from "Living Within", December, 2016
With recent world events making feeling celebratory “a bit soon”, I am going to talk mushrooms this December. Typical autumn fare, and still widely available, I found wild specimens this week in a market in SW France, via a man with a blink-and-you-might-miss-it seasonal stall dedicated to his forest foragings. Life going on as normally as possible in this part of the world where the locals are trying to summon up the necessary to switch on their twinkle lights.
Sporting a large handlebar moustache - one that I am pretty certain predates any single “Movember” - my vendor asked how I intended to cook the chanterelles and black “trompettes de la mort” (trumpets of death) that I was selecting (and given that he was a man who clearly knew his mushrooms, I was prepared to take it as read that they were safe to eat). He suggested a “persillade”, and asked if I knew how to prepare one; I made the error of offering what I thought I knew instead of asking him what he did. Parsley and garlic was what I said and, raising an impressive, almost moustache matching, eyebrow, he gently shook his head. For these two delicately flavoured mushrooms, shallots instead of garlic - garlic will overwhelm them. We were, after all, closer to Bordeaux than Provence, and to cook mushrooms “à la Bordelaise” the subtleties of shallots are preferred; it is in the true south that garlic gets thrown about with more wanton abandon.
I bought a mixture of ‘shrooms - cèpes and “pieds de mouton” (the French call them sheep’s feet, we call them hedgehogs) added to my bill of fare, and used them all to fill a tart. First I cooked each variety according to its own needs, which are, for the record, as follows:
Cèpes (and other mushrooms capable of holding their shape, their water, and their own in terms of flavour): pare the base of the stems to remove any dirt, wipe the caps, and anywhere else that looks like it needs a wash, with a damp piece of kitchen paper, then gently remove stems from caps. Cut the stems in two (lengthwise), and discard any part of the interior that is either wormy or spongy. Chop half of what remains of all the stems into fine dice and put to one side; slice the rest of the stalks into thick slices. Slice the caps in thick slices too.
Chop some shallots very finely; have a fistful of breadcrumbs to hand; chop a bunch of parsley. Heat a large pool of olive oil in a generously sized frying pan (large enough not to crowd your ingredients). When the oil and the pan are both hot, throw in all of the cèpes, except for the finely diced stems, and add salt. Toss or stir the mushrooms in the oil until they start to take on a little colour, then turn down the heat and let them cook through for a few minutes. Turn the heat back up again, throw in the shallots, the finely diced stems, and stir and cook for about 5 minutes more until the shallots no longer seem raw. Finally, add the breadcrumbs, two thirds of the chopped parsley, and some freshly ground black pepper. When the breadcrumbs have absorbed the oil from the pan you can serve the mushrooms with a sprinkle of lemon juice and the remainder of the chopped parsley added as garnish.
Pieds de Mouton/Hedgehogs: prepare in similar fashion to the cèpes - wipe, trim, cut or slice appropriately to their size. Fry, seasoned with salt, in hot oil (you can add a clove or two of whole peeled garlic if you like - to be discarded at the end of cooking and avoids the harshness of chopped garlic), add in a sprinkling of parsley toward the end, and pepper and lemon juice to serve.
Chanterelles and Trumpets of Death: mushroom experts advise, for the most part, against washing mushrooms - wiping is the order of the day. However, if you don’t want to be chewing on grit, these mushrooms need a bath in the form of a large bowl, or sink, filled with cold water. Remove what you can see of excess bits of woodland or forest floor first, then dunk the mushrooms into the water and give them a few seconds to let the dirt float out of them. With your finger splayed apart, gently lift them from the surface of the water by hand, and put them to drain in a colander; from there tip them onto clean tea towels and, delicately, pat them as dry as you can.
These mushrooms will give off a lot of water while cooking. If you attempt to fry them and let the water evaporate, they are likely to end up overwhelmed with liquid and will stew, becoming overcooked and rubbery. Instead, have a large heavy-based pan with a lid and put a high heat under it; add the mushrooms to it with a sprinkling of salt, clamp on the lid, allow them to come rapidly to a foaming boil in the liquid they will give off almost immediately, then drain into a colander sitting over a clean bowl (you can keep the liquid and use it as stock for another time). Once these have drained and cooled, they can be fried in a bit of foaming butter, or oil if you prefer. Finish as for the other mushrooms - with “persillade” (ie the shallots and parsley - breadcrumbs if you like) or, like me, you can mix them with the other mushrooms already cooked and use them all together.
I put mine, all mixed together with a squeeze of lemon, into a pastry lined tart shell; the pastry should be blind baked, and the filled tart finished in a medium hot oven for about 15-20 minutes (the mushrooms, remember, are already cooked). You could add chestnuts and/or other nuts (walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, you decide), ditch the pastry case and serve as a stuffing for a festive bird - either pushed into its cavity, or my choice would be baked separately in a, lightly buttered, oven-proof dish. You can serve them as a fricassée, on toast, or as accompaniment to a main course, you can stir them through pasta or add them to an omelette; you can add a splash of cream, and/or eggs and cook them in a quiche. There are many possibilities and there are more than these varieties of mushroom - cultivated as well as wild. Methods of washing and cooking can fall into one or other of the camps outlined - all you need decide is which is appropriate for the particular mushrooms available to you and of your choosing.