Part one of a two-part series

(March 1) We’ve come a long way in our thinking about the delectability of mushrooms. The ancient Irish used to think the now-popular caps served as umbrellas for leprechauns.

For today’s diners, mushrooms communicate freshness and elegance, says Marilyn Dompe, foodservice marketing consultant for the Mushroom Council, Dublin, Calif. Their distinct texture and pungent, earthy flavor adds a powerful, multidimensional quality that works wonders in soups, salads, appetizers and entrees. With their ability to transform water into stock through just a few minutes of soaking, mushrooms also make a great flavoring agent.

While mushrooms bring some earthiness to dishes, they also are refined and subtle, says Eric Ripert, owner/chef of Le Bernardin in New York.

Frank Jock, executive chef at Atlanta-based Don Pablo’s, a Mexican restaurant chain with 109 locations, likes to use mushrooms because they give the menu a contemporary feel and work well in vegetarian and low-carbohydrate dishes. “The trend is definitely going in the direction of people wanting more alternatives,” he says.

With all this going for them, it’s no wonder that mushrooms continue to increase in popularity. Mushroom use on restaurant menus rose 46.5% in the past seven years, according to the Mushroom Council.

GREAT BEGINNINGS

Enhance your appetizers, soups and salads with mushrooms.

Ripert of Le Bernardin makes mushroom ravioli with Argentine shrimp and a purée of black trumpets, chanterelles and porcini mushrooms mixed with garlic and shallots. He serves the dish with a foie gras truffle sauce. The earthiness of the mushrooms deepens the sweetness of the shrimp. “The mushrooms bring a lot of intensity because they are cooked inside the ravioli,” he says.

Griff Sickendick, sous-chef at Bistro Vendome in Denver, serves a sweetbread and mushroom fricassee on his hors d’oeurvres menu. He uses a mixture of crimini, oyster and shiitake mushrooms. “It is a very creamy, velvety kind of dish,” he says. “The mushrooms complement its meatiness and give it some heft, but also the earthiness of the mushrooms is a nice contrast to all the creaminess.”

Ted Fondulas, owner/chef of Hemmingway’s Restaurant, Killington, Vt., makes marinated mushroom salad with shiitake, oyster and white button mushrooms served with endive lettuce and Parmesan cheese.

At Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas, chef Wendy Jordan uses chunky wild mushroom vinaigrette as a warm dressing over a warm, wilted spinach salad. To prepare the dressing, she combines white shallots and large, sautéed mushrooms with a balsamic vinegar base.