Magic Mushrooms


I’ve had some version of a mushroom ragu in my repertoire for years now. It’s something that developed during my vegetarian years, and over time it has evolved with my tastes. At it’s most basic, it’s a combination of fresh and reconstituted dried mushrooms, sautéed with onion or shallot in olive oil, with herbs and a little blob of tomato paste added.

A splash of Sherry vinegar goes in for brightness, the strained liquid from soaking the dried mushrooms is added back, and the whole mixture is then cooked down to a saucy consistency – just how much is dependent on how I’m going to use it, because this is one dish that is very versatile.

A soupier version makes a great sauce for pasta, gnocchi or polenta; a slightly drier version is great stuffed into crepes; cook it down even more, so the mushrooms are just coated with a rich glaze, and you can mound it on slices of toasted or grilled bread for a snack or canapé – this is a standard at our parties, and it’s always a crowd pleaser.

It also lends itself well to variation – add a little butter to the olive oil for a richer flavor; swap in leeks, shallots, green garlic or scapes as the onion-y component. Change up the herbs depending on the season and what you have on hand – thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, flat-leaf parsley or summer savory all work well. Cepes or dried shiitake mushrooms are lower-priced alternatives to dried porcini, and they still provide a nice depth of flavor; likewise, plain white button mushrooms will serve just as well as fresh shiitake, oyster or wild mushrooms. Fresh or dried morels send it over the top, as does a judicious amount of cream cooked in at the end.

Last night’s version was largely shaped by things we brought home from the farmers’ market – a base of wild baby leeks, sautéed in olive oil until soft and aromatic, a generous amount of julienned purple sage added to season the mushrooms, and a big handful of chopped dulse stirred in and lightly toasted before the liquid was added. The dulse eventually melted into the sauce, imparting a lovely savoriness and velvety texture.

Dinner:  March 24, 2009

I used the sauce to dress farro spaghetti, which made for a dish that was very brown, but was earthy, hearty and delicious. Mike has tried many versions of this ragu over the years, and he said this was my best yet.

15 thoughts on “Magic Mushrooms

  1. awesome, our local market just started stocking dried mushrooms, i gotta do this! where can i find morels for sale? i have only had them out in the boondocks.

  2. Oh you’ve got me all excited about dinner now! I am so jealous that you’ve got baby leeks at your farmer’s market by the way…we’re still in potato country at the moment.

  3. lo says:

    oh, WOW.
    I’m a total sucker for mushroom dishes — and this is a fungus lover’s dream 🙂 Bet it was grande with the farro pasta! Gorgeous photos too.

    Can’t wait for the farmer’s market here to start producing delicacies for impromptu dinners!!

  4. Jennifer Hess says:

    Marie – merci! 😀

    maggie – I know, right? Even if I don’t use it right away, I freeze it for later. So full of flavor!

    Chris – I know I’ve gotten morels in NYC at Whole Foods (both the 14th St. and Bowery locations), and at Garden of Eden. I think I’ve seen them on occasion at some of the Khim’s Millennium locations in Wburg, in those little styrofoam flat packs?

    Hi Laura – The little leeks were wonderful – hopefully there will be more! I’m totally excited by all of the little green things cropping up at our market 🙂

    lo – I absolutely love the farro pasta. It’s such a nice alternative to regular semolina pasta, and works so much better for me than whole wheat pastas have.

  5. I love cooking with mushrooms … they are such a wonderful way to add depth to your flavor. Matter of fact, I just sauteed some at school (I’m a culinary school student) to add to a sauce and it did wonders.

    Good stuff!


  6. akaellen says:

    Where are the dried mushrooms in the markets? I can’t find them anywhere….am I not looking in the right section? help……

  7. Jennifer Hess says:

    Thanks, everyone!

    As far as finding dried mushrooms in your local market, our local Whole Foods stocks them in a couple of places – I’ve seen little cellophane packets in the produce section, and in those little plastic pint containers near the refrigerated olives and pickles and imported butters.

  8. I just found your website and love all of your recipes! This sauce looks incredible, and I love the thought of using it as a pasta sauce. I can’t wait to try it out.

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