Ah, gravy. It's even a metaphor for the good things in life. A savory sauce to accompany a feast or bring together a Tuesday night dinner. This elegant mushroom gravy will be at home on any table, elevating even the most humble foods.
I do have to admit, I am a serious mushroom enthusiast. I was thinking the other day about what I would call my (purely hypothetical) all mushroom cookbook. I am charged with one side dish for the Thanksgiving table this year, but I am in fact bringing this mushroom gravy, both whole and pureed, a mushroom and wild rice side dish, and I even thought of bringing a mushroom appetizer but I think I will exercise at least a modicum of self control.
I think this gravy will be a hit with both the turkey gravy crowd and the non-turkey gravy crowd, and I am hoping, with one individual who explained to me that he/she (who will remain anonymous) DOES NOT LIKE GRAVY. Yes, you read that right. I aim to change that.
This recipe gets massive flavor and soft, silky texture from heaps of caramelized onion as well as a subtle hit of ultra earthy umami from dried porcini mushrooms. Dried porcini are a powerful and effortless ingredient that can add an undeniable "wow" factor to many dishes. I just used them in a quick mushroom barley soup along with button mushrooms for an added depth that the button or crimini mushrooms cannot provide themselves. They are easy to use and the flavor cannot be matched. A small amount goes a long way. When it comes to caramelized onions, yes, they are worth the time and effort. Give this gravy a try and revisit it throughout the winter months for all your gravy needs.
The prep for the gravy takes long enough that making a fresh vegetable stock during the process just makes sense. I like to add kombu to my stock, which you see above as the dark rectangular pieces. I keep a package of dried kombu sea vegetable in my cupboard and toss a few pieces into most stocks I make. Having kombu on hand also means you can make a dashi broth for miso soup or Japanese sauces any time. Adding layers of flavors and minerals never hurts and a fresh stock gives a nice, clean flavor base to the gravy. It is as easy as chopping some veg, tossing them in a pot, and simmering for 40 min.
Caramelizing the onions takes about an hour, so start that as soon as the stock is on. Thyme shows up twice, both in the stock and in the finished gravy, completing a classic and comforting flavor combination of mushrooms and thyme. I used crimini as the second mushroom, which are also sold as "Baby Bella", but you may use button mushrooms or really any other fresh but firm mushrooms like shiitake, oyster, or chanterelle if you really want to indulge your mushroom passions. If you use anything other than crimini or button mushrooms, I personally would not blend the sauce, and I would make sure to slice them in a way that highlights their individual shapes.
Get comfy in your kitchen, turn on some music, maybe grab a glass of wine and settle in to caramelize the onions while you prep everything else. Caramelizing onions is less a matter of skill and more a matter of time. Grab a large, heavy bottomed pot or pan. Get those onions sliced thinly, about 1/8th inch, and toss them in with a little olive oil over medium high heat to begin.
First the onions need to sweat, so get them hot without browning them and then reduce the pan to medium. Stir them often until they are really releasing liquid and steam. If at any time the onions start to brown, turn down the heat a little. When the onions have softened, turn the heat down even further to medium low and eventually low. As the onions lose their water the temperature must be reduced. Keep stirring and observing the onions during the process. Depending on your range, you will most likely end up with the pan nearly or fully at the lowest heat for a majority of the process.
If you are still having an issue with the lowest heat being too high and you are using a heavy bottomed pot/pan and stirring fairly frequently, you may need to get creative. With an electric range you may need to babysit the onions a little more, removing the pan from the heat or turning it off from time to time. Use a flame tamer if you have one and are using a gas range.
By the end, there should be a little caramelized brown layer here and there on the bottom of the pan and the onions will have reduced drastically into a soft, golden mound. Take the onions off the heat and scrape all that flavor off of the bottom of the pan and into the onions. Congrats on your beautifully caramelized onions!
These magical little dried porcini mushrooms (above) are miraculous. How they have so much flavor packed into their little crinkled selves is beyond me. Amazingly, they create liquid gold when re-hydrated and this soaking liquid is as valuable as the mushrooms themselves. I bought a 1 oz package for $7. In the gravy I used 1/3 of that (including the soaking liquid of course!). Porcini can be overpowering depending on your taste, but if you would like a more intense flavor in your gravy I highly recommend increasing the porcini to 1/2 oz.
In order for the crimini mushrooms (above) not to release liquid into the gravy and thin it, they have to be sauteed until they stop releasing moisture. When mushrooms have reached this point, they have been cooked "au sec"...until dry. They will be nicely browned, which will also add flavor to your gravy.
When you have brought everything together in one pan and have let them mingle for a few minutes, slowly whisk in your slurry of cornstarch and water while simmering the sauce. Season with salt and balsamic vinegar.
Caramelized Onion, Crimini, and Porcini Gravy
For the Stock:
- 3-4 Celery stalks
- 1 Medium sized carrot
- 1/2 Large onion
- 2, 2x3 Inch pieces kombu (approx.)
- 6 Sprigs fresh thyme, or more
- 3 Large cloves garlic
- 6 C water
For the Gravy:
- 3 Medium sized sweet, brown or yellow onions
- 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/3 Oz dried porcini
- 1/2 C hot water
- 1/2 Lb crimini mushrooms
- 1 Medium clove garlic
- 2 Tbsp mirin
- 5 C vegetable broth (see above)
- 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
- 1 1/2 Tsp sea salt
- 4 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1/4 C cold water
- 1/2-1 Tsp balsamic vinegar
To make the stock, begin by rinsing the celery and lightly scrubbing the carrot to remove any loose dirt. Chop them in 1/4 inch thick pieces. Cut the onion in half, remove just the roots at the bottom, and slice it with the skin on into 1/4 inch pieces. Smash and roughly chop the garlic, skin on. Place the celery, carrot, onion, garlic, kombu and thyme in a lidded pot with 7 C water. Bring the stock to a boil, loosely cover the pot to avoid boiling over, and maintain a medium simmer for 40 minutes. When the stock is finished, strain it and measure 5 cups for the recipe. Save any extra in the refrigerator or freezer.
Once the stock is started, peel and halve the three sweet onions from top to bottom. Lay them flat and slice them again through their middle. Now cut 1/8 inch slices lengthwise from the sides toward the center creating thin pieces roughly 1 to 1 1/2 inches long. If your onions are squat, skip cutting them through the middle first. The idea is to avoid extra long stringy onions. 1 to 1 1/2 inch long slices do nicely.
Before starting to caramelize the onions, place the dried porcini in a small bowl with 1/2 C hot water to soften. This will take about 30 minutes.
In a large, heavy bottomed pot or pan, begin to cook the onions over medium high heat with 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil. Stir them frequently until they begin to sweat. When the onions have softened significantly, reduce the heat to medium and continue to stir frequently. As the onions lose moisture, reduce the heat until the onions can be stirred occasionally without browning at all. If at any point your onions start to brown, as opposed to softening an turning a golden color, reduce the heat. For the majority of the time the onions will be cooking at a very low heat. This will take about an hour. When the onions are done, they will be very soft, greatly reduced in volume, and will have a golden color. Turn off the heat and scrape everything from the bottom of the pan into the onions.
While the onions are cooking, prepare the mushrooms. Brush any growing medium off of the crimini, or wash them if you like, and cut them from top to bottom. Cut each side once more from side to side through the cap. Now slice the mushrooms very thin, about 1/8th inch. When the crimini have softened, squeeze out any liquid and slice them paper thin. Reserve the cooking liquid but when you add it to the gravy be aware of any grit at the bottom and simply pour the liquid off of the top to leave sediment at the bottom of the bowl.
Combine the sliced porcini and crimini with 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a saute pan over medium high heat. When the crimini have lost much of their water you may reduce the heat slightly. Continue sauteing until they have browned considerably. Grate the garlic into the pan and stir well to cook the garlic. Add the mirin to the pan and cook it off briefly. Now add the onions, porcini soaking liquid, vegetable stock, fresh thyme, and sea salt. Allow the combined elements to simmer for about 5 minutes.
When the mixture has simmered for 5 minutes, mix the cornstarch and cold water to form a slurry. Pour the slurry into the simmering gravy slowly while whisking to mix evenly. When the mixture is thickened, season with 1/2 to 1 Tsp balsamic vinegar. If the result is too thick or too thin for your taste simply add a little more stock/water or make a small additional amount of cornstarch slurry and add until you reach the desired consistency.
Yield: approximately 8 servings