As a kid, I liked being the one at the table who was willing to try anything. Let me just make clear, though, that I'm not referring to my grandmother's aspic, and my family didn't really get past the Bible Belt in our car trips, so I'd never even heard of something like calamari. I'm talking about lamb fries, alligator and mushrooms. Yes, there was a time in my life when mushrooms seemed pretty exotic.
I might have thought I'd traveled to France, but nope, just Fort Worth, Texas. That's where my Uncle Tom and Aunt Glynis lived. I must have been in grade school, but I remember so very clearly watching Glynis cook sliced portabella mushrooms in a red wine sauce. She served them alongside steak. Everything at their house seemed a little extraordinary to me what with my older cousins, their bird and the way Santa once delivered My Little Ponies to me on Christmas morning at their house.
But those mushrooms were extraordinary. Tasting them flipped a little switch in my head, like etching in a permanent note that not all foods foreign to me were bad. Some of them, in fact, are delicious.
I'm guessing I would have gotten around to trying mushrooms whether or not Glynis made them that night for us, but I am so thankful I fell in love so early.
I now love buying wild mushrooms from a picker at my farmers' market, and I know enough to know that's the guy who knows how to cook a mushroom. Get one raw plucked from a salad bar, OK. But get one that's golden from a saute in butter with just a sprinkling of salt, and, Hell-o, Mushroom.
There is absolutely a right way to cook a mushroom, and too often cooks serve up a wet, dark mass that epitomizes the mush in mushroom. But cook them right, and you've got the start of something magical.
I made a mushroom soup last week that starts no less than 10 cups of sliced mushrooms, and just to note, the pre-sliced variety are too thick. Yeah, it's a lot of work, I suppose, but I guarantee if you taste a well cooked mushroom, it just might change your outlook on at least the rest of your day.
I worked in three batches, sauteing my mushrooms in butter and olive oil, giving them a chance release their liquid and them caramelize in it. The batches are so you don't crowd the mushrooms, which will get you a steamed, tasteless khaki blob. Much like cooking other veggies correctly, you can't stir these guys every five seconds either. They need time on the heat, in contact with pan, not sandwiched in an inch-thick layer or mushrooms. If they're cooked correctly, those 10 cups will turn in to no more than three.
The good news is that once you get the mushrooms cooked off, the rest of the soup comes together quite easily. It's a hearty, thick soup that is no doubt a meal, even for the meat eater.
There's not too much of winter left, so let's trot out those recipes that in just a few short weeks will seem (thankfully) out of season. Serve this soup with some delicious crusty bread and snuggle on the couch. You may not be going anywhere exotic, but those mushrooms just might make you feel extraordinary right at home.
Hungarian Mushroom Soup
Adapted from Old Wives Tale in Portland, Ore.
8 tablespoons butter
Roughly 6 - 8 tablespoons olive oil
Roughly 2 pounds mushrooms (such as crimini)
2 medium yellow onions, diced
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
5 cups milk, room temperature
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup sour cream, plus more, if desired
2 to 4 cups water
salt and pepper
Thinly slice mushrooms, stems and all. In a heavy-bottomed, large pot, saute 1/3 of the mushrooms in about 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Saute until mushrooms are golden brown and the moisture has cooked off, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from pot and set aside. Work in batches, repeating until all of the mushrooms are cooked, remove from pot and set aside. In the same pot, saute the onions in a little olive oil. Once the onions are nearly cooked through, add the turmeric and paprika and continue cooking until onions are cooked. Remove from the pot and set aside with mushrooms. Add five tablespoons of butter to the empty pot and melt over medium heat. Once butter is melted, make a roux by adding flour and whisking for about two minutes while cooking. Then add the milk, whisking to bring together roux and milk. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a slow boil. Add mushrooms, onions and water, one cup at a time until desired consistency, to the milk mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer on low heat for at least 30 minutes. Just before serving, finish with dried dill and stir in sour cream until soup is smooth.
Note: If you prefer, you can skip the roux steps and thicken the soup with a corn starch slurry, but the roux does produce a richer flavored soup.
You can give you soup another boost by adding a few chopped, dried mushrooms soaked in warm water. Then, use that soaking water to substitute the remaining water in the recipe.