There’s something subtle and musky and sensual about a good dish, beautifully prepared, with mushrooms in it. Alluring, even a little mysterious. Eating it is like taking a walk in the woods, filling my lungs with the bracing green and mossy air, and hearing the whisper of spirits in the trees. I feel more at one with nature. Raw mushrooms have never quite had the same effect on me, being to my mind a little too much like erasers in texture, though a well-dressed one might pass for the preferred texture of cooked ones as a pickle or in a salad, perhaps. But lightly sautéed or slow-cooked into a dish, mushrooms call to me.
My answer might come in a soup bowl, if I’m lucky, where the fungi can take the starring role rather than a supporting one and their mild and loamy loveliness can be the center of my affectionate attentions.
Sweet Mushroom Chowder
Take one bulb of fresh fennel and two shallots, thinly sliced. One large carrot, diced small. One sprig of fresh thyme. Sauté in plenty of butter. Add two cups fresh mushrooms, thickly sliced or coarsely chopped. Sauté the vegetables and mushrooms all together until everything’s golden and very faintly crisped. Pull out the thyme stem. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of Calvados, if you have it (or some dry sherry, brandy, apple juice, broth or water). Take two cups of well cooked sweet corn kernels, drained, and puree them [a stick blender is handy for this] until silky smooth with about a half cup of whole milk, then stir the corn puree with the mixed mushrooms and vegetables. Adjust to the thickness you prefer with more milk, if needed. Season the chowder to taste with white pepper, grated nutmeg, and salt.
Slurp slowly, if you can, and let the understory elegance of the mushrooms have its full magical effect on you.