Monday, October 24, 2011

Mushrooms disguised as Cantonese geoducks

Fall is mushroom season around here, and the Chinese markets are offering some terrific varieties that deserve to be better known. One of my favorites is the "king mushroom" that until very recently I didn't really know what to do with. I knew it tasted great, but texturally something was missing. 

The king mushroom seemed like a rather thuggish member of this usually graceful family - coarse and unaccommodating and more than a bit tough - but that was until I figured out what the problem was: it just wanted to be shaved into long, thin slices. Once that was done, the mushroom was transformed. It no longer behaved badly, but rather turned into a vegetable diva ready to take on whatever character I wanted it to.

Mushroom dominoes
And what I wanted it to do was turn from mushroom into seafood.

I'm more than a bit of a fan of the Cantonese way with those rather intimidating clams known as geoducks (pronounced gooey-ducks, but don't ask me why; the Chinese call them the much more descriptive "elephant trunk clams," or xiangbibang). 

When you have a Cantonese chef who does seafood right, the "trunk" part of the clam is peeled and sliced into paper-thin wisps that are barely blanched before being laced with a light sauce. They are ethereal when cooked this way, the texture becoming downright delicate and tender.

But geoducks can be expensive, and no matter how delicious they are, it seems awfully wasteful that most of the clam is just tossed in the garbage.Which is why I love this new way to have my clams and eat them too and not feel guilty in the least.

Plus, this is one very cheap dish to make, and I have to say, the clam-like flavor is astoundingly realistic. I've prepared it here as a cold appetizer that performs equally well as a refreshing snack to be served alongside beer. Even better, you can do all of the work ahead of time, as the mushrooms only get better as they marinate away in the fridge.
Whole king mushrooms

Be forewarned, though, that these are not strictly vegetarian, as Vietnamese fish sauce is used to turn the mild flavor of the fungi into clams. If you can't use fish sauce because of allergies or other restrictions, maybe try some fermented bean curd brine (doufuru) instead to add that bit of funk; it won't be completely convincing, but then again it's not supposed to be.

As for king mushrooms, the Chinese name for these is xingbaogu, or "almond abalone mushrooms," which is another name I cannot explain away. You may find Pleurotus eryngii called such things as "king oyster mushroom" or other labels; the best way to determine what it is to recognize it by shape, as it's pretty unique, like a flat-topped bowling pin.

To store king mushrooms, keep them in a dry paper bag in the refrigerator; they will last quite a few days that way as long as they don't have enough heat or moisture to rot. Trim off any soft or brownish spots before wiping them with a moist paper towel.

King mushroom appetizer disguised as geoducks 
Su liangban xiangbibang  素涼拌象鼻蚌
Simmering mushrooms
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer, or 3 to 4 as a side dish

2 fresh king mushrooms, each about 5 to 6 inches long
Boiling salted water
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce
Half a grapefruit or 1 Meyer lemon, plus more grapefruit or lemon juice as needed
Cilantro or shaved green onions as garnish

1. Cut each mushroom in half across the middle so that you have 4 round pieces around 3 inches long. Slice each piece lengthwise as thinly as possible.

2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add the mushroom slices. Let the pot come to a boil again before lowering the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the mushrooms 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are tender and slightly translucent. Remove the mushrooms to a small work bowl with a slotted spoon and reserve the mushroom water for soup stock.

3. Toss the mushrooms with the rice wine and fish sauce. Cover the mushrooms and chill for at least a couple of hours and up to about three days.

Cooked slices looking clam-like
4. Peel and section the grapefruit or lemon, removing all of the skin and pit, as well as the membranes the cover each section. Divide the citrus juice sacs into small pieces.

5. Drain the mushrooms and discard the marinade. Arrange the slices on one or more serving plates. Sprinkle the mushrooms with the grapefruit or lemon juice sacs; taste and add more juice as necessary to have a slightly tart edge to the dish. (The amount of juice will depend on how flavorful the fruit is.) Decorate the plate or plates with sprigs of cilantro or shaved green onions. Serve chilled.


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