Springing forward with mushrooms, leeks

[S]pring heralds with it certain tastes, pushing up like new grass in a warming earth. I find myself craving mushrooms, and I know why. Years ago, our springs were spent in pursuit of them in the wild. While other families played miniature golf, we scavenged the brush- and tree-clotted timber, looking for the gold that was a morel mushroom.

Morels, oh the thought of them, strange golden creatures, looking like cone-shaped sponges, jutting up out of the humble dirt still laden with decaying leaves. Fried up later, tasting cashew-like, delightfully nutty and musky all at once. The taste haunts me. It cannot be bought at a store. Well, it can, for about $20 or more a pound and only once a year.They cannot be cultivated. To find them in the wild, one needs the location and the instinct. And where I am now, it will not be happening.

But each spring, despite my attempt to smother it, the pull toward mushrooms remains, as it was one recent spring weekend, where craving overrode all thought, and I would settle for nothing less than a delicious mushroom soup.

The soup I wanted was one I had made before — Ina Garten’s Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup. In one of the most delightful episodes ever of her “Barefoot Contessa” show, Garten makes the soup for a “mystery guest,” who turns out to be Mel Brooks, who loves the soup so much he bangs his utensils on her table, demanding more. It’s all he wanted, even though there was more for dinner. Having tasted it, I know he’s right. It’s so good you don’t need anything more!

mushrooms03The “wild” mushrooms for this recipe are cultivated portablello, shiitake and cremini (baby portabllo), which I am fortunate to find at my local famers market, but are also now available at most grocery stores.

What really is key for this recipe’s full mushroom flavor is taking the stems from the mushroom and making a stock that includes, carrots, onion and thyme.

Once the stock is complete, one can concentrate on the “top notes” of the soup, the mushroom caps and another spring favorite — leeks. A member of the onion family, leeks impart a mild, sweet, but very effective flavor to dishes and are also a nice option leeks01 for those who might be onion-squeamish (yes, these people do exist). Leeks have some unusual moments in history, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” by Alan Davidson (1999). Apparently, the Roman Emperor Nero ate leeks because he thought they would improve his singing voice (his nickname was “leek-eater”). And the Welsh had such reverence for the leek it became somewhat of a national symbol. In the 7th century, certain tribes of Welsh warriors, in a battle against the Saxons, wore leeks in their hats to distinguish themselves. I bet they did.

stockpot01Sauteeing the caps and the leeks, adding the strained stock and then bringing on the extra rich factor of adding both half and half and cream, this soup is a winner. The mushrooms, in slices significant enough to give them their rightful and substantial place, lend the soup a bold crunchy texture, balancing out with the buttery, creamy broth, delicately flavored with those leeks and a hint of thyme.mushroomsoup02

Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup
From “Barefoot Contessa at Home”
Makes 5 to 6 servings

5 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms
5 ounces fresh portobello mushrooms
5 ounces fresh cremini (or porcini) mushrooms
1 tablespoon good olive oil
1/4 pound (1 stick) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 carrot, chopped
1 sprig fresh thyme plus 1 teaspoon minced thyme leaves, divided
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts (2 leeks)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup half-and-half
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a dry paper towel. Don’t wash them! Separate the stems, trim off any bad parts, and coarsely chop the stems. Slice the mushroom caps 1/4-inch thick and, if there are big, cut them into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.

To make the stock, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large pot. Add the chopped mushroom stems, the onion, carrot, the sprig of thyme, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and cook over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the vegetables are soft. Add 6 cups water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Strain, reserving the liquid. You should have about 4 1/2 cups of stock. If not, add some water.

Meanwhile, in another large pot, heat the remaining 1/4 pound of butter and add the leeks. Cook over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until the leeks begin to brown. Add the sliced mushroom caps and cook for 10 minutes, or until they are browned and tender. Add the flour and cook for 1 minute. Add the white wine and stir for another minute, scraping the bottom of the pot. Add the mushroom stock, minced thyme leaves, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the half-and-half, cream, and parsley, season with salt and pepper, to taste, and heat through but do not boil. Serve hot.
Blogger’s Note: I have reduced the amount of cream or half and half by 1/2 cup to make the soup slightly thicker.

Leeks present themselves in another of my favorite go-to side dishes, Potato Leek Gratin. In all my years of potato eating (my nickname yukon01could be “potato eater”), be it French fry, mashed or hashed, this just might be the best potato recipe I’ve ever had.

At the heart of this dish is the most-delicious potato of all, the buttery Yukon gold. Young yukes are peeled and sliced, tossed with salt and pepper and layered in a baking dish. Leeks and thyme are sautéed until golden brown, spread over the potatoes, then a cream based sauce is created in the same saucepan, enchanted with garlic, bay leaf and nutmeg. The potatoes are drenched in said sauce, then grated Gruyere cheese is spread over all and it is baked.

gratain01I cannot begin to tell you how heavenly this is…my mouth waters just pondering it. The flavors are so subtle, yet potato, the texture so creamy. That Gruyere chefs is a slightly chewy, rich and nutty canopy. These potatoes replaced my usual mashed at the Thanksgiving table. They would win at any gathering.

They’re so good, you may not even want to share.

Potato Leek Gratin
From The New York Times
Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, more for greasing the pan
2 large leeks, trimmed and halved lengthwise
1 1/2 pounds peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 thyme sprigs
1 cup heavy cream
1 fat garlic clove, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3/4 cup Gruyère, grated.

Heat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 2-quart gratin dish. Wash the leeks to remove any grit and slice thinly crosswise.
Using a mandoline or sharp knife, slice the potatoes into rounds, 1/8-inch thick. Toss with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Layer the rounds in the gratin dish.
Melt the 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add leeks, remaining salt and pepper, and thyme. Cook, stirring, until leeks are tender and golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Discard thyme and scatter the leeks over the potatoes.
Add cream, garlic and bay leaf to the skillet, scraping up browned bits of leeks from the bottom of the pan. Simmer gently for 5 minutes. Stir in nutmeg.
Pour the cream over the leeks and potatoes and top with the Gruyère. Cover with aluminum foil and transfer to the oven. Bake for 40 minutes, uncover and bake until the cheese is bubbling and golden, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Let cool slightly before serving.
Blogger’s Note: I have never used any other cheese besides Gruyere in this recipe, but I think you could substitute Gouda or Fontina if Gruyere was not available.

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