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Welcome to 2016. Throughout this year I am going to write about ingredients that you might not think of keeping on hand. I am going to call these SITH because everything needs a cute name, right? (Well, it's not cute if you think of SITH as a dark lord but I am just going to overlook that.)
SITH stands for Stuff in the House. These are the ingredients to keep on hand that can help you both make great food and healthy food. At the top of the list is dried mushrooms. You might not be used to them, and for a lot of folks they will be entirely new, but they offer one great advantage (beyond their convenience, of course).
Porcini mushrooms are full of great savory, umami flavor. It takes only a little practice to learn how to use them and the best part is that they keep really well so you always have them on hand. They seem expensive if you purchase them at the grocery store - an ounce can be $5.00 or so and given that a pound of crimini mushrooms is about $3.00 it doesn't seem like much of a value. However, an ounce of dried mushrooms is the equivalent of one pound of fresh porcini and given that an ounce of fresh porcini would set you back about $20.00, it's a pretty good value.
So a little goes a long way in volume, but but a little also goes a very long way in terms of flavor. Since an ounce of mushrooms comes in at under 100 calories a little goes a long way in terms of your health too.
The most common way to use dried mushrooms is to reconstitute them with boiling water. Place one ounce of mushrooms in a medium sized bowl and pour 2 cups of boiling water over them. Stir gently once and let them stand for about 15 minutes. Drain the liquid from the mushrooms but do not discard it (the broth may be the best part). Cut the reconstituted mushrooms into the size you need and then add them to your recipe. For example, if you have started a pasta sauce with some olive oil and diced onion (more about onions in another SITH column), you can add the mushrooms and sauté them along with the other ingredients (canned tomatoes are SITH also). The mushroom flavor is really rich, savory and meaty. Not expensive when you compare them to beef and they're more flavorful.
More importantly, they're right there in the house.
What about the mushroom broth (you did save the broth, didn't you)? You can freeze it if you want and use it in a recipe later. The umami flavor that you get in the mushrooms themselves is in the broth too and you can use this for almost any recipe - soups, stews, beans - or you can reduce it to about 1/4 cup for use in a sauce.
The other easy way to use dried porcini mushrooms is to grind them into a powder. You can use a blender for this but you'll want to make sure that the mushrooms are blended long enough to be a very fine powder. The powder can be used in pasta recipes, or even better, risotto or rice dishes. If you grind the mushrooms to about the consistency of cornmeal, they work great for a coating on chicken or fish, for example.
You can save a lot of money by ordering dried porcini mushrooms online. A pound can be pretty reasonably priced - Amazon has some very good ones for about $1.50 per ounce when you buy in bulk. Divide them into individual Ziplock bags and seal them in a plastic container and they will keep well so you always have them on hand.
These recipes use porcini dust. Use them as a model to add porcini dust's umami flavor to your own recipes:
Fettuccine with Roasted Mushrooms and Cipollini Onions
Porcini Mashed Potatoes
Mushroom Jus (Mushroom Gravy)
Sea Bass with White Beans and Tomato Vinaigrette | Low Sodium Version
Wild Mushroom Gnocchi
Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP