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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.

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