When I was learning cooking from my grandpa up in Upstate NY, the one lesson I took away more than any other lesson, besides the lesson to treat people as if they were having a really bad day, and the lesson to always treat a lady like a lady, which doesn’t really have anything to do with cooking, is that proper technique solves all cooking problems. Put me on a desert island with only sand, and with the proper techniques I can cook you a seven course Thanksgiving meal with turkey, dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes and a fine wine. Want to learn how? Buy my book, Hidden Secrets of the Underdog Kitchen.
In this post, I’ll teach you one of the special techniques that I use for cooking portabella mushrooms. Yes, you read that correctly, that’s not a typo, I meant portabella NOT portabello. Few people realize that mushrooms have genders and that the female mushroom from the Agaricus bisporus family is known as the portabella and the male is known as the portabello. When they successfully mate in the wild, the offspring are known as baby bella, mini bella and mini portabello. Usually only the mini portabello mushrooms survive to adulthood. However, if a mother portabella is able to nurse the baby bella or mini bella varieties of offspring and inject a special enzyme, those children will grow up to be the female gendered portabella. It’s very rare and never happens in mushrooms that are grown in captivity, but in the wild if you are lucky, you might just come across one or two. You will recognize them by their distinctive pink color and slightly sweet perfumed scent. Also, the portabella mushrooms have no cap and are about the size of a large grapefruit.
Preparing an adult portabella is a privilege so I have a special technique set aside for such special occasions. First you will need the following ingredients:
- 1 cup vegetable broth (or asparagus water)
- 1 large white onion diced
- 1 oz. honey
- 1/2 tbsp fresh ground pepper
- 2 radishes
- 1 cup brown sugar sifted
- achiote seed
- aleppo pepper
- allspice, ground
- ancho chiles, dried
- cardamom pods
- deer jerky seasoning (any brand)
- jalapeno flakes
- lemon white pepper
- mulling spice
- onion powder, toasted
- panch phoron (Bengali Five Spice)
- 4 sticks (32 tbsp) unsalted butter
Cutting the portabella is one of the most critical steps. I use a Takane naifu knife that was created in Japan for me by George Masomuni whose knives I am sure most of you have heard of because of their enormous worth and rarity. My particular knife is the triple-sided cleaver/paring/chef’s blade which retails for $9846.00 USD. Yes, this seems extravagant to most for a knife, but this is my profession and after sampling it in the kitchen on top of Mt. Fuji, I was sold. Since it is actually three knives in one, I feel that the price is more than worth it. And since the knife is sharp enough to cut through any object without holding onto that object with your other hand, I feel it frees up your non-knife hand to perform other tasks such as Cupping and Throwing (described below).
First, the portabella must be at room temperature. This means you will have to leave it out on the counter inside of a small tent constructed of wax paper and tooth picks. I usually leave the portabella meat on the counter for 2 days during the summer and 3.5 days in the winter depending on your altitude (above 10,000 feet and you should double the wait time). It helps if no one enters the room, but since that is usually impossible in a busy kitchen, the small wax paper tent helps regulate the temperature of the air surrounding the meat.
Your knife will need to be frozen. Use a glove to handle it. This is known as the Hijō ni samuidesu technique.
As I describe the next part, have someone read it to you as you close your eyes. Previsualization is the most important part of this technique. As my grandpa would say, “Are you listening? Open your god damned ears.” So, imagine the Chef’s side of the triblade slicing cleanly through the fresh pink meat of the portabella up to the hamon, or tempered line, of the blade. The mushroom will steam as the frozen metal passes through it. Capture this steam in the cup of your non-knife hand. This technique is called, “Cupping”. Once your non-knife hand is full of steam, throw the steam at the large white onion that you previously diced. This technique is simply called, “Throwing”. Repeat this cutting the mushroom meat into 1/8 inch strips and saturated the onion with steam. You can tell that the onion is saturated when it begins to sweat slightly on the outer edge of the segments (not the inner edge).
Next, carefully place your knife down into the butcher block base and…oh, oh my. I just cut myself extremely badly. Hold on.
OK, the rest of the preparation involves using only one hand. In a 12 inch omelet pan, under medium heat, place the onion, ground pepper and sifted brown sugar. Once this mixture begins to bubble, slowly add in the honey and mix well. Place the two radishes onto your countertop and cover with cheese cloth. With a kitchen hammer or meat tenderizer, strike the radishes until they become pulpy and have no raised edges. Gather the radishes inside of the cheesecloth and form a bag shape with the cheese cloth with the mashed radishes inside.
You should smell the delicious sweetness of the brown sugar, honey and caramelizing onions now. Doesn’t that smell good? Next transfer the onions to a deep sauce pan, increase the temp to high and fill the pan with the vegetable broth. Carefully introduce the bag of mashed radishes but don’t let any of the radishes fall into the mixture or it will spoil and you will ruin everything. We just want the flavor, not the dirty flesh of the radishes. Reduce this to about half of the initial volume. Exactly one minute after this happens, reduce the temperature to low and drop in the panch phoron and the lemon white pepper. Keep cooking this mixture for about 4 minutes stirring very often, like more often than you think. Probably stirring constantly is best. The smell will go from sweet and delicious to extremely sour and then back to extremely sweet, like too sweet, as if someone were cleaning your hair with lemon Pledge. At this point, carefully remove the radishes and discard ensuring none of the dirty disgusting radishes enter the mixture.
The final step is the most important and is the most difficult technique to master. It will literally take you years to master so it is best to take notes or have someone read this to you while you cook. Again, though the title of this post is “Technique solves all,” it could just as easily be titled, “Technique done badly can screw up everything.”
Here we go. Quickly melt the butter in the pan that you originally were cooking the onions in. Bring the temperature to high and just before the butter starts to brown, very quickly choose one of the remaining spices that you have not used. There are nine to choose from. The one you choose will either make the dish a success or make it completely inedible and a huge failure. Only through experience will you know how to choose the correct spice for this final critical step. You can line up the spices in a row according to alphabetical order or you can place all of them into a cardboard box with a hole cut out of the top. The technique you use for choosing depends on you and how you handle randomness internally. Now, this is critical…use no more than just a fingertip of the spice. You can dip your finger in water or lick your finger and dip it into the spice you’ve chosen, it doesn’t matter. Then touch your finger into the extremely hot melted butter until the spice is absorbed. Do not remove your finger even if it gets burned. If you remove your finger before the spice is completely integrated into the butter, it will ruin the entire dish and waste the extremely rare portabella meat you are about to serve at $300 a plate.
Once the spice is absorbed into the butter, not before, you can remove your finger. Arrange the portabella pieces onto the plate in a standard radial or obtuse fan arrangement. Over this, pour the butterspice. Finally, drop on top the seared and spiced onions in vegetable broth. Top with fresh mint leaf and serve immediately. Ensure that the customer is no more than 45 feet away from the stove. If the dish has to circle around the restaurant to a distant VIP table upstairs, it will not survive. While the mushrooms are in the dish, they are being cooked by the heat of the butterspice. Too long and the mushrooms will become as tough as shoe leather. Too short and the mushrooms will taste extremely bitter like orange pith. It should take the dish approximately 1 minute 20 seconds to reach the table. Recommend to the customer that they start eating as soon as it arrives and have the waiter hand the customer a knife and spoon if they have to. Interrupt them if they are having a conversation across the table. This is the only way the portabella can be served properly.
It’s an extremely simple dish as you can see. Really, the only complicated part is the steps involved with proper preparation. It takes a little bit of practice and solid kitchen skills but I guarantee no other restaurant will be bold enough to try. If you are, you’ll dominate the culinary world as I have for the past five years. Buy my book.