Mountains of mushrooms

So…once upon a time, a whole week went by without a post.  Sorry about that.  Back on the horse.

First things first: I want to introduce my new favorite toy.

I call it the Lean Green Delicious Machine.  My friend Izzy calls it Kermit.  My parents call it a belated birthday present.  It is my new 6-quart dutch oven, and I absolutely love it.

How do I love it?  Let me count the ways.  It’s shiny, and heavy, and my favorite color.  But most important of all, it makes a mean mushroom stew.

Confession: I am not a huge fan of beef.  By the time I was born, my parents had already started their long, slow journey toward vegetarianism, and so we almost never had red meat on the table.  To this day, I’m much more comfortable working with vegetables than with raw meat, especially beef.  In all honesty, if I hadn’t been diagnosed with insulin resistance at fourteen, I almost certainly would have been a vegetarian by the time I turned sixteen.

And yet, somehow, it seems approximately 95 percent of all stew recipes in existence rely on beef.  Bah humbug, I say.  I’ve always been curious about meatless stews, so when I stumbled across a recipe for beef bourguignon without the beef, I knew I had to try it. I tucked the notion away and waited for what Jack Sparrow might call “the opportune moment.”

That opportune moment finally presented itself this weekend, with:

  1. The aforementioned (and -pictured) Green Machine
  2. A pair of visiting college friends, one of whom is vegetarian
  3. A significant other who has been bugging me for weeks to make stew
  4. The Mountain View Farmer’s Market, a gastronomic wonder that will have its own post at a later date

So I rolled up my sleeves and went to town.

The great thing about this blog is, as it forces me to expand my cooking repertoire, I end up encountering ingredients and techniques that are brand-new to me.  This time, I found myself with a bag of pearl onions–tiny, adorable, and utterly impossible to peel.  Fortunately, I was smart enough to consult the interwebs first, instead of just diving in with my fingernails.  To a one, every source I consulted said to cut off the tips, blanch them in boiling water, shock them in ice water, and watch the skins slide right off.  So I did, and in a twinkling, the onions went from this…

to this:

Cooking: it really is magic.

Now, confession numero dos: I don’t usually cook French food, for the simple reason that I find it dull.  More often than not, French-inspired recipes end up being a whole lot of fuss and mess for something fatty, salty, and so subdued as to be bland.  Perhaps I’m revealing a certain lack of sophistication, but I like my food to speak up for itself.  I don’t do bland–I do layered, complex, punchy, lively, fun.  So, of course, I tweaked things.

The original recipe called for a base of carrot, onion, and garlic.  But at the farmer’s market, the stand next to the mushroom vendor had some beautiful bulbs of fennel that were too fragrant and delicately green to pass up.  So I decided to swap fennel for the diced onion.  The burst of bright licorice aroma when the aromatics hit the hot cast-iron told me I’d done exactly right.

I also quadrupled the garlic–what? call it vampire-proofing–and added a handful of dried herbs and a splash of lemon.  For health and good measure, I swapped out the egg noodles for some fresh whole-wheat shells from a local artisan pasta factory.  (Pretension?  What’s that?)  And then I scaled up the recipe to feed 6 instead of 4, without actually stopping to measure anything.  No surprise, then, that I felt like I was flirting with disaster the entire time I cooked.

But the Green Machine came through beautifully.

The finished stew was dark, rich, warm and hearty, with big slices of chewy mushrooms and glossy, sweet nuggets of onion suspended in a thick brown broth.  The fennel lent a mysterious perfume, and the combination of wine, tomato paste, and lemon juice gave just enough bite to keep the whole thing from sliding into brawny indistinctness.  Plus, the fancy-pants pasta shells ended up being the perfect shape and texture for catching the liquid ladled over them.  I may or may not have licked the bowl.

Welcome, Green Machine.  I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Mixed-Mushroom Bourguignon (serves 6)

10 oz. pearl onions (fresh or frozen)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp butter (this could be olive oil, for a vegan stew)

2 lb portobello mushrooms, stemmed, caps cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 lb brown mushrooms, quartered

2 small carrots, diced

1 small fennel bulb, diced

6-8 cloves garlic, sliced

1 1/2 cups full-bodied red wine (I chose an $11 merlot, and used the rest of the bottle for mulled wine)

2 tbsp tomato paste

2 cups vegetable broth

1/2 tsp dried basil

1/2 tsp dried oregano

For finishing the stew:

2 tbsp softened butter, olive oil, or a combination

3 tbsp all-purpose flour

Squeeze of lemon

12 oz. whole-wheat shell pasta (or other short pasta of your choice)

If using frozen pearl onions, thaw them.  If using fresh, boil a large pot of salted water and prepare a large bowl of ice water.  Cut off the top of each onion (the end opposite the root).  Boil the trimmed onions for about 2 minutes, then fish them out with a slotted spoon and put them in the bowl of ice water.  When they’re cool enough to handle, drain them, pull off the peels and trim off the root ends.  Set aside.  (You can save the blanching water for cooking pasta later.)

Heat 1/2 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive oil in a large heavy saucepan or dutch oven over high heat.  Add mushrooms and saute 3-4 minutes, just until they darken and start to shrink.  Remove from the pot and set aside.  Lower heat to medium and add the other 1/2 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive oil.  Saute carrot and fennel for about 10 minutes, until the veggies are thoroughly softened and you start to see some brown bits accumulate in the bottom of the pan.  Add garlic and saute a couple minutes more.

Pour in wine, and scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan.  Return heat to high and let the wine bubble until it reduces to about half its volume.  Stir in tomato paste, basil, and oregano, then add broth and mushrooms, along with any mushroom liquid that’s collected.  Bring to a boil; turn heat down to medium-low, cover, and simmer about 20 minutes, until mushrooms are tender.  Add pearl onions and simmer 5 minutes more.

To finish the stew: Use a fork to combine the butter and/or olive oil with the flour to create a smooth paste.  Stir the paste into the stew, then let simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the stew has thickened to your liking.  Add a squeeze of lemon.  If you’re serving right away, you can cook the pasta while the stew is thickening.

When the stew is ready to serve, divide pasta evenly among bowls and ladle stew over the top.  If you feel a sudden urge to murmur, “Badger badger badger badger MUSHROOM MUSHROOM” as you’re eating, do not fight it.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Mountains of mushrooms

  1. Olivia

    Looks yummy, Zoe! The deep hearty color makes me think the beef would not be missed 🙂
    The Mountain View farmers market on Sunday is the best. Best produce I’ve seen anywhere, only place with the mushroom ladies, farm fresh egg gals, and Doug has hands down, the best dill smoked salmon.

  2. Emily

    First of all, the new toy is awesome!! I want one!

    Second of all, great tip on the pearl onions. Zach and I struggled relentlessly with those buggers last time we used them.

    Now, I am biased to French food, seeing as how I am in fact French. I’m also biased to Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon because … well, because I’ve made it and I’m addicted to it. And to red meat. However, this dish sounds super yummy; I could definitely be persuaded 🙂 I’m trying to learn to like mushrooms. Keep the good stuff coming!

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