Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

A Portobello Passage:
A Slice of "Vegetables
from Amaranth to Zucchini"

by Kate Heyhoe


Even more than my passion for cookbooks lies my addiction to food reference books, especially ones that also include recipes. I've fallen in love with the recently released Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference, by Elizabeth Schneider. To see why, take a look at the excerpt and recipe below. I hope you'll find it as entertaining and informative as I did. If you enjoy this little tidbit, you'll adore the complete volume, as it's filled with passages just as tasty and enlightening. —KH

Cremini and Portobello Mushrooms
(Agaricus bisporus; see also the many names below)

Cremini mushrooms—also marketed as Crimini, Baby Bellas, Golden Italian, Roman, or Classic Brown mushrooms—are also, as you may already know, juvenile portobellos (about which more later). They are, as well, the same as white or button mushrooms (or champignons, to the restaurant trade), but a different strain.

"What's old is new": This mushroom is a reintroduction of the brown mushroom that was common in the United States before the white strain was isolated and developed during the mid-1920s. It differs from the white in its cocoa coloring, more solid texture, and richer flavor.

As for the name "cremini". . . I give up! Crimini means "crimes" in Italian (although one company claims that it means "brown"). An Italian writer calls the mushrooms cremosini, but three knowledgeable Italian chefs assert there is no such word. A distributor says that he saw the mushrooms in Milan in 1980—simply called funghi cultivati— and named them Roman Mushrooms when he brought them to the United States the next year. An American grower subsequently "introduced" them as Golden Italian. As the popularity of portobello mushrooms grows—and it is growing very rapidly—it seems likely that related names, such as the recent Portabellini, will rise to replace or join the others in the criminal confusion.

The chubby cremino (if that is the singular; no one can be sure), properly encouraged by environmental conditions, will metamorphose to a portly portobello (also portabella), a name as difficult to document as cremini. I asked dozens who work with mushrooms, here and in Italy, about the name. The marketing director of a mushroom farm told me, "It was named after Portobello Road in London, where they sell fashionable things, you know." An importer said, "Until ten years ago, the mushroom was cappelaccio in Italy. Then it was renamed after a TV show called Portobello— because it sounds better." Another importer told me that "portobello is known only in northern Italy, where it is called capellone." To one authority, capellone means "big hat." To the director of an Italian trade board and a dictionary it means "hippie." Two northern Italian chefs had never heard of capellone or cappelaccio. The most outlandish derivation came from an Italian distributor: "Well, you know that champignon comes from the word for Champagne, and that a Champagne cork looks like a round port—and that's how we get porto bello— beautiful port."

Whatever its provenance, the portobello or portabella (depending on the brand) has upgraded America's view of "vegetarian," whether it appears on pizza, grilled on baby greens, or in the exalted role of "A Portabella Mushroom Pretending to be a Filet Mignon with a Roasted Shallot and Tomato Fondue," at the elegant Inn at Little Washington, Virginia.

BASIC USE: Cook cremini in all the ways you would white "buttons," but expect a denser consistency (even when thin-sliced) and deeper savor. They taste particularly meaty when brushed with nut oil or herb- or garlic-infused olive oil, then roasted or grilled. Broad, handsome portobello caps are also at their best oil-seasoned, roasted or grilled, then thin-sliced. They are a natural for stuffing, as well, providing a neat, large container to be filled. Chop and incorporate the huge, meaty stem into the stuffing, or save it for soup, sauce, stock, duxelles, or seasoning. Note that the deep brown gills of older portobellos will darken any preparation. If this is not desirable, scrape them out with a blunt knife to use in sauce or as a garnish.

SELECTION: Cremini and portobelli are cultivated year-round, but the latter are vulnerable to viruses and occasionally disappear from the market for a while. For both, choose plump, solid, firm, dry mushrooms with no shriveling or slipperiness. If in doubt, sniff: An earthy, vegetable smell is right; a sourish or animal smell is not.

Select small cremini with closed caps when you plan to cook them whole; they hold their shape neatly. Larger ones are fine for slicing, dicing, and chopping. (An intermediate size, Poytabellini, has a closed cap, like cremini, but is larger.) Maturing cremini with opening caps and darkening gills may have more flavor, and their juices will be darker; plan accordingly.

Portobello's open cap should reveal gills that are dry and shapely—not damp or dented. As the mushroom ages, the gills turn from pinkish-taupe to chocolate. Older mushrooms, recognizable by a loss of sheen as well as by darkened gills, are fibrous and taste muddy.

Typically, portobello caps are 4 to 6 inches in diameter. The comparatively newly named and marketed Baby Portabella is smaller and has a smoother texture and milder flavor (more "veal" than "beef"). For best keeping, choose whole mushrooms, usually packed in open cases. Caps alone are less prone to breakage but more expensive-and they lack the useful stems. Do not consider sliced caps—a waste of money, freshness, and flavor.

STORAGE: Unlike most mushrooms, cremini seem to last particularly well in "breathable" plastic retail packs—over a week, if they are in good shape to start.

For portobello mushrooms, remove wrapping, if any. Spread mushrooms in a basket or tray, cover with a towel, and refrigerate. Do not moisten or set objects on top. Mushrooms need circulating air, so don't crowd them. If very fresh, they may last 5 to 6 days.

PREPARATION: If cremini will be cooked with liquid, rinse quickly in a colander, then blot on towels. If they will be roasted or saut´┐Żed, it is better—though time-consuming—to clean them with a soft brush only. For portobello mushrooms, hold each one upright, tap the top to dislodge any growing medium that lurks, then flick gills clean with a soft brush. People usually twist, then break off the stem, but I find this risks cracking the cap. I prefer to hold each upright and gently cut the stem flush with the cap.

Excerpted by permission from:

Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini:
The Essential Reference

by Elizabeth Schneider
Morrow Cookbooks/HarperCollins Publishers
Hardcover, 804 pages
$60.00; $89.95 (CAN)
ISBN: 0688152600

About the Book


Baked Stuffed Portobello Caps


Kate's Global Kitchen for April 2002:
04/05/02     On the Menu: Mini-Meat Meals
04/12/02     A Baker's Dozen in Every Town
04/19/02     The Warm Salads of Spring
04/26/02     A Portobello Passage


Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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