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When it comes to pasta, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t approve of restaurant chefs who need to vaunt their “creativity” with dishes whose ingredients have never before encountered each other on a plate. There’s a reason some pasta combinations are classics: they work! But even a cranky person like me can occasionally appreciate something new.

This time it came about because Tom noticed that a farm stand at our Greenmarket was featuring boxes of very fresh, small king oyster mushrooms.

 

 

He couldn’t resist them. We’d had ordinary oyster mushrooms before, but not this different variety, which have been available locally only in much larger, stemmier sizes. I looked them up in Elizabeth Schneider’s magisterial Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini to see if they needed any special handling. The answer was yes: moist cooking to tenderize the very dense flesh.

Then I needed a recipe to make them with, so I did an Internet search for recipes using oyster mushrooms. The description of this one attracted me: “Oyster mushrooms are poached in butter and cream and tossed with pasta, Parmesan cheese and green onions.” Obviously, that’s not a classic Italian pasta preparation, but there was a reason I decided to try it: I happened to have a lot of scallions in the refrigerator.

 

 

My faithful knife man cut the mushrooms into small pieces, which I was to sauté for six minutes in butter, adding parsley, salt, and pepper for the last minute. Apparently if they had been the common oyster mushroom, as in the recipe, they’d have been tender by that point, but these sturdier ones weren’t yet.

 

 

When I poured on the recipe’s amount of heavy cream, I could see that it wasn’t going to be enough liquid for poaching, so I took it on myself to add a little broth.

 

 

Next I was to cook the mixture “at a gentle boil” for about five minutes, until the sauce thickened slightly. I was concerned that doing so might dry up the sauce and toughen the mushrooms, so instead I covered the pan and simmered it until the mushrooms were tender. The sauce didn’t thicken much, but I didn’t consider that a problem.

I set the mushroom pan aside while I cooked the pasta – linguine, as recommended – and chopped up two of my many scallions. I finished the dish right in the pan of sauce, tossing in the drained pasta, the scallions, and a few tablespoons of grated parmigiano.

 

 

I really hadn’t been expecting much, especially with the scallions going in raw at the end like that, but to our great pleasure everything came together extremely well. The linguine absorbed a good amount of the sauce, leaving the dish just moist enough. The mushrooms were delicious – the caps tasting noticeably different from and even better than the stems. The scallions also made a real contribution to the harmony of flavors, aromas, and textures.

I still wouldn’t call this an Italian dish, but it certainly was a good one. Guess I have to admit that the “classics” don’t have an exclusive lock on excellent pasta combinations.

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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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For the first course of Christmas dinner last week, I turned to a recipe of my own from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen: a savory pie of ham and mushrooms in a béchamel sauce enriched with parmigiano cheese. It has several advantages in the context of a festive menu for guests: It needs no unusual ingredients, it’s easy to make, and it can be prepared several hours in advance – no last-minute attention required.

In English, “torte” properly means a cake, but in Italian this dish is called a torta. It’s a sort of gentrified pizza rustica, a sleeker modern version of that hearty peasant pie filled with assorted cheeses and cured meats. In any language, it’s very good.

The pastry – an all-butter short crust enriched with an egg yolk – can be made up a day or so ahead and refrigerated until needed. (Or use any good basic pastry recipe.) For the rest, here are the ingredients as I assembled them on Christmas morning.
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Beloved Spouse had obligingly sliced the half pound of cremini mushrooms for me (plain white ones instead are good too), and I sauteed them in butter for about five minutes.
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Then I made the béchamel sauce, using a cup of milk, a tablespoon of flour, and two tablespoons of butter. When it was done I grated in some nutmeg, stirred in 3½ ounces of freshly grated parmigiano, and folded in the mushrooms.
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I rolled out half the pastry, fitted it into a 9½-inch pie dish, and filled it with alternating layers of the thinly sliced boiled ham and the mushroom mixture.
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With the addition of a top crust, the torte baked for about an hour at 350° and sat peaceably on a sideboard all afternoon, to be reheated briefly in the oven at dinner time. It’s always quite plain looking, but the taste makes diners forgive the appearance. The ever-popular combination of ham and cheese, the latter infusing the béchamel, which in turn blends in the mild woodsy flavor of the mushrooms, all make the torte more complex and interesting than the simplicity of the ingredients suggests. It’s an example of the kitchen alchemy that makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
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Note to my regular readers:

For eight years now I’ve been doing a post on this blog every week. I’m going to loosen the intervals a bit this year – especially for the rest of this month, when I’ll be concentrating on very plain cooking so I can shed a few extra pounds from the holiday overindulgences. I’ll be back online when I again start exploring recipes that will be interesting for me to write about and, I hope, for you to read about.  Meanwhile, best wishes for 2018.

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‘Tis the season for gastronomical indulgences large and small. One seasonal treat that’s small in size but large in the amount of pleasure it provides is fresh porcini mushrooms. When these fabulous fungi are available in one of my local markets I have to have some, despite their stratospheric prices, because they give distinction to the simplest dinner.
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The specimens above are practically infants. In late fall, restaurants in Italy often display bowlfuls of porcini with caps typically about five inches across. But even the little ones have the species’ depth of unmatchable flavor, so a few almost always follow me home.
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With this batch, Beloved Spouse stepped into the chef’s role. Some 30 years ago, when he was on a wine writers’ trip in Genoa, he was served a magnificent dish of a huge porcino cap reposing on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, both slathered with excellent olive oil, apparently oven-roasted and finished briefly under a broiler. He remembers it as ambrosia, and from his description, I’d envied him that experience for a very long time. So, with porcini at hand and his reputation for reliable memory at stake, this week he set about making something like it for us at home.

First he thinly sliced all-purpose potatoes, parboiled them for a few minutes, and drained them.  While they were cooling and drying, he briefly seethed a sliced clove of garlic in about two-thirds of a cup of olive oil, not letting it color. Then he removed the garlic, spread a little of the oil in a gratin dish, and laid out the potato slices, adding salt and pepper.
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On top he placed the sliced porcini stems and whole caps, brushing everything generously with the garlic-scented olive oil and pouring the rest of the oil around the potatoes.
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The dish went into a 375° degree oven for about 20 minutes, followed by a few minutes under the broiler for browning.
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The caps had shrunk somewhat, which slightly marred their appearance, but not at all their flavor. The aroma of the dish was as captivating as its taste. The potatoes loved the porcini, and vice versa. You couldn’t taste the garlic as itself, only as a subtle enlivening of the other flavors.  The porcini were transcendent – rich and meaty, a bit suggestive of sweetbreads.

This may not have been the legendary dish of that Genoese restaurant, but Beloved Spouse thought it very close, and it turned a simple meal of grilled skirt steak and broiled eggplant into a thoroughly satisfying little feast.
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I’m encouraging him to keep on experimenting, if he thinks he can improve it any further!

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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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fortunato-1

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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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fortunato-3

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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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checchino

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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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checchino-1-1

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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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padelotto.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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zi-umberto

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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

maialino-arrosto.

At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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You can’t win them all.

bayless-2I was really looking forward to trying a recipe for pasilla mushroom tacos in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. I’d never done anything with pasilla chiles before – didn’t remember even having tasted them. In his headnote Bayless says pasillas have “an unctuous creamlike quality” when pureed and a “magnetism that captures you.” Also, the recipe calls for woodland mushrooms, and Beloved Spouse and I dote on wild mushrooms. It all sounded wonderful.

So I bought a bag of dried pasillas and started by making Bayless’s “Essential Bold Pasilla Seasoning Paste,” which is one of the base preparations that are called for in many of his recipes. This one’s other ingredients are garlic cloves, Mexican oregano, cumin and black pepper. (The greenish leaves in the photo are epazote, which actually comes later in the recipe.)

pasilla-paste-ingredients

I cheated a little on the mushrooms, using half chanterelles and half cremini. Cremini aren’t woodland creatures any more, but in nature they do grow up to become portobellos, which are one of the varieties Bayless suggests.

mushrooms

The rest of the directions I followed scrupulously. I carefully split open the chiles, flattened them out and removed the seeds, and roasted them on a griddle, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves.

roasting-chiles

I soaked the roasted chiles in hot water for half an hour to soften them, then put them into a blender with the peeled garlic, freshly ground cumin seed, oregano, black pepper, and some of the chile soaking liquid. That made a dense puree, which I cooked in a little oil for 5 minutes. I stirred in some chicken broth to loosen it, added the mushrooms and the epazote, and simmered it all for 15 minutes.

mushrooms-added

At dinner time I transferred the pasilla-mushroom mixture to a serving dish and topped it with diced onion and crumbled feta cheese (a Bayless-approved substitute for queso añejo, which none of my stores had, that week). We scooped the mixture into corn tortillas that I’d steamed to softness.

taco-mixture

Alas, there’s no happy ending to this story: The tacos weren’t very good. There was none of the recipe headnote’s promised “rich earthy spice” whose “woodsy flavor complemented the earthiness of the mushrooms.” Beloved Spouse said he found the predominant flavor more like smoked dirt – and I had to agree with him. You almost couldn’t taste the mushrooms at all. We tried brightening the tacos up with smears of salsa and guacamole, which we’d had as an appetizer, but that didn’t do much either. A very sad disappointment, the only one I’ve ever had from a Rick Bayless recipe. I really hated to waste those good chanterelles.

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