An assortment of roasted mushrooms, onions, garlic, spinach, ricotta cheese, spinach and pasta make for a robust, deeply satisfying vegetarian casserole that’s perfect for chilly autumn. Recipe below.
Recently we received a review copy of Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide by Joe McFarland and Gregory M. Mueller, published by University of Illinois Press. Since Marion is by far the bigger authority on mushrooms in our kitchen, I’ve turned the book—and the kitchen—over to her this week.
One of the things that surprised us when Terry started this blog three years back was the unexpected cool opportunities and, well, freebies like this, wafting down into our kitchen. This book is one of the most terrific of all these gifts. I. love. this. book. It is both attractive and useful. For those who live in the Midwest and who love mushrooms, but who don’t know much about finding them in the wild, this book is brilliant—direct, charming and, best of all, smart. Its hallmarks are clarity, safety and deliciousness. When you open it up, one of the first things you see is a yellow warning triangle with a skull and crossbones and the words DO NOT IGNORE THIS WARNING—MUSHROOM POISONING CAN BE FATAL.
Yes, it can. Deadly poisonous mushrooms are common throughout the Midwest and, indeed, throughout the world. Even in winter. As the authors note, “Finding wild mushrooms in Illinois is incredibly easy. They’re everywhere. But that’s the problem.”
And it is a problem the authors show you how to address. First, be safe. “Never eat a wild mushroom you cannot positively identify as being edible,” they note. “This should be obvious—like ‘Never poke a fork into your eye.’” But, as my high school journalism teacher used to say, nothing is obvious. Every year we hear of fatalities among mushroom hunters who were utterly confident that the beautiful specimen they’d just found would be perfectly safe, or they were pretty sure, anyway. It will be useful to you if you spend time in the wild, or even if you shop at farmer’s markets and want to confirm the identity of the mushrooms at that stand.
To help you be certain of what you are eating, this unambiguous guide not only provides excellent photos of each mushroom it discusses [there are more than 300 color images in all], but describes the environments in which they can be found and the times of year they fruit. It speaks with great enthusiasm about the thrill of the mushroom hunt. And about mushroom hunters [a few of the photos show Illinois morel hunters triumphantly displaying their finds]. It warns you about possible dangerous [or even just dull] lookalikes. It is witty and delightful talking about the celebrity species, like morels and chanterelles, and sweetly enticing when talking about more obscure species. Of the hedgehog mushroom, Hydnum repandum, the authors write, “Here’s what you want to know: If you like the flavor of Yellow Chanterelles, imagine them with a touch of walnut. You’ll honestly never find enough of these.” They’re right! That’s exactly what I want to know, and now I intend to find some.
Because the authors understand in their very hearts that the point of hunting mushrooms is eating mushrooms, this wonderful book also includes recipes contributed by Illinois chefs. Many of the recipes in Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois depend on particular species—Black Trumpets, Chanterelles, Morels, Hen of the Woods. It’s possible to find these at farmer’s markets and many specialty grocers around the country, but instead we chose a recipe that can be constructed from a mixture of wild mushrooms, or from “wild” mushrooms widely available in groceries.
This is based on a far more elaborate Charlie Trotter lasagna recipe that also called for additional moving parts, such as an arugula pesto to pool around the pasta when plating it. I wanted to keep things more simple. I used equal weights of button, oyster, shiitake and cremini mushrooms. Because I was in a lollygagging mood, I made this dish over a couple of days, starting the roasted mushrooms one evening after work and then completing the casserole the next night.
Casserole of Roasted Mushrooms
For the Roasted Mushrooms
6 cups assorted mushrooms [see Kitchen Notes]
1/2 cup Vidalia onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup mushroom stock
1/4 cup brandy (see Kitchen Notes)
Salt and pepper
For the Mushroom Filling
4 cups mixed roasted mushrooms [above]
3 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped fine
For the Ricotta
2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup fresh baby spinach, chopped coarsely
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pound broad egg noodles
1-1/2 to 2 cups freshly grated Romano cheese
Roast the mushrooms. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Coat a roasting pan with olive oil and place the 6 cups of mushrooms in the pan—I used a four-inch-deep rectangular roasting pan. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over everything and toss with your hands. Then add the chopped onions and garlic and toss with your hands again. Finally, pour the brandy and stock around in the pan. Season very lightly with salt and pepper. Cover the pan with foil and bake for about half an hour. You want the mushrooms to just become tender, not very soft and collapsed. Take the pan out of the oven and let the mushrooms cool in their juices.
Make the mushroom filling. Drain the pan juices into a saucepan, and save them! Chop the mushrooms. I used a food processor, but you can also chop by hand if you are in need of a meditation. Add the chopped mushrooms to the saucepan. When you are getting ready to assemble the whole, add the 3 tablespoons of brandy, olive oil and rosemary to the saucepan and heat gently until just barely warm.
Prepare the ricotta. In a medium bowl, mix together the cheese, garlic, spinach, salt and pepper, and stir until blended.
Begin the assembly by preheating the oven to 375ºF and cooking the pasta in salted water until it is just al dente. Drain it thoroughly, then plunge into hot water. Drain again.
Lightly coat a baking dish [see Kitchen Notes] with olive oil. If the dish does not have a lid, you will also need some aluminum foil to cover.
Assemble the casserole. Begin with a layer of pasta—use about a third of the pasta. Then spread a layer of the mushroom filling, using about half. Sprinkle on a layer of grated Romano cheese. Spread the ricotta over this. Then add another layer of pasta, again using about a third of the pasta, then the remaining mushroom filling, then some Romano and the rest of the ricotta. Finish with a final layer of pasta. You are still reserving about 3/4 cup of Romano.
Cover the casserole and bake it for about 40 minutes. Remove the lid and sprinkle with the remaining Romano cheese. Bake it another 15 minutes, with the lid off, so that the cheese becomes melted and golden brown.
Take the casserole out of the oven and let it rest about 10 or 15 minutes before cutting and serving.
The dish. I used an ovenproof casserole, approximately 8 x 10, with a glass lid.
The brandy. We use E&J Gallo very cheap California brandy. It’s actually quite good for cooking—the ghastly harshness burns off in the cooking, leaving a lovely toasty caramel flavor.
The chopping. You don’t have to chop the mushrooms. The next time I make this dish I will leave the mushrooms whole. I am liking the thought of that.
The sauce. And, should you wish to sauce it up when plating, you have several options that would be tasty—pesto, as Charlie Trotter suggests; a simple tomato sauce; even a béchamel. I really like this unsauced, though, to honor the earthiness of the mushrooms.
The book. Finally, one more comment about Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois. This book is about clarity and safety and the pleasure of good food, but it is also about beauty and the world—holding an awareness of the seasons, the weather, the sun and earth. It helps you remember how wonderful it is to be alive.