Foodie Tuesday: Mushrooming Appetite

Don’t you just love a good fungus? The edible kind, I mean. Well, I do.
Photo: Morels

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.
Photo: Chanterelle Gold

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.

Foodie Tuesday: Autumnal Comforts

You know that I love the Fall season, even though it’s very late and short here in Texas. Perhaps it benefits from my love of seasonal change in general, but I think the romantic leanings that come in autumn, that sense of impending death softened by the comforts with which we pad ourselves and by the death-defying renewal of the beginning of school and art seasons, have their own peculiar attractions. And of course, there is the bounty of foods that are best appreciated as we slide from the fall equinox to the winter.photoThe World in Autumn

Thin branches caging up the sun

In willow-wavy lacelike hands,

All skeletons and ampersands,

Hold clouds together in the one

Unreadable yet literate

Equation of the interstices

Whose elated season this is,

Crisp and quite deliberate

In tracing every moment in it,

Hour, year, and state of mind

Among the bones of humankind,

As though these things were infinite.

photoOne of the delights I most admire in this season is earthy flavors. An abundance of root vegetables and mushrooms signals time for soups, stews and sauces whose savory riches warm body and soul and recall me to the embrace of home and childhood in many ways. A simple creamy soup loaded with mushrooms is hard to beat for succor on a grey and blustery day. A bouquet of cauliflower roasted with nothing more than a quantity of butter and salt and pepper until just-right is heavenly; adding sage leaves to the butter and a handful of shredded Reggiano to the top of the cauliflower just when they’ll have time to crisp and brown lightly moves the easy dish to a higher floor in the heavenly skyscraper.photoRoasted vegetables of any kind are especially welcome in the cooler seasons, and so easy to toss together with a little olive oil or butter in the oven while everything else is being prepared for the table that it’s almost a crime not to put them in the oven. Throw a chopped lemon in to roast with them and they are sauced in their own juices. Put the remains (if any) the next day into a bowl with a cup of hot homemade broth and a poached or soft-cooked egg or two, add cooked rice or noodles if you like, and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, (or bi-bim-bap!), you have a bowl full of nutritious, delicious, and not at all ambitious goodness right in your own little corner of this magical autumn season.

Foodie Tuesday: Un-, Ex-, De-, Out-

We are leaving one season and entering another. Time to divest ourselves of pretense and the impulse to be over-elaborate when making a change. I see people all around me worrying that their Thanksgiving menu isn’t finalized, their Fall-themed altar of mantel decor not as impressive as the next neighbor’s, and their Halloween costumes not thrilling and polished enough to accompany their hundred handmade sweets for the twenty-seven tiny Monsters who will come knocking. Better, sometimes, to enjoy simpler approaches and simpler pleasures! Autumn can be:

Uncomplicated.

Extricated from fussiness.

Demystified.

Outrageously edible.

photoAt the change of each season I do have a tendency to shift in my flavor preferences. When it’s been summer-hot out and finally becomes cool, those warming, earthy, old-fashioned and evocative spices and scents of Fall–cinnamon and cardamom, roasted roots and mushrooms, sweetly freckled pears and chalky-skinned, slightly scabby McIntosh apples (not the electronic kind, mind you) begin their annual siren songs of woodsy, sit-by-the-hearth allure. And I can go a little crazy.

[I can see you out there rolling your eyes at my gift for stating the obvious.]photo

It’s easy to go a bit wild, to be the over-swung pendulum flying to opposite extremes, when one has been long immured in the cooling pools of summer’s lovely seasonal foods and beginning to long for something different. But of course delicious flavors needn’t be exaggerated to be glorious. Sometimes the over-the-top approach is indeed precisely what I desire, since I’m a more-is-more kind of person in general, but sometimes a little subtlety is also a welcome thing. A restrained hand in the kitchen can allow a smaller assortment of lovely notes to interplay beautifully, and the pleasure of savoring one gorgeous individual taste at a time, too, can provide moments of sublime happiness that stretch well beyond the culinary.

I know this stuff perfectly well in my head, but my heart frequently scarpers off with my stomach quick as the dish with the proverbial spoon, and once again I have to calm myself and remember that there’s plenty of time in the season for me to slow down and savor the flavors before the next change arrives. It happened again last week, and I had a narrow escape from the annual autumnal overkill. I pressed aside my rabid plans for the sort of dangerously delirious feast that would’ve kept me comatose right up until the next fit of wildness did hit me at Thanksgiving. Fanning myself thoughtfully with a big spatula, I got busy making a much less complicated, sautéed and simmered, soup treat and found it as satisfying as could be.photo

Hearty Cauliflower & Mushroom Soup

Simmer 1 bunch of fresh sage leaves in 1/2 lb of pastured butter (I use salted–I’m very fond of my salt, thankyouverymuch) until the butter’s golden brown and fully infused with the herb and the leaves have given up their moisture. Strain out the leaves onto paper and let them crisp up nicely, giving them an additional sprinkle of salt if desired for crunch. Sauté 2 cups cauliflower florets and 1-1/2 cups sliced brown mushrooms (both can be fresh or frozen) in plenty of the sage butter until they’re soft and caramelized. Add a little liquid–water, dry sherry, broth, buttermilk or cream as you blend it all with a stick blender. No need to get it thin or even quite smooth: this is a rustic Fall soup, after all. Garnish it as you wish: a swirl of buttermilk or Crème fraîche, some crumbled crispy bacon, some deeply caramelized onions, or just a generous toss of those crisped sage leaves.

There’s only a little bit left to complete this recipe: take your bowl of prepared soup, curl yourself in the arms of a big, well-worn overstuffed chair, bundle up in that wonderful old afghan lap-rug your granny crocheted for you in your youth, crack open a musty classic book, and lap up your thick soup with a big, deep spoon. Sigh, turn page, sip, repeat. Winter’s just a few chapters away.photo

Foodie Tuesday: My Crustacean Crush

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Who are *you* calling a Shrimp??? These here critters are Prawns, ma’am!

Living in north Texas, I realize we’re only a day’s drive away from the Gulf Coast, and stores and eateries here have generally plentiful provisions of Gulf Coast shrimp, catfish, stone crabs and other delicacies of the region to be sure. But I will admit to occasional bouts of longing for the profligate availability, in our former stomping grounds on the West coast, of those indigenous oceanic treats and northwest native water denizens with whom I grew up. The salmon and steelhead Gramps would bring us fresh from the Skykomish; the Dungeness crab caught that morning in the icy water of Puget Sound or sweet clams dug from the rocky coarse sand beaches of the Pacific Ocean, all right at our doorstep. The Alaskan runs of halibut and Copper River salmon being dashed down the coast from boat to table in a matter of hours. These are the delicacies on which I was weaned and cut my kitchen choppers, so to speak. Gulf Coast treats are a delight of their own kind, but neither should ever, could ever, supplant the other in anyone’s heart and mind and tastebuds.

So I indulge a little when I come across any of that home-reminiscent bounty of the sea and shore when I’m able. But I’m also working my way around the places in my newer home region that seem to proffer the authentic and fresh and well-crafted seafood known and loved by Texans and lake-landers and southerners, to learn more of what’s so great about what’s right here and what can be brought in that brings the oceans with it. Today needed to be a seafood day; either my heart or, at the very least, my tastebuds told me so.

On an ordinary Tuesday, I’m out grocery shopping in the afternoon, because my zookeeper husband, having a short turn-around time between when he gets home from Tuesday morning staff meetings and work at the church in Dallas and when he needs to be back at the university to do his final preparations for choir rehearsal there, has me drive him over and that gives me a convenient time with access to the car for the grocery expedition. Today wasn’t ordinary, though–having sung an extra-rigorous schedule  of rehearsals and performances of Theodora, the Collegium singers had earned a break from today’s usual rehearsal time. Since his schedule today included useful and necessary meetings with at least three or four different parties during the day and a significant reception event in the evening, all in Dallas, and since most of my partner’s administrative and score-study work can be done at or from any of his three current office spaces (school, church and home all having library materials, keyboards, computers and telephones), it’s an all-day Dallas day.

While we could, of course, have brought our lunch, it offered an opportunity for us to go to a place known for its seafood and indulge the whim a bit. So that’s what we did. Truluck’s–where I confess we’ve not yet tried anything not particularly aquatic to eat other than a little salad–seems to me to treat their seafood with respect, and not try to disguise anything second-rate with overworked or over-complicated distractions. So the fresh prawns in the first shot, their “Shrimp Cocktail“, is nothing but five massive prawns cooked, chilled, and served in their own stainless cauldron over billowing dry ice (that looks remarkably like the dish was shipped straight from Cawdor) with a couple of wedges of lemon and a hearty spoonful of brain-clearing horseradish cocktail sauce. It’s entirely possible that anyone wishing to do so could eat this supposed cocktail with some of the house bread and butter and leave fully replete and contented. But one has, after all, passed the display tank in the entrance on the way to one’s table, and the crustaceans there waved their antennae and claws ever so coyly and winsomely . . .

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…with a friendly ‘Howdy Do’ to all and sundry…

. . . so, clearly it would be rude to ignore the invitation and bypass a further dish. The dish of choice: a bowl of the house Lobster Bisque, as creamy and unfussy and redolent of the rosy lobster as one could like, and studded with a few very nice hunks of mild and tender lobster meat lazily rafting around in the foamy pool. The soup is poured into the bowls tableside, over a good dollop of goat cheese, and having that nice bit of mild zing gradually melting into the soup so that it intermittently brightens the mellow, cayenne-tinted warmth of the broth and balances the lovely bit of cognac (or is it sherry?) just barely sweetening the pot–well, it’s all finally melded into a slurry that goes down a treat on top of those recumbent prawns now nestled neatly in one’s happy stomach.

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Creamy and dreamy.

I’m still looking forward to the next time out on the coast and eating Cheri’s inimitable clam chowder (no one else’s anywhere has come close yet) at the 42nd Street Cafe, or wild-caught King salmon straight off its cedar roasting plank, or taking ridiculously big forkfuls of Dungeness crab drenched in melted butter and washing them down with a glass of some nice, crisp, dry Washington Riesling . . .

Of course, there’s all of that seafood beckoning to me from the vast array of countries and cities and restaurants and home kitchens full of good sushi and curries, gravlax and dishes alla Pescatore and, oh, oh, ohhhhh . . . .