Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cooking to Save the Planet: Mushrooms and Eggs (and Sweet Potatoes and Crème Fraîche)

Writing about food in the week after American Thanksgiving is like carrying coals to Newcastle, isn't it? Or gilding the lily. Or something along the lines of those two metaphors: too much too much, when we've just finished beating too much too much to death less than a week since.

Still, there's all that turkey left. The cranberry relish. The sweet potatoes, dressing, and pecan pie. Who can stop thinking about food when there's the blasted icebox full of holiday food to work into this week's meals in some imaginative form that tricks you into believing you're eating fresh items and not leftovers? 

And then there are the mushrooms. Which Steve and I happened across yesterday as we did our old people's shopping at our local grocery store on the day that offers what Steve insists on calling our gray-haired discount, as he points fetchingly to his temples when the cashier rings our items up, encouraging him or her not to forget the discount. 

Boxes of beautiful shiitake mushrooms were on sale yesterday, perhaps left over from Thanksgiving, when people may have been buying them to chop into their rice pilaf or dressing. I love the chewy texture and earthy, slightly spicy taste of shiitakes, and so we brought home two of the boxes and I prepared them immediately for our evening meal.

Which is to say, I simply washed them quickly (mushrooms absorb water, and should always be washed very quickly), brushed off any growing medium clinging to the gills or stalks, and sautéed them whole in a frying pan with a large knob of butter. In the evening, they became our main dish for supper, with two eggs cracked into them and quickly scrambled with them. (I didn't add the eggs until suppertime, of course, since leftover scrambled eggs just don't do the trick. Scrambled eggs have to be eaten the moment they've been dished from the frying pan onto a plate.)

I can remember exactly the moment I first realized that eggs and mushrooms go together like cherries and chocolate or pecans and brown sugar. It was in 1966, when I first read The Hobbit  and learned that the hobbits had a passion for mushrooms, eggs, and bacon cooked together. A revelation, since they so obviously go together, but nothing in my culinary experience up to that point had prepared me to recognize this--since my family treated mushrooms as an afterthought and not as the centerpiece of a meal, for the most part.

We did chop them into the rice pilaf that always accompanied turkey and dressing and ham on the Thanksgiving and Christmas table, and they were likely to be sliced and sautéed in butter, perhaps with a sliver of garlic, on the rare occasions when we had grilled steaks. Served alongside or on top of the steak, as a decorative embellishment akin to parsley, and not as the point of the meal. 

We sometimes added sliced mushrooms to spaghetti sauce, or sliced fresh mushrooms to mixed salads, and I seem to recall them appearing alongside green and black olives, artichoke hearts, carrot sticks, and celery filled with pimiento cheese on Christmas relish trays--pickled button mushrooms from jars. My mother had a chop suey recipe she had gotten in the early 1950s from a neighbor, a recipe that called for two days (!) of stewing this and that--several kinds of cubed meat--and then adding canned Chinese vegetables to the meat (bean sprouts, sliced water chestnuts) along with sliced celery, onion, and mushrooms, and so we knew (and relished) them in that strange mongrelized "Chinese" dish over-strewn with chow mein noodles and served over rice.

A wife of a cousin of my mother cooked a killer coq au vin, and mushrooms starred in that recipe, though the chicken was obviously the main star. Another revelatory dish, since I'm not sure I knew the taste of tarragon until she introduced my family to it in that delicious wine-drenched, long-simmered, herb-infused chicken stew that she invariably served with mashed potatoes as a foil . . . . 

But mushrooms as a main dish? Mushrooms with eggs, in which the mushrooms are as important as the eggs? Nothing about the way my family treated mushrooms as I was growing up prepared me for that revelation. From the moment I read about mushrooms and eggs in The Hobbit, I knew that the dish was simply right . . . . The palate in my head could taste it, and declared that it was good.

I know that the traditional British breakfast dish is more likely to be a fry--with the eggs fried alongside the mushrooms--than the fry-scramble I prefer, in which the mushrooms are fried in plenty of butter (and whole), and then anointed with a small amount of creamy, quickly cooked, soft scrambled egg, so that the mushrooms and not the eggs are really the point of the dish. Still, try my preparation. See if you don't like it. Add some grated parmesan if the spirit moves you, a scrap of garlic if you like, a pinch of nutmeg, a strewing of chopped parsley, a soupçon of cayenne--definitely a generous grind of black pepper, which brings out the spicy undertones of the shiitakes. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

(I also highly recommend a dish I made for our Thanksgiving meal last week. We weren't at home and didn't have access to a well-stocked kitchen. In fact, the timeshare in which we spent the week didn't even have an oven, so we were forced to plan a meal that could be cooked on top of a stove and in a microwave. 

For Steve, that meant steak. For me, an array of vegetables  and salads that were as important as the steak to my way of thinking. We were in Salt Lake City, and every store we went into had beautiful displays of sweet potatoes that were, for some mysterious reason, invariably labeled as yams. For the dish I'm recommending to you, which I made to accompany the steaks, I selected a nice richly colored Garnet variety sweet potato and a large Idaho baking potato of the same size. 

I peeled and cut the Irish potato into rough cubes and boiled the cubes in salted water while I baked the sweet potato in the microwave, having remembered to pierce it on both sides so that it wouldn't explode as it baked. When both were done and the Irish potato drained, I mashed them (together) and folded in about five or six ounces of crème fraîche. And that was it. 

The salt in the Irish potatoes was sufficient for the entire dish, though you might want to add a sprinkle of salt if you find the potatoes bland after mashing them together and tasting them. I think I did grate some black pepper into our potatoes before I brought them to the table.

They were delicious, and very simple to prepare. The nutty flavor of the crème fraîche with its slight hint of sourness complements the slight sweetness of the sweet potato particularly well. This recipe is a keeper that I'll be using again--if I can locate crème fraîche anywhere nearby, now that we're back home.)

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