The Underworld of Mushrooms, part 2

 The last piece on Mushrooms was link-heavy but this time it has more recipes and in particular my great grandmother’s recipe for preserving the vast amount of wild mushrooms we would gather during late September and October weekends.

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We would, literally, have enough preserved mushrooms to last the whole winter and spring: the upper larder shelf would hold at least 3 dozens of half-gallon jars, and that meant to us a fair amount of mushroom omelets as well as endless servings of antipasto, snacks and sundries.

First, the jars. They had to be clear glass with wire bale snap closure which would be fairly hermetic especially if they came with a rubber lip.

The preserving jars and lids should be clean and sterile. Before the big preserving day we would spend the previous one washing all jars, lids & rings in hot soapy water. We would put a large pot on the gas range and fill it with water and boil to a good, rolling boil. Using steel tongs we would immerse them all and keep submerged for up to 20 minutes then carefully remove jars with the tongs, and drain water from them before laying them on paper towels.

The next day I would wash the dirt off the mushrooms carefully and dry them with linen towels. My great grandmother, in the meantime, would put to the boil a large pot filled exactly with half water and half white vinegar. This, she’d say, will firm up the mushrooms before laying them to rest in the glass jars. She’d boil them for approximately 15 minutes, and drain them. Out of a large piece of dried olive wood, she had fashioned herself a sort of a stump, a bit like a mortar, which she would use to press the first layer of mushrooms forcibly to the bottom of the jar. Then she would stick two peeled garlic cloves and two dried sprigs of thyme and rosemary, a little olive oil then another layer of mushrooms, garlic, thyme & rosemary, a little olive oil until the jar became tightly packed. She would then lay two or three fresh bay leaves, add a soupçon of olive oil and shut the lid tight.

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Needless to say we had the best omelets in the universe. She would used cured ham (jambon de Bayonne) or pancetta and cut thick lardons out of it. Next, a large handful of preserved mushrooms would be cut into strips. Then a good half dozen eggs would be broken and lightly beaten, with a little salt and black pepper. She would always fry omelets in butter so her favorite cast iron frying pan would be put onto the stove, a little butter, then the ham or pancetta would be fried for a couple of minutes, mushrooms then the beaten eggs. Flat parsley would be added sometimes. Believe me, one of these omelet would fill someone for the best part of a day. Occasionally she would add slivers of cooked potatoes and spinach if it was going to be the main meal.

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Here are two great recipes for vegetarians and omnivores alike: “Velvety Cream of Mushroom” and “Mushroom & Goat Cheese Ragout”. First and foremost you will need a good vegetable stock from which you will be grateful to use for both recipes (any leftover can be poured into a glass jar and kept in the freezer for another use).

To make, say, two liters of it you’ll need the following: four large carrots, four onions, four turnips, two leeks, one fennel bulb (optional), four celery stalks, one large sweet potato, one pound of baby potatoes, unpeeled, and if you can find green beans or broccoli, add a large handful to the pot. Add at least two heads of unpeeled garlic, two sprigs of thyme, two of rosemary, a handful of flat parsley, two bay leaves and a half glass of olive oil. You can do this sort of stock with your eyes closed! Wash the vegetables thoroughly and chop them up roughly.

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Pour some olive oil into a large pot, over medium heat. Add the chopped vegetables and cook for about twenty minutes or until the vegetables are golden. Add six to eight liters of water, parsley, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns and garlic. Cover the mixture and bring it to a slow boil. Reduce heat to the lowest temperature and simmer the mixture for approximately two hours, occasionally skimming. Strain the mixture and discard the vegetables (your pets will love the veg mush).

For the “Cream of Mushroom” (serves six to eight) you will need the following:

500 grams (1 pound) of fresh mushrooms (field, oyster, boletes, ceps), whatever you can find at your supermarket (quite often you will find a pre-packed selection of the above) washed & cut into chunks, 2 large sweet potatoes (peeled and cut into chunks), 1 fennel bulb (this adds a nice flavor to this dish), 6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped, 1 leek, finely minced, 250 grams of low-fat white cheese (Cottage okay), 1 half pint of double cream, salt & pepper to taste, a tea-spoon of ground cumin and a large knob of butter.

In a cast-iron pot (okay, a big skillet will do) throw the butter over a medium heat and fry the leek, garlic & fennel for a couple of minutes. Add the sweet potatoes and mushrooms and cover with the vegetable stock. Bring to a slow boil, then reduce heat and cook for 30 minutes. Add the cheese and cumin and cook for a further 5 minutes. Stir in the double cream slowly and cook gently for 5 minutes or until amalgamated. When ready, use the food processor to puree the soup and serve with crusty country bread. If you happen to have a nutmeg on hand, grate a little into the individual soup bowls.

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Mushroom & Goat Cheese Ragout:

Again with this dish you will need to purchase as many wild mushrooms as you can find: oyster, boletes, shiitake, ceps (the dried porcini kind is also good), Paris mushroom and black mushroom.

To serve 6 persons you will need 2 pounds of assorted mushrooms, 1 pint of Passata (tomato purée), 2 red onions, chopped finely, 6 garlic cloves, finely minced, half a pint of dry white wine, half a pound of fresh goat cheese, a dash of cream, salt & pepper to taste, a sprig of thyme and a sprig of rosemary (though if not available, a pinch of dried herbs de Provence will do) and a drop of olive oil.

In a large skillet, pour a little olive oil and cook the onions & garlic till soft, add the washed mushrooms and cook the mixture over moderate heat, stirring, for 10 minutes, or until the liquid the mushrooms give off is evaporated. Stir in the passata, the wine, the herbs and a small amount of the vegetable stock. Cook slowly for another 10 minutes. In a small bowl mash the goat cheese with a fork, drop a bit of cream into it and add to the ragout into the broth, stirring carefully. Simmer the ragout for a couple more minutes and season it with salt and pepper. I “borrowed” the pic below because I couldn’t find my cache of pics I use for this series. Mea Culpa. By the way, if you like a variant to this dish, add a few fresh artichoke hearts to it.

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And lastly, one of my favorite way of serving fungi is to stuff them with fresh crab meat flavored with horseradish. For this you will need some (fresh) large field mushrooms, say 2 per person, a bunch of scallions finely chopped, 8 to 10 ounces of (carefully clean of cartilage) crab meat, 2 large spoons of drained horseradish sauce, 4 garlic cloves finely minced, 1 or 2 Thai chillies, seeded and cut into little strips (optional….but it does add a little fire), a cup of mashed croutons (or you could bake your own bread and use the food processor), a big handful of flat parsley and a dash of cream. This is a great dish to have as a starter and easy to prepare (the mix can be made a day ahead & kept in the refrigerator)

In a bowl, mix the crab meat, the croutons, horseradish, Thai chillies, garlic and scallions, then add the parsley and the cream carefully. Mix well and fill the caps of the mushrooms well. You can either bake this for 15 minutes in a medium heat oven or grill under a salamander until soft. Either way is good!

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