"Mushrooms, garlic, butter and thyme. I can hardly think of a better double date. even more satisfying, I think, is when there is some sort of crust involved to soak up the mushroomy, garlicky butter." Nigel Slater
I think I have mentioned that we are having our first dinner party for absolutely ages on Saturday. So I am entirely out of practice and very nervous, although, as I say this I realise I have cooked for the family a few times. Don't they count as a dinner party? I mean in some ways they are harder, because they don't mind being critical. Whatever my guests on Saturday actually think about the Saturday food I'm sure it will be polite. Anyway I want it all to go smoothly and I want it all to be delicious.
Actually it's lunch anyway - not dinner, so perhaps it should be a little lighter? Well no because I don't see any of us eating another meal later in the evening, so in some ways it should be more filling than dinner. However, I am going to try to be a bit lighter with the main dish - I think I know what that will be, and there will be cake for dessert - well that's like afternoon tea isn't it? But what to do as an entrée.
Our little group is very francophile, so that was one thing that could be a starting point I thought. Then yesterday I bought a whole lot of mushrooms. They were cheap and gorgeous looking in Coles. Only 'ordinary' button mushrooms I confess, but there's not really anything wrong with them, particularly if you call them 'champignons de Paris'. So I thought I would research mushrooms, possibly with a French bias.
I assembled a pile of books with a French bias plus the Nigel Slater A Cook's Book - which is still sitting on my desk because it has so much to share with you all - and I settled down to browse.
You know when you are looking for a house - well anything really I suppose - the first one you see is the one for you - but you can't quite believe your luck so you keep on looking? When it comes to houses this is dangerous because you may well miss out on the first one. With recipes you can always return.
Well in this case I opened A Cook's Book, checked the index and found this Mushroom and dill tart. A double bit of serendipity because I have some dill that needs to be used as well. In fact I had already pondered on a quiche anyway - and this is basically a quiche. Mushrooms and dill in a custard in a tart. I also liked his idea of using Parmesan for this rather than a more traditional kind of cheese, such as Cheddar or Gruyère - even a blue cheese. Indeed he also intriguingly warmed the cream with some Parmesan rind - andI have that too - in the freezer. So yes a boring but comforting quiche but with some really interesting little touches to it.
Surely it couldn't be that easy thought I. I really ought to keep looking, so I turned to Elizabeth David, Stephanie Alexander on her stay in South West France, Robert Carrier - nothing that excited me. I knew about Mushrooms à la Grècque, which I do like, and which are easy and easily prepared in advance, but possibly not enough on their own which would mean finding something else. Better for a crowd and a mezze kind of first course I thought. Besides I've made them a few times, and I like to cook something new when friends come to dine. Yes, I know it's the ultimate crime for dinner parties, but I persist. Nigella, Jamie and Delia didn't have anything I fancied either, or even Ottolenghi come to that, which is marginally surprising really.
The idea of that tart was still lingering in my mind but I continued to look and found that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also rather likes the idea of Parmesan and mushrooms, although he had a different take on it. No quiche here - just pastry with a topping. It's called Mixed mushroom tart and you are supposed to mix your cultivated mushrooms with wild ones you have gleaned from the forest. Well that's much too dangerous an exercise for me here, and besides there don't seem to be many mushrooms growing yet - it's still too summery. However, I could boost my button mushrooms with some of those exotic ones you can get in the supermarket these days. This tart is made with puff pastry too, so could be a bit less time-consuming. And it does look nice. Also and probably, a bit lighter.
It's an act of love, says Nigel Slater to make a tart.
"If I make a tart for you, you will know I love you. It takes an hour to make the dough, line and bake the pastry case, then another to make the filling, bake it again and then to let it cool. Making a tart is both a fiddle and a joy. You need to set aside a couple of hours, have a pastry board and rolling pin, some baking beans and own a suitable metal tart tin with removable base. That said, I struggle to think of a single recipe that fills me with more satisfaction."
And you know I couldn't agree more, although I don't think I take as much care with the pastry and so it doesn't take as long. But this is a special occasion and a different pastry so if I go with his tart I would take more care. So do I have two hours spare? Maybe not. With puff pastry it's just a matter of taking it out of the packet.
By now I was very taken with the idea of pastry and mushrooms. Pastry sort of ameliorates any strong flavour that might be too overpowering I think. And I do share Nigel's love of pastry. Almost as much as potatoes.
Having eliminated all those other favourite cooks I decided to explore Nigel's books a bit more and found three more contenders, in this case, from his Kitchen Diaries Volume 3.
The first are not tarts, but pasties - Garlic mushroom pasties. Garlic is French isn't it? Those words at the top of the page refer to this particular recipe, as do these:
"I use a particularly rich shortcrust so that it crumbles as you break the pasties open. Pastry soaked in garlic butter being one of the world's better ideas."
They are half-open pasties - you just fold together the corners of the pastry so that the new corners are open.
Then there are Roasted garlic and mushroom tarts which is more of an assembly job in which you cook the puff pastry base, prepare a garlic cream from a whole head of roasted garlic, spread this on the cooked tart, and top with your cooked mushrooms. Tempting, but I'm not sure I can be bothered with roasting the garlic.
And finally, just when you though it couldn't get any better along come Mushroom and blueberry pies. Now there's a different combination - and he even says that really it should be lingonberries and I'm pretty sure I have a jar of them in my extra pantry items drawer, from an Aldi special thing. Is that serendipity or what?
"The blueberries burst a little in the heat, sending drops of deep purple juice rippling through the sizzling mushrooms. The smell is fruity and warm and fungal like a forest on a humid autumn afternoon, and just asking to be wrapped in crumbly pastry." Nigel Slater
Wow! And my mushrooms, by Saturday will have lost a bit of their freshness which he thinks is a good thing:
"did I mention that the mushrooms should have been in a bag in the fridge for a day or so, so that they become a bit damp and woodsy, and smell like an autumn forest underfoot?"
And again elsewhere:
"The mushrooms I like cooking with most are those that have been in the fridge for slightly longer than they should. Those that have darkened in colour, become a little damp, and taken on a dank, woodsy smell – almost on the verge of becoming soggy. The ones that many – perhaps I should say most – people would have thrown out. It is at this point when their flavour is at its most wild and fungal. When they taste the very essence of mushroom."
Which I have to say I find very reassuring, because the mushrooms that I buy in a fit of enthusiasm, often end up like that. I don't throw them out until they are really slimy.
So which to choose?
But I forgot to say - there is an outlier. Not quite pastry - but crêpes - and French at that. Now don't they look fancy? The filling here is mushrooms, ham and cheese with a touch of cream. Restrainedly, classically, classily and pleasingly French. And pretty easy too. I could make the crêpes the day before and David does like ham. They are from my surprisingly good The Food of France, from Bay Books and nameless cooks. You can find the recipe online, but I'm not going to provide the link here because it was on a website called Just a Pinch which simply reproduced the recipe and the picture with no acknowledgement of where it came from at all. Not right. Perhaps that's what the website's name means - recipes pinched from others.
I found this recipe early on when I was trying to be French and did set it aside for further contemplation, until I got carried away with Nigel Slater's rapturous prose, and different ideas. I can't choose one because of serendipity and coincidence either. They all have a bit of that. And none of them are difficult. I shall have limited time I guess so that may be a factor.
Decisions, decisions, but it's been fun looking and I'm definitely going to make all of them at some time or another. Most of them are vegetarian too so I should pass them on to my granddaughter. It's going to be a surprise Jenny!