Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wild Mushroom Inspiration

I couldn’t stop thinking about wild mushrooms last night. Visions of chanterelles, porcini and morels danced through my culinary imagination, teasing and taunting me with earthy promise. There were endless possibilities of what I could do with those mushrooms, but I especially wanted to sauté them in butter with a little garlic until they began to crisp around the edges, becoming more concentrated and meaty in the process. And if I could combine these sautéed mushrooms with creamy polenta, that ultimate of comfort foods, so much the better.

I know that this is a very specific craving, but it was prompted by the fact that I was time-traveling again last night, luxuriating in the memory of 11/11/06 which was one of the Great Food Days of my life. I would pay a lot of hard cold cash to be able to relive that day in San Francisco again, eating all that I ate, drinking all that I drank, and enjoying all that I thoroughly enjoyed! Clearly, I’ve never been one of those people who say, “I can’t even remember what I ate yesterday,” for here I am, practically rapturous over the memory of meals I had two years ago! Among other things that happened that day, there were glorious mushrooms and gorgeous polenta.

To put it in context, my stunning day in San Francisco came in the midst of an amazing two-month tour with Barbra Streisand during the fall of 2006. For weeks we had played to sold-out arenas around the U.S. and Canada, in which our audiences were on their feet screaming before Babs even had a chance to sing a note! All she had to do was show up on the stage, and the crowds went ballistic. Our tour managers were the best I’ve ever encountered, total pros who were ten steps ahead of everyone else and made us feel as comfortable on the road as we would have been at home, which is no small accomplishment. It was a magical time all around, not only for being part of these incredible concerts with such a showbiz legend, but also for the fact that so many of my friends were also in the orchestra and we were having an absolute blast touring the country together.

When you are on the road with friends with whom you love performing, it makes for a really enjoyable tour. But when those same friends also live to travel and explore new cities, as well as being very enthusiastic in the culinary department, you have a surefire recipe for a fabulous tour experience. And if you have the good fortune to be on a tour which includes time in Northern California, a veritable food-lover’s paradise, you will probably find yourself in a state of happy delirium and sensory overload! Because the Streisand tour was such a unique and remarkable time in my life, all of the memories from that tour are heightened, and the food-related memories are intensified to an even more delectable degree.

I have recently fought the urge to reminisce on this blog about any of the other great food days on that Streisand tour, even though there were many. But I simply can’t help resist with this one. My delicious November 11th in San Francisco is a kaleidoscope of images and tastes, starting with a pilgrimage to the fabulous Ferry Building Marketplace, a Mecca for any foodie worthy of the name. We devoured green chile tamales from the Primavera tamale stand outside of the Ferry Building while enjoying the breeze off the water as the Bay Bridge loomed large behind. Blue Bottle Coffee, fragrant and robust, was enough to snap anyone to happy attention. 

Wandering lightly amidst the stalls of the farmer’s market outside, I was tempted by lavender-infused salt and spearmint-infused sugar as I calculated how much room I had left in my suitcase for such delicacies. The fragrant flavored oils from Stonehouse Olive Oil were a delight, and it was difficult to decide whether the Blood Orange or Persian Lime or Lisbon Lemon olive oil was my favorite. 

After finding a coveted seat at the bar of The Slanted Door, we savored ginger-kaffir lime cocktails alongside green papaya salad and crispy Imperial spring rolls wrapped in lettuce leaves with cilantro and mint, all the while enjoying the expansive view of the water and Bay Bridge. And for dessert? Rose petal gelato from Ciao Bella, lemon verbena chocolates from Michael Recchiuti, and perfect little raspberry macaroons from Miele Bakery…


And then there were the mushrooms. The mushroom stand alone made me frantic that I didn’t have access to a kitchen. What I could have done with those mushrooms! Would you just look at these beauties???

I didn’t see anything remotely ugly about these magnificent specimens.

Or these.

Of course I roared with laughter when I saw the Lion’s Mane mushrooms! Who knew?!

The Wood Ears were little folds of black velvet.

And that was just the morning at the Ferry Building! There was a dinner at Zuni Café which will live on in joyous memory for many years to come, even though I have virtually no photographic documentation of it. Kumamoto oysters on the half-shell were icy and perfect, accompanied by champagne to start. A hearty vegetable soup with layers of flavor tasted as if the Italian grandmother you always wanted had been lovingly tending the soup all afternoon. The fillet of beef was cooked to perfection, tender and melting, surrounded by braised baby vegetables that beautifully complemented the beef. I was having absolute kittens over a side order of polenta, which was soul-satisfying and sensual all at once, made all the more luscious with the decadent addition of mascarpone cheese stirred in and a scattering of chopped toasted walnuts over the top. 


And as if that hadn’t been luxurious enough, dessert was a silky caramel pots de crème that brought tears to my eyes. (Anyone who served me that dessert again could probably convince me to do anything for them…) The room was aglow with flickering candlelight and animated conversations, punctuated by frequent clinking of glasses throughout the room, and I remember being in a state of sheer bliss.


Sigh... As I've trudged my way through grey rainy New York today, I feel so far from San Francisco and that very delightful day. Since I've been in a state of acute longing for a trip to the Ferry Market Building AND a marvelous meal at Zuni Café, I decided to combine two of my favorite finds from that special 11/11, using that as the inspiration for creating my own pleasurable meal at home. An assortment of coarsely chopped wild mushrooms sautéed with a little garlic and butter, flecked with green herbs, and spooned onto a puddle of soft creamy polenta ought to do the trick.

It’s so simple and ultimately comforting. The polenta is prepared with a lot of liquid and cooked slowly over so that it retains a loose consistency, all the better to provide a creamy cushion underneath the sautéed mushrooms. You could stir in mascarpone at the end of the polenta’s cooking time, but I used Gorgonzola cheese tonight with very happy results.

Even though I didn't have access to the Lion’s Mane or those soft little wood ear mushrooms, I had no complaints about my mushroom ragout made of chanterelles, shiitakes, and criminis, otherwise known as “baby bellas” or baby portabellas.


The mushrooms really cook down, reducing in size as they intensify in flavor. A little butter and fresh lemon juice easily tie it all together at the end.

I may not have had a decadent day in San Francisco on this particular 11/11, but at least revisiting that magical day in 2006 inspired this earthy mushroom and polenta dish. And I must say that I am quite satisfied with this autumnal repast, almost as much as if I’d eaten it at Zuni Café. I know you will love it too. (Now if only I had that caramel pots de crème…)

Adapted from a recipe in Gourmet, October 2005

The original recipe calls for a ½-cup of mascarpone, the Italian cream cheese, to be stirred in at the end. I substituted crumbled Gorgonzola, since that is what I had on hand, and I really love the combination of pungent Gorgonzola with hearty mushrooms. But I urge you to try it both ways and decide for yourself.

For the polenta:
4-½-cups water
1 cup coarse stone-ground polenta
¼ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 teaspoon salt
Several grinds of freshly cracked black pepper
½ cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

For the mushrooms:
1 lb assorted fresh exotic mushrooms (use a combination of porcini, oyster, chanterelle, crimini, shiitake)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon salt
Several grinds of freshly cracked black pepper
¼ cup water
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1-½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about half a large lemon)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or fresh thyme leaves

Bring water to a simmer in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan. Add the polenta in a slow stream, whisking until incorporated. Simmer, stirring occasionally with a long-handled whisk or wooden spoon, until liquid is absorbed and polenta is thick and soft, about 30 minutes. The polenta should have a loose, risotto-like consistency. Remove from heat and stir in cream, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, salt, and pepper. Keep warm, covered.

Sauté mushrooms while polenta simmers:
Clean the mushrooms by wiping off any grit and dirt with damp paper towels. (If you soak them in water, the mushrooms get water-logged, which is no fun.) If using porcini, halve if large, then slice lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices. If using oysters, trim spongy base if necessary and slice caps into ½-inch-wide strips. If using chanterelles, leave small mushrooms whole, halve if medium, and quarter if large. If using shiitakes, slice lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices. If using crimini, remove stems and cut caps into quarters.

Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Sauté the mushrooms, garlic, salt, and pepper, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are golden and any liquid they give off has evaporated, 6 to 8 minutes.

Add water, butter, lemon juice, and parsley and heat, swirling skillet, until butter melts and liquid forms a sauce.

Just before serving, stir the crumbled gorgonzola cheese into the polenta and heat until it melts. Divide the polenta among warmed bowls and top each serving of polenta with mushrooms. Serve immediately. (The polenta will stiffen as it cools). Makes 6 appetizer servings, or 4 main course servings.

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