Friday, April 27, 2012

Mushroom and almond soup

Casey, my niece, went mushrooming for the first time this week in the Penrose State Forest south of Sydney. She and her fellow foragers were after saffron milk caps/pine mushrooms  - Lactarius deliciosus. a native of the Southern Pyrenees now long established in pine forests in Australia. They found plenty, it having rained recently and the weather firmly now in autumn mode (let's not get into the issues of seasonal naming in Australia). Her companions were reluctant to collect ones they thought a bit overblown; some bruising on the gills, a little ragged at the edges. But Casey was sure I would say they were perfectly all right, which of course they are, and so brought home a vast quantity.

We had them on the day of picking lightly sauteed and served with wilted spinach and a saffron risotto that Marilyn made in her zoosh new Thermomix. That still left quite a quantity. As I have been reading Sue Shephard's informative and entertaining Pickled, Potted and Canned. The Story of Food Preserving (Headline 2000) (which interestingly when I looked for a link to it I find is now listed as Pickled, Potted and Canned. How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World - have I got some weird rare copy (in my dreams!)) I immediately thought of drying them. Not being confident of doing this by the method of stringing them up and in the absence of a fireplace or dry weather to do it I turned to the oven.

Alas, I have to report failure here. The notes I hastily found online didn't lead to the hoped for result - took way too long and didn't end up dry as I had hoped even then and certainly not as pretty as the store-bought dried European mix I have on hand. Another time perhaps.

My other thought was mushroom soup. Casey being a vegan, I looked for recipes that didn't require using butter or lard as for sauteing the mushrooms or adding any dairy as a thickener. The first criteria was easy enough with olive oil being substituted, and for the second I found suggestions for using  ground almonds, a practice that has a long history but seems to have gone out of favour.

Here's what I did - imprecisely as I didn't measure things as I went, not having planned ahead to write this blog - well, who knew if it was going to be successful anyway.

I wiped the mushrooms with kitchen paper to remove pine needle and other bits of plant matter and soil that had attached itself to the caps.  I don't know where I read never to wash mushrooms but I follow that practice. I took about a dozen largish mushrooms and sliced them across the vertical (oh, say, 4 -5 mm thick) and then , as some of them were quite large, into bite size pieces. I diced half an onion quite fine (I was going to use a leek but there was half an onion left in the fridge and I am on a reduce waste kick). I put a good slosh or three of olive oil into a saucepan and when the oil was hot I tossed in the onion to soften. I threw in some Greek dried oregano (I get it in a packet still on the stem and crush it as I need) and poked it and the onions around a bit. To this I added the chopped mushrooms and gave it all a bit more of a paddle to lightly saute the mushrooms.

While this sauteing was going on I made up some vegetable stock (of course I used a cube- as I said, I have been reading Sue Shepard's book and am no longer ashamed of using cubes but see myself as part of the great tradition of preserving by concentration). I poured in enough to set the mushrooms a-swim comfortably in the stock. Casey brought back some herbed salt from her trip to Spain last year and I put in a good couple of pinches of that. Finally I added a good grind or two of pepper. I set all of this to simmer.

Now I took a good handful of almonds and ground them to a paste in my spice grinder. I added a little of the hot stock from time to time to assist the grinder.

I tipped all of this paste into the saucepan and let it cook down for 15 minutes or so. The mushrooms were fresh and thickly enough cut to remain good and firm in the broth, which was now a lovely pale orange from the mushroom juices.

Casey pronounced it delicious and I concur. There was enough to keep in the fridge for tonight as well, and I added a finely diced fresh green chili to mine as a superfluous but satisfying garnish.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Okay, it is just possible I cannot make dough. Pie dough, that is (well bread dough to if it comes to that). I think it is because I have absolutely no understanding of what it is. I understand rice, have all my life. I understand hoppers - those yeasted batter bowl shaped pancakes (for want of a common description) and can turn them out, albeit I have to use a non-stick hopper pan so the sides aren't as frilly as they could be, but I also don't understand tempering of a pan so am unlikely to make great advances in using a trad hopper pan. I understand string hoppers, which are from a kind of dough, a rice flour paste really that has to be just the right consistency not to totally set off my arthritis as I squeeze out the noodles (some describe them as vermicelli) onto the bamboo mats for steaming, and I make them darn well. I understand pittu, that mix of rice flour and grated coconut steamed in a columnar thingy. I can turn out a damn fine coconut roti and have been known to assay a decent godamba roti (a wheat based roti on the Malaysian side of rotis). But Euro dough is another country to me. I shall persist, however, as I am determined to make a curried beef (or for my vegan and vegetarian housemates curried vegetable) pie.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Learning the game

I think I have talked before about how comfortable I mostly feel now in putting together a dish from scratch based on the years I've spent cooking and coming to understand flavours and techniques that while they may not produce cutting edge cuisine will get me through most meals whether for myself or for a hastily gathered group.

I'm not claiming for myself anything other than practice, but it feels great to take a basic bechamel and add a splash of tomato sugo, a generous pinch of herbed sea salt and an equally generous pinch of smoked paprika (one of my favourite flavourings), reduce it down to a stage where I can add a panful of lightly sauteed mixed mushrooms and simmer this down quickly to a creamy mixture that I can pour over a layer of slices of just cooked potato lining the bottom of a grapeseed oiled dish, top with another layer of potatoes sprinkled with grated parmesan, grill, and have a most satisfying wet autumn night's dinner. But to also recognise as I hoe into it that the next time presenting the dish with a side of chopped fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, marjoram and perhaps sage either solo or in combo) would take the dish just that step further. Would I go the extent of sliced kalamata olives along with the parmesan on top, absolutely, and I may even go so far as to slice up my home salted dried kalimata that have been marinating in olive oil and dried chili for a couple of years. But no more, I think. There's a fine balance to be found between the additions that enhance the basic dish and those that overwhelm its basics, in this case that combination of potatoes and mushrooms, and I think it's that balance that I get right more often than not these days (there still are disasters that are best composted).

As I think I have in my barbecued whole fish (snapper works well as does redfish). In the absence of lemon or dill one day I looked to the herbs in the garden for a tad of inspiration. What I came up with was first oiling, pepper and salting a sheet of aluminium foil, then laying on top of it a generous bunch of lemon verbena and sprigs of bay, putting the same mix inside the gutted belly of the fish, deep scoring the flesh of the fish three times, laying the fish on its side on the prepared sheet of aluminium foil, then covering the exposed side of the fish with more lemon verbena, bay, pepper, salt and oil, covering that with another sheet of foil, sealing the packet and barbecuing it at a high heat for around 10 to 15 minutes each side.