Mushrooms, much like Brussels sprouts, are a divisive vegetable - they are either loved or loathed with no middle ground.
When I was younger I hated them with a passion. My late granny cooked them in milk and the grey, slug like orbs swimming in sludge like liquid almost turned my stomach. Granted, an aversion to milk didn’t help. This all changed when my mum was making stroganoff and she’d fried the mushrooms in butter so they were golden and the smell was delicious. Add cream, beef fillet and paprika to the mix and my disposition towards the fungi became much more kindly. Mushrooms are mainly water which means cooking them at a high heat to seal in the flavour and make them more appetising to eat. Adding butter helps too. Two of the worst dishes that I’ve ever tasted involved mushrooms – a vegetarian stroganoff made entirely of mushrooms, and a mushroom gnocchi. Both looked like cement and didn’t taste much better. Treat mushrooms with respect, add good oil or butter, and they’ll give back something wonderful.
One of my first cooking jobs was as a commis chef in the Ramore restaurant in Portrush, back in the eighties. One of the first tasks was to make mushroom duxelle - a classic French paste of blended fried mushrooms infused with garlic. This tasty blend then topped a chicken fillet that was baked in crisp, buttery filo pastry. For a green round the gills 18 year old it was the height of sophistication.
When I went to culinary school in America I made it in class to show off in front of my tutor Chef Vienne, who I hero worshipped. I was completely deflated when he said in his rich Gallic voice “no red wine, no tarragon?”. He was right and I’ve added those key ingredients ever since.
Mushroom duxelle plays an integral part in Beef Wellington - seared fillet of beef, topped with duxelle, adorned with spinach, wrapped in a crepe and then encased in puff pastry. It’s a lot of work and a labour of love. My brother and sister-in-law texted me a photo of one they made recently and while they proclaimed it delicious, they also said it was too much of a flaff in the cooking department to repeat.
For the first recipe I’m taking inspiration from the classic flavour combination and turning it into a simpler crepe enclosing mushrooms, red wine, beef, spinach and tarragon and then grilled with a cheese sauce. Pancake Tuesday might be a week past but these treats are too good to reserve for one day a year.
Last week I visited Patrick Frew who runs the Incredible Edible project in Cloughmills in County Antrim. This is a community garden project with polytunnels, a pizza oven, communal kitchen and eating area. Their latest scheme is to grow mushrooms in the used coffee grounds. Ground coffee shop in Ballymoney provide the waste beans and Patrick grows mushrooms. It’s a win, win situation using waste to grow food. The mushrooms are delicious and full of flavour. Check out cloughmills.org.uk for details. Chinese New Year was yesterday but it’s not too late to celebrate and what better way than with a chicken and mushroom stirfry. Thinly sliced chicken is marinated, cooked in a hot wok with mushrooms, bamboo shoots, ginger, garlic and scallions. You don’t need to invest in fancy mushrooms – you can buy good Northern Ireland mushrooms in green grocers and they’re perfect for this dish. Cooking Chinese food at home makes economic sense and you get all the theatre in your own kitchen.
Pancakes and Chinese food shouldn’t be kept for feast days – they’re exciting and tasty to eat all year long!