Monday, October 22, 2007
The Mushroom Memoirs
As the night gives itself a long stretch into morning around here, leaves fall and colors turn from green to gold and rust, I’m reminded of an October evening many years ago when I found myself in Provence for the first time. Over the course of the first few days, temperatures dropped and we began to see more and more signs of autumn as we wandered from one village to another. The obvious show of colors was one thing, but we began to pay attention to the more subtle signs that are part of the rituals of the season.
We passed a hunter returning with a catch of birds and his dog and we watched as he made his way back to his village house...
...and we were about to learn about mushrooms (or champignons as they are known in these parts) at the next village.
A haze had come in with the cold and mixed itself with the smoke of leaf-burning fires from the hillsides surrounding the village. The oak woods between our cottage and the main building of this little inn we had found (way off the beaten tourist track) looked haunted. Wisps of gray mist were winding seductively between the tree trunks. The sunset wrapped the soft dream-like image in rapidly changing hues of golden orange until all was swallowed by the dusk. A good evening for sitting by a fire with a glass of port and a good book.
As darkness fell, we wandered down the path through those oak woods to the restaurant. In the long dining room we were seated at a small table draped in white on the wall-side of the room, across from the high French windows that must let in floods of sunshine in the mornings. Somewhere nearby, a fire crackled in a large fireplace throwing warmth and shadows into the room. Owned and run by a very feisty woman "of a certain age", we imagined she was probably doing the cooking in the back as well!
We were drooling over the menu of rustic fare when she brought our apéritifs to the table. Over one arm was a basket...also of a "certain age". Drinks were set down, and she brought the basket to eye level to give us a closer look at its contents as she explained that she had been to the market that morning and these were as fine as any mushrooms she had seen. With a rather unexpected enthusiasm, she was recommending that we make this a part of our choice for the evening. Peeking into the irregularly shaped basket (which probably had a few choice stories of its own of decades past) we saw a collection of mushrooms, all shapes and sizes in an array of colors releasing an earthy perfume of the forest floor from which they had been plucked. Done deal! Those intriguing knobs and ruffles in that old basket would definitely be included in this evening’s meal!
He chose a steak with a side of braised mushrooms in a red wine reduction. Me, I had roasted chicken with the mushrooms in a light cream sauce. The entire experience was one of many magical memories that would remain with me for years and ultimately bring me back to this place I now call home.
These days, as the colors begin to change, as the cold begins to descend and the champignons come into the marché, I enjoy a bit of reflection on memories of that first autumn trip to these parts and that lovely no-nonsense woman with her market basket full of fresh champignons.
I fill my own market basket now with a stash of the autumnal harvest and, like the innkeeper, I would enthusiastically recommend them as the choice of the evening.
Stepping outside of a cream sauce for these little jewels or the risotto, in which I love to give them starring roles, (both delicious ways to make the most of the season of mushrooms), I was looking for something a bit different. Happily, I landed on a way to combine my mushroom cravings and my love of tarts in one fell swoop! With a simple green salad and a glass of wine, you’ve got a fabulous brunch for friends on an autumn afternoon...or a dinner for two...by a crackling fire...
Wild Mushroom and Walnut Tarte Tatin (Adapted from Patricia Wells)
3 pieces of thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces.
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3/4 lb. chanterelles, girolles, cremini or standard cultivated mushrooms (or an assortment of varieties) cleaned, trimmed and cut into thick slices.
Fine sea salt to taste
1 t. fresh or dried thyme leaves
3 plum garlic cloves, green germs removed, minced
3 T. minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup freshly cracked walnut pieces
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pâte feuiteillée (check your refrigerator case for a quick and easy alternative to preparing your own)
for the Walnut Oil Vinaigrette:
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
fine sea salt to taste
1/4 cup best-quality walnut oil
1. Preheat oven to 425°. Place rack in center of the oven
2. Brown bacon, drain on paper towel and set aside.
3. Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick frying pan over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt, and sauté just until the mushrooms begin to give up their juices, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat and add the thyme, garlic, half the parsley, half the walnuts and the bacon. Mix together and, while stirring regularly, let it cook for another minute. Season generously with salt and pepper.
4. Place the pâte feuiteillée on top of the mixture, gently pushing the edges of the pastry down around the edge of the pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the pastry is golden, 20 to 25 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, in a small jar, combine the lemon juice and salt. Cover and shake to dissolve the salt. Add the walnut oil, cover and shake again. Taste for seasoning.
6. Remove the pan from the oven. Run a knife around the edge of the pastry to release it from the sides of the pan. Immediately invert a serving platter with a lip over the pan. Quickly but carefully turn the pan directly over and the tart will drop onto the serving platter. Remove any mushrooms sticking to the bottom of the pan, and place them back onto the tart. Sprinkle the mushrooms with the remaining parsley and walnuts. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve warm, cut into wedges.