Smoky Mexican Oyster Mushroom Soup
The overbearing capsaicin-induced machismo that surrounds the world of chili peppers eclipses their more important culinary role; they’re not just only used for adding heat. Of course, a pepper can be both hot and flavourful; Scotch bonnets are beloved by Caribbean cooks for their one-two punch of fruity flavour and face-melting heat. But there are a lot of people who either don’t like, or aren’t accustomed to a lot of spice and many of the will avoid hot peppers, or use the only sparingly, which unfortunately shuts out a whole world of tastes. Different peppers have different flavour profiles, and when they’ve been smoked, that flavour can be incredibly distinctive and rather pronounced. Plus, some chili peppers contribute little or no heat, making them safe for even the most spice-averse.
If you want to make good Mexican food, you have to embrace the use of different chili peppers. To reiterate, that doesn’t mean that you need to love fiery heat (but hey, if you do, go nuts). But the flavour differences between guajillo, arbol, and poblano peppers (to name a few) are so pronounced that they are all capable of bringing completely different characteristics to a meal. Case in point, this smoky soup, redolent with the unmistakable flavour of dried chipotle peppers. Chipotles are mature (red) jalapenos that have been smoke-dried. They contribute some heat, and a great deal of smoky, earthy flavour (for more on the peppers themselves, see the Recipe Notes below). This soup is based on a recipe from Maricel Presilla‘s seminal cookbook “Gran Cocina Latina.” The original recipe hails from Veracruz Mexico, an area where mushrooms grow wild and well. My variation uses primarily the same ratio of ingredients, but a very different method of preparation, including pureed onions and pan-fried mushrooms.
There’s a lot to love about this soup. It builds big flavours from a small number of ingredients, it’s easy to put together, and it’s vegan (though you can certainly use good chicken stock in place of the vegetable stock – homemade, ideally). It’s also a great example of how Mexican food can and does embrace ingredients well beyond the repertoire that most of us are familiar with. Northern Mexican food and is over-represented in the US (and Canada), which is unsurprising given the long shared border. Mushrooms do not grow particularly well in the arid heat of the region, and they don’t tend to feature prominently in dishes from the region. But in the cooler, wetter, and more mountainous central regions of Mexico, mushrooms are well-loved and widely used. Oyster mushrooms (oreja de cazahuate or hongos ostra in Spanish) are particularly appreciated for their firm texture and mild flavour. Take it from me (a reformed mushroom-hater) – they’re very easy to like.
As a final note, I want to make a little appeal to you. Try this soup – or something like it. I realize that’s a bit odd to say, but I also recognize that when we encounter particularly unfamiliar or unconventional-sounding foods, they can seem approachable. But I promise you, this is both easy to make, and incredibly worthwhile. It’s one of those dishes that stays with you. It’s so different and so powerful, yet mellow and easy to enjoy. It’s also ridiculously healthy – which is good, because you’re going to want to have four bowls.
This is not a difficult meal to make, nor are the techniques particularly intensive. As such, most of the tips I can give are based around the finding and using the ingredients.
Note that this recipe calls for dried chipotle peppers, and not chipotles in adobo sauce. Dried chipotles are generally available at Mexican and Latin American grocery stores, and may be available in well-stocked specialty grocery stores as well.
There are two very distinctive varieties of chipotle pepper commonly found – purple-black, glossy morita peppers, and dusty brown chile meco peppers. Depending on the market you go to, the former may be labeled simply as moritas, omitting the word chipotle entirely. Morita peppers are smoked for a shorter period of time, making them fruitier and a little less smoky. They are common in Northern Mexico, and because of the aforementioned prominence of that cuisine in the USA, they tend to be the most commonly available chipotles. Chile meco peppers (which are generally considered the ‘true’ chipotle pepper) are more common in Central and Southern Mexico, but less common outside of the country. I used chile meco chipotles for this dish, but either variety will work. If you can’t get dried chipotles, you might be able to find chipotle powder, but you’ll have to use your imagination to make up for the lack of soaking liquid (perhaps a little extra dissolved in water could help). Chipotles in adobo would create a very different character for this soup, but you could try experimenting with them. Do not use an un-smoked dried pepper.
I take the seeds and membranes out of the rehydrated chilies to reduce the heat, but you can leave them in if you want the final dish to be spicier.
Oyster mushrooms are increasingly common in well-stocked grocery stores and green grocers. Look for firm mushrooms with good, clean edges. Slimy or ragged edges on the mushrooms indicate that they’re past their prime or that they’ve been mishandled quite a bit.
Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (also called maitake in Japanese) would make an excellent substitute. For a different look but similar (somewhat nuttier) flavour and texture, you could also use brown shimeji mushrooms. If you’re a big mushroom fan, you could probably use sliced crimini/button mushrooms as well, though the texture and flavour will differ pretty substantially.
Epazote is an herb that has a prominent role in Mexican cooking, but remains poorly known north of the border. The plant is closely related to lamb’s quarters, and it grows like a weed (and is considered a weed in some places). It has a clean, penetrating, distinctive flavour that is difficult to describe; it is often compared to cilantro because of the bright and penetrating flavour, but the two have very little in common. It can be difficult to obtain fresh, but can generally be found in its dried and crushed/chopped form in Mexican and Latin grocery stores. Unfortunately, the dried version does not contribute as much to a dish – I used dried because I couldn’t get fresh, but if you can get fresh, I urge you to get as much as you can. If you’re feeling particularly dedicated to bringing your Mexican cooking to the next level, consider growing it in a home garden or a small pot. As I mentioned, it grows VERY well.
Because mushrooms don’t pack a big nutritional punch (they’re low in calories and protein), you could add white beans or navy beans to add some substance to the soup. Add canned or home-cooked beans to the strained soup before the mushrooms and simmer for an extra 5-10 minutes.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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