The Meaty Magic of Vegetarian Fried Shiitake Po' Boys

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Shiitake mushrooms make a seafood stand-in for po' boys that's so good, you won't miss the fish. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Every spring for the first half of my life, my family, led by my grandparents, would tromp through the woods near their home in the mountains of East Tennessee, hunting morels—or "dry-land fish," as they're called around there. Going dry-land fishing was an eagerly anticipated yearly rite, and was as competitive as it was meditative. The reward came when we'd brought home all the plastic grocery bags bulging with the wrinkled little trophies and my grandmother fried up a generous mess of them for dinner. Mamaw would wash the mushrooms, toss them around in a seasoned cornmeal–flour mixture, and plunk them in hot canola oil. No other preparation, fancy French or otherwise, ever matched the simple deliciousness of those fried mushrooms.

I've spent formative chunks of the second half of my life here in New Orleans. If you've ever been, I don't have to tell you that around here, you can't get the words "I'm hungry" out of your mouth before a po' boy sandwich jumps right in. From fine-dining institutions to gas stations to corner stores, everybody's got 'em, and everybody has a favorite. From their humble start as free food for striking streetcar operators just before the Great Depression, po' boys have risen to the level of iconic New Orleans cuisine, forever and only identified as belonging to the Big Easy.

The bread is known to be the make-or-break component of a good po' boy, but you can't gloss over the importance of the filling. You can put pretty much anything in there—French fries, sausage, roast beef, hamburger—but it'd better be good, and that goes double when you're stuffing it with what's arguably the most classic filling: fried seafood. The locals know their fried, and they know their seafood. Though batter-frying is common, the best fried catfish, oysters, and shrimp, in my opinion, are treated just the way my mamaw treated those dry-land fish, with a basic cornmeal breading that lets the main ingredient shine.

It didn't take too big of a step for me to realize that I could smash my worlds together by stuffing a po' boy with those fried mushrooms. The only problem is that morels ain't cheap, nor are they easy to find. So I turned to shiitakes, figuring that they would be meatier and less slimy than, say, fried white mushrooms, and that their broad, flat caps would fill a sandwich beautifully.

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I wanted to stick to the plan of a quick dredge in dry ingredients, but I was concerned about how well the breading would adhere. Morels have all those little nooks and crannies for the breading to grab on to, and I certainly didn't want it sliding off the shiitakes mid-bite. To my surprise, tossing the shiitakes in the seasoned mixture of cornmeal and flour while they were still wet from washing worked great. The breading clung to the mushrooms in just the right amount and stayed on during the frying, getting perfectly crisp and golden. No slipping or sliding around during eating, either. The key is dredging them while they're still dripping wet—once they've dried at all, it's pretty much only the flour that sticks, which means you won't get the cornmeal crunch.

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They stayed crisp long after draining on paper towels, and the mushrooms inside were juicy and tender. As I cooked subsequent batches, I had nearly as hard a time keeping my mitts off them as when my siblings and I would vie to steal the fried morels off Mamaw's stove. Once they're packed into the sandwich, it's almost uncanny how much they resemble fried oysters—this is a killer seafood stand-in.

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As soon as they were fried, it was time to build the sandwich. I dressed the top half of the baguette with remoulade, a classic French sauce appropriately bastardized in the very best way, as only New Orleanians could do. Even within the canon of Louisiana-style remoulade, there are endless variations—many are mayonnaise-based, while others are eggless, oil-and-acid emulsifications. The ingredient list often includes mustard (preferably Creole, but any stone-ground mustard will do), lemon juice or vinegar, some pickled thing, sometimes hot sauce, sometimes paprika, sometimes Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, horseradish, on and on. Garlic, onions, and herbs all make occasional appearances.

Going by my taste and my desire to keep the remoulade fairly streamlined, I stirred together mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, hot sauce (vinegary Crystal is my favorite, but Tabasco works, too), scallions, parsley, capers, and salt and pepper. Creamy, assertively tangy, with a little heat—for my money, you don't need anything else. (The recipe makes about one cup, which is much more than you'll need for the sandwiches, but the sauce is also awesome with seafood or fried food of any kind, or as a burger topper.)

Then I packed the fried shiitakes onto the bottom half of the baguette, along with shredded iceberg lettuce and sliced tomatoes. Now, the bread for a po' boy can be tricky to find outside of New Orleans. Ideally, it's a French loaf with a slightly crisp and crackly crust (not chewy, like a proper French baguette) and a feathery, light interior. If you have access to a Vietnamese bakery, the loaves used for banh mi are generally perfect. And if you can't find anything to fit the po' boy bill exactly, don't sweat it. Go ahead and pile them onto a kaiser roll and just call it a damn good sandwich.

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