Wednesday, September 30, 2009

memories of mushrooms

when i was a kid, every may, we used to go to our secret i'd-tell-you-but-i'd-have-to-kill-you spot to hunt the wily morel mushroom. i still remember one bonanza year where we found what i would today refer to as chernobyl morels (tho' chernobyl hadn't yet happened at that point). they were enormous, like 5-6 times the normal size of morels. somewhere in my parents' basement there is undoubtedly a photograph of them. i remember it being taken and that they were laid out on a big piece of plywood for the purpose. i also remember that the local game warden came by to see them (it was a small town and news traveled fast) and that he tried to get it out of my dad where we had found them, but dad wasn't telling. there weren't that many suitable places where morels could grow in that area, so it's a wonder no one ever seemed to find our spot. but they didn't and we went back year after year, tho' we never equaled the haul of that one year in the mid-70s.

i clearly remember pans of tender morels fried up in real butter, served together with a special steak acquired for the occasion. because such fine mushrooms deserved a fine steak. and i remember fondly those exquisite, earthy flavors, eaten only in the few weeks morels, which are quite temperamental, were available. we were eating locally and appreciating things in their proper season before all that was fashionable. the steaks definitely came from locally-raised cattle as well, it was that kind of place.

where i live now, in denmark, the mushroom season comes in the autumn. there are several varieties of rørhatte or boletus (of which the porcini or karl johan is one) and chanterelles - the normal kind (pictured above) and trumpet chanterelles (below).

mushrooms are such a hard-won and precious commodity, crouching as they do, silently in the forest, blending in and hiding, that i always feel like cooking them in the simplest way in order to let them display as much of their mushroomy glory as possible. from childhood, i do have the notion in my head that they are best accompanied by a gorgeous steak. i have been known to stir them into a creamy risotto as well, tho' the temptation to serve that risotto with a steak is strong.

mostly, i do them as follows:

melt 25-50 grams of salted organic butter (depending on how many mushrooms your hunt yielded)
a glug of good quality extra virgin olive oil (i love the combination of butter and fragrant olive oil)
2 cloves of minced garlic
handful of fresh thyme
mound of cleaned, sliced (depending on the size) mushrooms

when we find karl johans, i tend to add a half pint of cream to the above and cook it down to make a thick, creamy mushroom sauce.

you can toss the beautiful, sautéed mess of mushrooms over fresh pasta, into your risotto or serve them as they are in their garlicky goodness, over a good steak. you'll never go wrong doing that.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

on becoming a cook

i'm not sure when exactly it was that i became a cook. i remember having people over for dinner during college and grad school. big, elaborate dinners that were way over my head and over which i slaved and panicked and wore myself out to the point where i didn't really enjoy it once the food was served. once, together with a good friend, we cooked an entire thanksgiving menu by the book from bon appetit magazine. my main memory of the meal is actually some danish aalborg aquavit in a funky triangular bottle that i searched high and low for in every liquor store in a three-state area and which was worth it with the soy almonds we made as a snack.

it's funny the things you remember. i also remember a huge fight with my starter husband over the place of velveeta cheese in our home. i felt strongly it had no place and he thought it was an essential ingredient in the thanksgiving green bean casserole. i think that was the beginning of the end for us...

food provokes strong emotions. and memories. and laughter. and, as bee said, nearly every social occasion centers on food in some sense. this way in which food ties life together, both literally and figuratively is, for me, what this blog is about. the memories attached to certain foods, how they can evoke comfort and well-being or take you back to your childhood. exploring how we establish traditions through food.

although i grew up in a household with a mother who is a very good, solid cook, i don't know that i cooked that much there. i have more memories of baking or helping with canning and making homemade tomato juice in jars for winter (it is spectacular). my grandmother on my mother's side was a prolific baker. at christmas, she would make dozens of cookies in dozens of varieties. but i don't have clear memories of helping her with that, except for helping to eat them. my grandmother on my father's side was famous for one dish...her homemade chicken and noodles and i'll undoubtedly share that recipe along this journey, when it fits.

i remember as a kid, going to bed with nothing fun to eat around the house and waking up in the morning to the smell of freshly-baked apple bars (a recipe i will undoubtedly share soon) or a perfect pie cooling on the countertop, because mom had been up in the middle of the night curing her insomnia by baking. i haven't inherited that habit, tho' i do have a bit of insomnia. i'm more likely to cure it by reading or blogging.

i have to admit that what really transitioned my own perception of myself as a cook had to be the rise of the cooking show. i love to watch cooking shows and always feel inspired when i do so. my cookbook collection is undoubtedly heavy on the british cooks due to several years of a channel called BBC Food, but even when i still lived in the US, the Food Network was a favorite. watching cooking shows gave me courage to leave the recipes that i didn't really have before them. i was a slavish recipe follower. i succeeded at it for the most part, but i never felt like a courageous cook, even tho' i had a reputation as a good cook. it really took food television to move my cooking to the next level.

today, i'm as likely to pull down nigella or paul cunningham (a brit, but he writes in danish and has a michelin-starred restaurant here in denmark) when i want to relax and just read something as i am to turn to mma ramotswe. i adore food writing. good food writing. almost as much as i love to watch cooking shows. and when i do, i almost always end up in the kitchen, kneading up a batch of bread dough, inventing a new twist on potato salad or baking up a batch of red velvet cupcakes.

because the times when i consciously feel the most contentment are when i'm chopping or stirring or filling my red kitchenaid mixer with butter and sugar and eggs. sabin, at age 8, has already noted that that's one of the best smells you can smell, so i guess i'm passing along the love of being in the kitchen to her. and i see that as one of the most important things i can do.

for me, this blog is about thinking more consciously about the food we put on the table at our house, sharing it, recording the memories of it and hopefully, hearing from all of you what works for you and your families. and i hope to learn a whole lot of fabulous new recipes from bee. because she's a great cook and i know that sharing this with her will push me and help me to grow, both in my writing and in my kitchen. we're looking forward to seeing where this takes us and we hope you'll come along for the ride. we promise it will taste good.

Monday, September 28, 2009

foodie philosophy

Undoubtedly this reflects my own bias on the matter, but it seems to me that food is the most consistently available pleasure in life – and therefore, of utmost importance. Sometimes I am a teeny tiny bit envious of people who don’t really care about food – primarily because they tend not to have to worry about creeping weight -- but mostly, I just feel sorry for them. Food is love, and it is also comfort, and furthermore, it is the basis of most social life. In my home, it the basis of all social life. Even if we have to eat after 9 pm, we will all sit down together for dinner. I can be a slapdash housekeeper, and I will never wow anyone with the artistic beauty and originality of my domestic arrangements, but I do promise tea and cookies.

I am a cook who believes more in coziness than in perfection. I am more about the kitchen than the dining room. When I think of the food that I like best, words like nourishing, wholesome, comforting, savory and nostalgia come to mind.  I would rather have a good recipe for soup that anything super-fancy.  When friends or family eat at my house, they tend to say, sometimes bemusedly: Did you make this? Invariably, the answer is yes – because I have a deeply rooted belief that homemade food is just better. It tastes better, and it is better for you, and therefore it is worth the extra effort.

I think of myself as a “good plain cook,” but I realize that these terms are all relative. We all have our own mental parameters of what is too much bother and what isn’t. To my mind, making your own pie crust or lemon curd or fresh tomato sauce isn’t a bother. I think nothing of making my own meringues or choux pastry or cheese straws. (However, I would draw the line at croissants and pannetone, recipes that I’ve tried once but don’t intend on repeating.) On the other hand, I’m not that interested in preparations that involve beheading, deboning, or filleting. I once took a course on cutting up fish, only to conclude that I am just the sort of person who would rather buy my meat and fish ready for purpose.

Some people probably become interested in cooking by default – because there is no one else to do it, or because they are raised on such bad food that they rebel by learning how to prepare food properly. Mine was the opposite case. I grew up in a home that smelled (and tasted) of good food.

I remember coming home from school and smelling the heavenly winey aroma of a rich spaghetti sauce boiling away on the stove. I remember waking up in the morning, after one of my parents’ dinner parties, and greedily feasting on the cream puffs my mother had saved for me. I remember honey whole wheat bread, English muffins, and my mother’s special angel biscuits: all of those warm, yeasty smells. My mother particularly loved to bake and wasn’t that fussed about appetizers . . . and I have inherited these same tendencies from her. Although I spent a few college years living off of baked potatoes and bean and cheese tacos, it seemed inevitable that I would eventually acquire a KitchenAid mixer and a shelf of cookbooks of my own.

When I was a child, I used to sit in a gold velvet armchair and read cookbooks by the hour. I particularly enjoyed Helen Corbitt’s books – because she told great stories, had a strong point-of-view, and believed in the importance of soup, rolls and dessert. Also, she made it sound like so much Fun. She took great delight in feeding people. When I think of the food writers that I enjoy today – whether it is Nigella Lawson in London, or Rebecca Rather in Fredricksburg, Texas – I realize that they have those same qualities.

Very few cooks are inventors; most of us are just collaborators. I tend to get inspired by recipes, but then I go off-piste . . . partly out of necessity (maybe I don’t have all of the ingredients), and partly because I want to substitute according to my own eating preferences. I tend to favor the food writers who insist that every recipe is just a starting point. I also like the term “foodie,” because it suggests that the truly important thing is just having an interest in and appreciation of food. 

The best thing about collaboration is that it never really stops; I would like to think that every blog post is also the beginning of a conversation. When Julochka and I started talking about the idea for this new blog, the word “inspiration” kept coming up. Seasonal food, specific books or writers, our own food histories and stories, food politics, new techniques, adventures in growing and making food from scratch . . . these foodie matters are all part of the mix.

We all have to eat, but what a vast world there is between sustenance and sensuality! I think that food, whether it costs you in time or money or both, is the most vital luxury.


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