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Of Mushrooms & VA Wine

Shiitake mushrooms from North Cove in Madison, Virginia, are delicious with Virginia wines, either red or white. See our suggestions below! Photo by Sylvie Rowand.

Growing wild in the Appalachian woods and abandoned orchards, morel mushrooms literally spring from the forest floor in April… more prolific and fat in the years with just the right amount of rain and the temperature range they like. If you do not hunt for morels yourself, you can sometimes find them at farmers’ markets and specialty shops. But they are elusive, and quickly disappear, despite their price.

But do not despair: there are quite a few growers of delicious cultivated mushrooms in Virginia, most often of shiitakes (although oyster mushrooms are not uncommon).  Shiitake, one of the most widely cultivated mushrooms in the world, has been used for thousands of years in Japan and China  — shiitake is the transliteration of its common Japanese name — and is finding a home on Virginia farms. A new find of mine is North Cove Mushroom in Madison County, a recent venture of young farmers Eason Burke and Robin Serne who grow shiitakes without chemicals for the trade.

Keep your eyes open for local mushrooms at farmers’ markets and farm stores, and snap them up when you see high-quality ones. Select unblemished mushrooms without dark edges or soft spots.  Ideally their feet should be plump and neither water-logged nor dried out. They should have a clean woodsy smell, without any whiff of “fishiness” or decay.

When grown inside mushroom-houses on oak chip blocks, shiitakes are generally immaculately clean. Grown outdoors on logs, they harbor more debris and can exhibit weather damage. In this case, clean them with a brush, a damp towel, under a gentle water spray or even – if very dirty – dunk them very briefly in a large bowl of water, switch around for 2 seconds, lift them from the water (so debris remain in the water), lay them on a clean towel and gently pat dry. They should never be left to stand in water however. If you have to trim away the feet, don’t compost them (or… gasp! throw them away): they can be frozen or dried and used to bring a complex depth of flavor to home-made stock.

Shiitakes are wonderfully versatile, whether grilled, seared, braised, as a side dish, in stews or as the star of show. I love them simply sautéed with a bit of chopped garlic and finished with cream and some Virginia ham. They are also wine friendly! Pair with an earthy Virginia white like Philip Carter Chardonnay; a rich bubbly like Trump Winery’s Kluge SP Blanc de Blanc; or Meritage (Bordeaux-style blend) like Linden’s Claret, RdV Friends and Family or Glen Manor’s Hodder Hill.

Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms with Virginia Ham

SERVES 4 to 6

1 pound of impeccably fresh Virginia-grown shiitakes, cleaned and sliced evenly, or 1 pound of morels, cleaned and halved or quartered lengthwise
3 Tablespoons olive oil (more as necessary)
2 Tablespoons butter (more as necessary)
2 plump garlic cloves, minced very finely
¾ cup dry Virginia white wine
¾ cup heavy cream
3 oz shaved Virginia ham
¼ cup packed parsley leaves, very finely minced

Heat up a deep cast-iron skillet until very hot. Add olive oil and butter. As soon as butter foams, add the mushrooms in one generous single layer. Do not overcrowd: work in batches if necessary (use more oil/butter if needed). Fry until the shiitakes start to give up their liquid, shrivel and brown on the edges – about 5 to 7 minutes. If you are working in several batches, remove from the pan and reserve the first batch, add butter and olive oil to the pan as necessary and fry the remaining shiitakes.

When all the mushrooms are cooked, add them all back to the pan, lower the heat, add garlic and wine, scraping with a hard spatula to loosen any stuck bits of food. Add the cream and the ham. Cover with a lid and simmer 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. (If using morels simmer 20 minutes.) Sprinkle parsley just before serving.

Serve over creamy grits or rice to absorb the cream sauce, or lots of crusty bread to mop the sauce!

Culinary expert SYLVIE ROWAND has been cooking and loving it since she was 9. She grows a year-round kitchen garden in Rappahannock County; forages through the countryside for wild edibles; and preserves food for the dark months. Through Laughing Duck Gardens & Cookery LLC, she provides in-home catering services for dinner parties using local seasonal ingredients sourced from the Northern Virginia Piedmont. She also teaches cooking and canning workshops, writes about seasonal food and good eating for various publications, and maintains a food and kitchen gardening blog. You may reach her through her web site: