Mushrooming

So far 2019 has been a flurry of house moving, getting back to work and dealing with both another gas leak and a bout of gastric flu. However I have managed to stay true to the promise I made at the end of last year, to seriously reduce the amount of animal protein in my diet for reasons of sustainability.

It hasn’t quite manifested as I’d thought. Originally I had envisioned a fairly strict regime, almost a timetable, with certain days and mealtimes being allotted for those ‘meat-treat’ moments. As it transpired the process has been a much more natural one. As my awareness of what I eat has slowly been nurtured throughout the past year, so I find myself acting on instinct. The whole concept of meat-eating now seems largely unattractive and although I am against the idea of extremes – ruling some things out completely is unhealthy for the psyche – I have encountered little or no opposition to what are becoming commonplace culinary habits.

You could say that my habits have mushroomed. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope In The Dark:

What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork Рor underground work Рoften laid the foundation. 

Solnit is making a point about societal and ideological changes in a global context, but the metaphor stands for personal lifestyle rejigging too. As I let the ideas I first read about over a year ago ferment inside me so their power grew to the point where, now, I am fully embracing a new way of cooking and eating.

Stands to reason I should include a mushroom recipe in my first post of the new year. Indeed ever since I returned to China I have had a craving for fungi-based food. I had the foresight to buy a few packets of dried wild mushrooms to bring back with me, ¬†mixtures of chanterelles, ceps and horn of plenty, among others, and I’ve been scouring the mushroom varieties in the greengrocer’s – under new and friendlier ownership – finding selections of button, oyster and enoki.

Last night I followed an Ottolenghi recipe from his book Plenty. Before I came back I studiously went through all my mother’s cookbooks and magazines, taking photos of all the – mostly – vegan recipes I could find so I now have a ready collection to turn to. This mushroom ragout features both duck egg and sour cream, as well as butter at some point I think, but I omitted all these and to my mind didn’t make the dish worse for it.

A technique I learned was to cook the fresh mushrooms first in hot oil for a minute or two, not moving them around so that they browned on one side, before flipping them over to obtain an even golden-ness. The smell in the kitchen during this bit was heavenly and if I shut my eyes I could fancy that I was in fact frying a piece of steak. Once I’d removed the mushrooms I added half an onion, chopped, to soften with a bit more oil. I’d already put my dried fungi in to soak in warm water and I drained out the rich liquor to pour into the pan with a glug of red wine. I let the broth simmer with some thyme and a pinch of salt for about twenty-five minutes, after which I added all the mushrooms and reduced until I had a fantastic dark and glossy stew. I made croutons out of a baguette, toasting them in the oven with oil, salt and a garlic rub until crisp. Then it was a simple matter of stirring some chopped parsley into the stew and heaping it over the bread on the plate.

Absolutely fantastic this. I had thought to use polenta instead of the bread, cooking it then letting it cool before frying it up in wedges, but I couldn’t find any. It’s something I’d like to try in the future because I can see it working just as well.