Jan 12, 2015

Creatures of the Night

Last night I had a dream I was harvesting matches from a tree. Each branch's terminal bud was a match, red tipped and smooth with a slight roughness. Climbing the tree, pockets full of matches, I would snap one and then another, collecting them like berries. But I was sweating, my heart racing, because one slip and I could set the entire tree aflame. 

My life feels like this.

Starting 2015, I have felt the weight of what lies ahead, trying to be as careful about each step that I make, trying to take into consideration each "match" that I gather, so I can use it later, or trade it, or whatever, and not burn it up. It's an exhausting business, and I should probably start meditating.

But instead of meditating, or reading or exercising, I have been lying awake for hours. Deep in the quiet of the night, huddled in my bathrobe on the couch listening to a neighbor's wind chimes, or the wind itself,  I've been thinking about mushrooms. I could be a mushroom, at the rate I'm going.


      That one there for its deep-sea color,
      and that one for its velvet feel. 

- Pablo Neruda, Ode to things

Earlier this week I learned about the Maillard reaction from a mushroom farmer. This mushroom farmer is named Dennis and he has 1970's style wire rimmed glasses and a kind of wonderful curly mullet that only is appropriate if you are a mushroom farmer in New Hampshire, in my opinion.

He explained the principle in regards to cooking mushrooms (I think, although we had been talking about macaroni and cheese, which I will follow up with later) and he knew the guy's name so well, without looking at any internet (these days! imagine!), that I dared him to say it again. Yes, yes, Louis-Camille Maillard, he told me in his New Hampshire accent, even spelling out the name so I could write it down. Clearly it's been a long time since I was in school.

The reaction has to do with sugars and amino acids reacting at high temperatures to produce new colors and flavors in food. For example, roasted coffee, baked bread, caramelized milk and sugar. What fabulous verbs to describe these transformations! 

But yes, it also has to do with delicious mushrooms. 

Learning to cook mushrooms properly will change your life. It will be the difference between soggy, watery mushrooms, and golden, crispy on the edges mushrooms full of that gorgeous and enchanting middle-of-the-night flavor. My weird watercolor, above, based on the smell of dried wild mushrooms, is my attempt to capture what feels like a mix of woodsy blue-green forest flavors such as pine, tree bark and wet dirt with a glowing middle of rich, warm, amber tones—something ancient and strange. 

Mushrooms are not a spice, but can be used as such, especially if they are dried and then ground or crumbled into a dish. In general, mushrooms are a mysterious and wonderful ingredient: "creatures of symbiosis and decay" as Harold McGee puts it. They are not just tasty for their meaty texture, but for their enriching capabilities–an all natural source of MSG. See McGee's book On Food and Cooking for more delicious knowledge.

Here are my mushroom storage and cooking suggestions, or see below for a Dennis-inspired mushroom recipe!

For Fresh Mushrooms:
  • Yes you can wash your mushrooms. But only if you see dirt all up in there. Otherwise you can just brush them off. But wash them right before you're ready to use them, or else storing them will cause them to mold. Just rinse in cold water and then shake off the water and start chopping 
  • If you're not ready to use them, put them in a paper bag (never plastic) to store in the fridge. They need to breathe!  
  • When ready to cook, heat a large skillet on HIGH with a few TB of olive oil, or a knob of butter. When the oil is shimmering or the butter melted, add just enough mushrooms to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer. Use a chopstick or your fingers to push them around so they form a single layer. This contact with the hot oil is what will create the Maillard reaction and transform the mushrooms flavor and texture. Note: if you are doing a whole bunch of mushrooms, or you have a small skillet, you will need to do them in batches.  
  • DO NOT STIR. Once you have the mushrooms in a single layer, reduce the heat slightly (to Medium HIGH) and just let them sit there and cook for 5-7 minutes. You may peek to see if they are cooking properly by lifting one up and seeing the color change. They should like the mushrooms in the above photo.  
  • After 5-7 minutes, use a spatula to flip them over and continue to cook for 5-7 minutes. Again DO NOT STIR!
For Dried Mushrooms:
  • If you are using dried WILD mushrooms, it's best to soak them and let the sand/dirt settle out into the bottom of your bowl. Soak for at least 10 minutes and then scoop out the mushrooms. If you want to use the soaking water, be sure to pour off the liquid without the sand.  
  • If they are dried CULTIVATED mushrooms, just add directly to your soup or sauce and cook for 8-10 minutes at least. If using in a recipe without a lot of liquid, soak in hot water for 10 minutes. 

World-Class Mushroom Mac & Cheese
Inspired by Dennis

Dennis told me about this "World Class" mac and cheese when we were talking about dried black trumpet mushrooms and what to do with them. Though he didn't give me a recipe per se, I got the gist and figured one myself. It's basically the perfect mid-winter dish. Rich and satisfying.
Serve with an arugula salad and some red wine.

2 cups fresh mushrooms, such as baby portobellos, sliced
2 TB olive oil
2 TB unsalted butter
2 TB flour
1 3/4 cups milk
1/3 cup dried mushrooms, such as black trumpet or porcini
1 heaping cup grated cheddar cheese (8 oz)
1/3 cup heavy cream
8 oz elbow or macaroni pasta
1 TB melted butter
2 TB breadcrumbs
A few sprigs of fresh thyme

Sauté the fresh mushrooms using the method described above. These will be for the top of the mac & cheese, the way you'd usually put breadcrumbs. Once cooked to a gorgeous golden color, set aside. 

Put on a large pot of water with a dash of salt to boil (for your pasta) and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Next make the cheese sauce. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the unsalted butter then add the flour, whisking for 3-4 minutes until it's turned a light brown. Turn off the heat and slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to keep the sauce smooth. Once you've added all the milk, turn the heat back on to LOW and add the dried mushrooms, crumbling them a bit in your hand as you go. Stir to combine and let the sauce come to simmer. Add the heavy cream and cheddar cheese, making sure to save some cheddar for the topping. Stir to combine.

Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, but don't rinse, and return to the pot. Add the mushroom-cheese sauce and toss to combine.

In a small bowl, melt 1 TB butter and add the cooked fresh mushrooms so they are butter-coated. Next add the 2 TB breadcrumbs and toss to coat.

In a casserole dish, place the pasta in an even layer and top with the bread-crumb coated mushrooms. Sprinkle on the remaining cheddar cheese and place in the oven for 20 minutes. Finish with fresh thyme leaves.

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