Monday, May 13, 2013

Creamed Mushroom Bruschetta with Caramelized Onions From Chef Chris Pandel of Chicago's Balena via Sam Sifton in the New York Times Magazine

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As Sam Sifton recalls, when the waitress at Chicago’s Balena restaurant approached the table with a steak knife, everyone’s eyebrows went up. No one had ordered steak.  The waitress explained the knife was for the mushrooms.  Someone had ordered a ravishing dish: Creamy-rich Creminis browned to perfection and very simply cooked with some shallots and fresh thyme before being turned into complete ambrosia with a beaker of heavy cream.  Not content to stop there, Chef Chris Pandel used them atop thick slices of toasted Sour Dough Rye Bread crowned with the sweetest of caramelized onions. They literally jumped off the page at me. I could not wait to try them. And neither apparently could Sam Sifton.

Sam Sifton 
With the exception of no-hands-on braises, modern cooking gives 5 stars to dishes that require minimal cooking times, the shorter, the better.  Looking at my own output, there are now 17 thirty-minute dinner recipes, one 10-minute main course, and even Cog au Vin cut down to 90 minutes.  But if there is one lesson in cooking, it is that some of the best things more than pay off for the time involved. The wallop of flavor that careful cooking, slowly, over low temperatures, brings to the table is well worth the wait. And this dish is all the proof of that you’ll need.

Tom Scocca, skeptical about cooking times.
The caramelization of mushrooms is something I should have learned from the gallons of French Onion Soup I make all winter.  But I confess to impatience with the process and have turned out many a bowl of soup that just shoulda woulda coulda have had its onions cooked longer.   I think I’ve finally conquered the secret by following the Pandel/Sifton method.  First of all, Sifton goes to great pains to make sure we know what we’re up against.  He starts by quoting a writer named Tom Scocca whose is leading a charge against recipe writers who promise “soft, dark brown onions in five minutes.  That is a lie. Fully caramelized onions in five minutes more. Also a lie”.  The truth, Scocca wrote, is “Browning Onions is a matter of patience”. I might add that it is worth every once of patience you can muster. What you achieve, thanks in part to the inclusion of Madeira and the use of Vidalia Onions prized for their sweetness, is a deep, nutty flavor.  My French Onion soup will never be the same.
As to the mushrooms, here again there was new news.  Did you know that the common white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), if left to grow, becomes the far more flavorful Cremini, sometimes called “Baby Bella”?  They in turn, grow up to be the grandest of all, the Portobello.  Chef Pandel is a fanatic about cleaning mushrooms.   No water comes near his babies.  He believes your own fingers are the best dirt removers and then if you haven’t done the job completely and must resort to water, make it ice cold, use it sparingly and dry the mushrooms quickly with a paper towel.  And as to cooking the mushrooms, need I tell you, that too takes time.  The Chef allots the same cooking time to the mushrooms as he does to the onions.  When the cream is eventually added, Sifton describes the mixture as looking ‘rich as sin’.
The final piece of the puzzle is the simplest. Find the best sour dough rye bread you can buy.  I found mine at Fairway.  It was their own loaf.  Since I was cooking for 2, I was delighted to see that it was all about 6 inches in length.  The character of the bread was perfect. The sour dough rye flavor and the aroma of the toast was just a prelude to biting into this wonderfully grainy bread.  Like Sifton, I served two pieces as a meatless main course along with a simple mixed green salad topped with baby tomatoes.  The meal was indescribably good. And yes, we did need those steak knives just like the ones they used in Chicago.  Here is the recipe.

Recipe for Creamed Mushroom Bruschetta with Caramelized Onions From Chef Chris Pandel of Chicago’s Balena
via Sam Sifton in the New York Times Magazine

Serves 4 (Easily halved for 2). Takes a good 1-hour to make. 

 For the Caramelized Onions:
         2 tablespoons vegetable oil
         4 small yellow onions or 2 large Vidalia Onions, peeled and thinly sliced.
         2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
         1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine

 For the Creamed Mushrooms:
         3 tablespoons vegetable oil
         3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
         1 1/2 pounds best-quality common mushrooms, ideally cremini or baby bella, cleaned and sliced
         1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
         Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
         2 small shallots, peeled and minced
         3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
         1/2 cup heavy cream
 For the Bruschetta:
         8 pieces rye bread, sliced thick
         Caramelized onions (see above)
         Creamed mushrooms (see above)
         2 tablespoons minced chives

First, make the caramelized onions.
Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over high heat. Once the pan is hot, add vegetable oil. Once the oil shimmers, add the onions and salt. Do not stir immediately. 

Wait 1 minute, then begin to stir frequently over high heat for 5 minutes, or until the onions have released liquid and started to become translucent.
Turn the heat down to medium and add Marsala. 

Cook, stirring often, for what will seem like an eternity, until the onions are fully melted and dark brown, approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

Make the Creamed Mushrooms. 
Heat a heavy-bottomed pan with high sides over high heat. Once the pan is hot, add vegetable oil. Once the oil shimmers, add butter. When butter foams, add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have released their liquid and are golden brown, approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
Reduce heat to medium low and, using a wooden spoon, create a well in the middle of the mushrooms. Add thyme, salt, black pepper and shallots; sweat until shallots have cooked through and become translucent, approximately 3 to 5 minutes. Return heat to high and add sherry vinegar to deglaze pan, then add cream and bring to a low boil.
Check for seasoning. Mushrooms can be reserved until needed, then reheated over a medium flame. Add a splash of extra cream to loosen, if needed.

Now make the Bruschetta and assemble the dish.

Grill or toast bread to a light char.
Spread 2 tablespoons caramelized onions over each piece of toast, followed by approximately 1/4 cup of creamed mushrooms.
Garnish with minced chives.


  1. OMgosh, this is perfect! It's 103 degrees out and I only want to prepare one meal. Hearty, yet light!! Saved me once again Monte! Thank you!

    1. Ana, this one is excellent! I just wish you could find gluten-free rye bread for you know who...BTW, last night we watched the Graham Norton Show you mentioned. I found myself to be quite the PineNut. Also, is there any talk show in this country that comes close to being as fun to watch as Graham Norton?

    2. We love Graham Norton and I agree that the talk shows here aren't near as funny. Love the red chair also. BTW, your meatless meal sounds delicious and your description of it left me drooling.

    3. Hi Lauren! Do make this especially if you and Trace are mushroom people. It is simply delicious! As to the red chair, some hilarious things have occurred in that segment!

    4. I will make this tomorrow night.

    5. Excellent! I know you will love this!

  2. I'd take a trip in the red chair! Wonder how long I'd last? Yes, this dish sounds great, yes, we are "mushroom people"... good one Monte. cheers, T

    1. My guess it would entirely depend on what your story was! So happy to hear you'll be eating this tonight! Cheers!