Behold the Oyster Mushroom. Even slightly roughed up from my market bag, this beautiful, creamy white fungus is moving in its form. Visual stimulation is a strong motivator in my desire to work with food. I love how food is at once visual, tactile, aromatic, alive, emotionally and physically nourishing.
I was in need of some emotional nourishment when I decided to put together something woodsy and summery, both hearty and light, assuming this combination is even possible. I have been pining for my home state of Minnesota (yes, there is a pun in there, especially when you think of the Arrowhead region) and will be there in just one week. I will hang out in and around the Twin Cities a while then make my way up to the north shore of the great, frigid, and vast Lake Superior.
I guess I came up with a salad in a red flannel shirt. Something for the long summer days up north, where it's still chilly enough to don a sweater after the sun goes down. Something that reminds me of exploring the woods as a child and being fascinated by shelf fungus, various mushrooms and the occasional vivid orange or yellow slime mold. Something that folds in a native food that I grew up with (what, you've never had wild rice casserole?) and I equate strongly with home. Enjoy this salad in a little rustic north woods cabin in your mind. Or the real deal if you get the chance.
The companion salad components are easy and well worth the time to put together. At the Dallas Farmers Market I found some spectacular, kicky arugula, fresh sweet corn and an onion so sweet I had the overwhelming urge to bite into it like an apple as soon as I cut it. It was that good. All in season in Texas. So, in order to make the prep time on this salad be more worth your while think of prepping extra wild rice to accompany meals later in the week, or put a small bag full in the freezer to pop into vegetable soups or chowders. It freezes very well. Toast a whole pan full of pecans for snacking or topping ice cream. I promise you will eat them up quickly. And, it's not like you are going to buy one ear of corn...when it's in season we eat it voraciously, as it is a fleeting pleasure.
The wild rice I found was Canadian but I really recommend ordering some Minnesota grown wild rice from one of the area tribes. The rice is still commonly hand harvested but you will also find machine harvested. Just go for it. It stores well in an airtight container up to a year.
With oyster mushrooms, you are never going to get completely uniform pieces, so no worries. The trick is not to stir too much during cooking so the pieces can have good contact with the hot pan and get a nice sear. So, stir them only enough to keep them cooking evenly. Also, and very importantly, my magical ingredient is mirin. Mirin is a traditional subtly sweet and complex rice wine. In the U.S. all sorts of things are sold as mirin, and apparently in Japan you cannot sell seasoned (salted) mirin as true mirin but there also exist many grades of mirin-like products.
I can tell you that if you want a lovely seasoned rice cooking wine (considered Aji No Haha type-labeled as mirin here in the U.S.) try Eden brand. If you see sugar, corn syrup or anything other than rice, koji, and salt in the ingredients, look for another. If you get to a good Asian grocer and find somebody knowledgeable about true mirin, which is unsalted and can be drunk as is, please by all means get it! If you do use the unseasoned kind, you will need to salt the mushrooms. My knowledge of mirin is limited but now I want to go on a mirin research binge....
Seared Oyster Mushroom Salad
- 1/3 C wild rice
- 1/4 Tsp sea salt
- 1/2 Lb. oyster mushrooms
- 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbsp mirin
- Fresh ground black pepper to taste
- 2 Large handfuls arugula (enough to fill two dinner plates)
- 1 Ear fresh sweet corn
- 1/2 C pecan halves or pieces
- Red, yellow or white onion
For the dressing:
- 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 Tsp whole grain mustard
- 1 Tsp maple syrup
- 1/8 Tsp sea salt
- 1/8 Tsp grated garlic
Bring the wild rice to a boil in a small pot in 2 C water with 1/4 Tsp sea salt. Reduce the rice to a low boil and place the lid over the pot with a small crack to let out excess steam. This will allow the rice to cook without loosing too much liquid and without boiling over. Look for the rice to split open and begin to curl. Some wild rice will cook faster and curl more, some will remain mostly straight and only split open lengthwise. I have seen wild rice cook as quickly as 30 minutes where some takes 1 hour, so check the rice after 30 minutes and continue to boil until done. When the rice is done, drain it well and set it aside to cool.
Look over your oyster mushroom/mushrooms. If you see any of the growing medium, brush it away or cut it off. If you like you can gently dip the mushrooms in a bowl of water to rinse off any dirt or growing medium, but I usually just brush them off. They will not absorb enough water to make much of a difference in cooking as long as you dry thoroughly, though this may cause the mushroom to break apart more. You will find conflicting advice on this so go with your comfort level.
Break down the mushrooms to long pieces cut away from the central base lengthwise, almost like you would split broccoli off the stem. You can use the base, just make sure to leave base pieces no thicker than 1/2 inch. This part will be more chewy but I kind of like that. If some of the base seems particularly tough, simply remove it. Now heat a large saute pan to medium high heat. Make sure the pan is big enough not to crowd the mushrooms. Add 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil and quickly add the mushrooms. The pan should be hot enough for the mushrooms to sizzle but not hot enough to smoke the oil. Stir the pan occasionally but not continuously in order to allow the mushrooms continued contact long enough to sear the sides. It should take about 6 minutes for the mushrooms to have browned and become tender yet chewy. Remove the pan from the heat and add 2 Tbsp mirin, stirring quickly to coat the mushrooms while the mirin cooks off. Season the mushrooms with fresh ground pepper to taste and remove them from the pan to cool.
Heat your oven to 350 and place the pecans on a sheet pan or glass baking dish. Toast the nuts for 6 to 7 minutes or until they are aromatic and lightly browned. Allow the pecans to cool. Thinly slice the desired amount of onion for two salads. This is up to you, but a salad just isn't a salad without some raw onion in my estimation! I leave the amount up to your good judgment, but don't overpower the salad.
Grab a large mixing bowl to throw together the dressing and toss the salad. Simply mix the oil, vinegar, mustard, maple syrup, salt and garlic in the bowl and then add the arugula, corn, wild rice, and onion, tossing gently until well mixed. With a tong, mound the dressed salad on two dinner plates, scooping up the rice and corn that fall to the bottom and heaping them on top of each salad. Finish the salad with the toasted pecans and piles of seared oyster mushrooms. This salad is best at room temperature, so if you have refrigerated any of the components, please bring them up to room temperature before putting it together. Enjoy!
Yield: 2 large dinner salads or 4 side salads.