. Especially portabella or Swiss brown mushrooms. Did you know Swiss browns (or creminis) are just small portabellas? I only found this out a few weeks ago. I know, I'm so unworldly. But no matter how uneducated I may be about mushrooms, I do know something, and that is that I do not like oyster mushrooms. Definitely NOT a lot of love for those rubbery things let me tell you.
Admittedly, my exposure to oyster mushrooms has been limited to the way they are prepared in Greek restaurants. Namely Limnian Greek restaurants. You may know about the family connections I have in Limnos and the annual pilgrimage Tony and I make to the island to get away from Melbourne's bitter winter, if only for a few weeks. We are counting down the days to our next trip over there in August – for the warm days, the time spent with family and the wonderful food.
In Limnos lunch is usually enjoyed with the family out on the shady terrace of the old house, but dinner time is when Tony and I venture out to explore the local tavernas.
When ordering something from a Limnian menu that is accompanied vegetables, you will indeed receive a side serve of very lovely stewed or baked vegetables ... but be prepared to find that your vegetables will also be sharing space with a good pile of dreadful oyster mushrooms. I kid you not. Every side serve of stewed vegetables I've received at a Limnian taverna has contained oyster mushrooms. All I can say is this: Oyster mushrooms. Yuck.
Come on, let's be honest here. They're rubbery, slimy and chewy – I reckon that's the real reason why they call them oyster mushrooms. Surely it's not just because they look like an oyster shell.
Every year in Limnos I try my darnedest to warm to these peculiar morsels. I keep trying to convince myself that I'm just culinarily immature and that one day I'll learn to appreciate the rubbery, sea-kelp texture of oyster mushrooms. But is it really just a matter of an acquired taste or have the Limnians just been cooking them the wrong way?
The flavours of a classic Greek Stifatho (stew, usually made with rabbit or chicken) are strong and aromatic. Cinnamon, cloves, garlic, sweet onions ... robust flavours that dominate the dish. These flavours could easily mask the taste of the mildly-flavoured oyster mushroom. But what about the texture? Stifatho is slowly cooked for almost two hours. Could slow cooking oyster mushrooms soften and tenderise them? I couldn't wait to find out.
The innocent oyster mushroom stood a real chance in my kitchen yesterday. Paired with a bunch of Swiss browns I was sure I could produce the most delicious Vegetarian Stifatho AND make a hero of the poor old oyster mushroom.
It's amazing what you discover when you least expect it and cooking often presents the most unexpected surprises. Now we all know that mushrooms release liquid when they're sautéed, but these oyster mushrooms were absolutely gushing it out. So much so, the mushrooms themselves almost completely disappeared, leaving nothing but a pot full of liquid and a few stems! I was fascinated. Where did all those fins and big floppy bits go?
The other thing I discovered was that stewing oyster mushrooms for nearly two hours doesn't change their texture. They stay exactly how you left them at the end of the sautéing stage (as sparse as their remains may have been). Rubbery oyster mushroom stems were still rubbery oyster mushroom stems.
But in all honesty, this dish had all the flavours of a delicious Greek Stifatho that you would expect, without the meat. It really was quite lovely. I think the bizarre disappearing act of the oyster mushrooms when sautéing saved this dish as far as my textural issues go. And the few oyster mushrooms that were left actually made the stew a little more dynamic than it might have been with just Swiss brown mushrooms. I love serendipity!
Vegetarian Stifatho with Swiss Brown and Oyster Mushrooms
- Olive oil for sautéing
- 20 small pickling onions, peeled and left whole
- 400g Swiss brown mushrooms, roughly chopped
- 300g oyster mushrooms, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 cup of dry white wine
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 can of peeled and chopped tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large, heavy-based pot, sauté the onions in olive oil, browning on all sides. Remove onions from pot.
- Add mushrooms to pot and sauté until copious amounts of liquid is released and oyster mushrooms almost disappear. Allow to simmer until liquid is almost all gone.
- Add garlic to mushrooms and sauté for around 1 minute, stirring constantly.
- Add wine to the mushroom mixture and simmer for a few minutes.
- In a small cup, place whole cloves and 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Allow to steep for a few minutes, discard cloves, and add clove water to mushroom mixture.
- Add onions, tomatoes, cinnamon and bay leaves to pot and stir until well combined. If there is not enough liquid to just cover all the ingredients in the pot, add a little water or vegetable stock.
- Cover and simmer on very low heat for around 1 hour, without stirring.
- After the hour, season to taste with salt and pepper and stir gently, being careful not to break up the onions, and leave to simmer, covered, for another 30–45 minutes, until sauce has thickened.
- Remove bay leaves and serve over rice or mashed potato.