By Ren Behan
The dampness and rain on autumn days always makes me think of wild mushrooms; a throwback to my childhood when my mother and grandmother would get up before dawn and sneak out to their trusted yet secret hotspots, deep in the forest, to hunt for edible mushrooms. They would always come back with baskets breaming with earthy delicacies, which would later find their way into handmade Polish dumplings, or perhaps into a pickling jar, or be dried to flavour hearty soups and stews. The ultimate find would be the cep or porcini, or a ‘prawdziwek’ as it was known to them, meaning ‘the true mushroom’, most often found from September to November.
Though mushroom hunting was always considered to be a family tradition, to me, there is still something rather perilous about it. In the absence of an experienced pair of hands to guide me, I feel much happier picking up a pre-approved selection during the safety of the weekly shop. The annual mushroom market during a food festival in my local city of St Albans is also something I look forward to each year, and this year there was an abundance of foraged wild mushrooms on offer. Varieties included a giant puffball and cauliflower fungus from Norfolk, as well as chanterelle, girolle, oyster, and even precious dark, black truffles from Europe and beyond.
The very simplest way of cooking mushrooms is to pan fry them with a little olive oil and butter, finely chopped onion and garlic, and plenty of fresh parsley. To this weekend’s bounty, I also added some Polish bacon (pancetta would make a good alternative) and a generous swirl of soured cream to the pan.
It’s always a good thing to have a good creamy mushroom soup in your repertoire. A handful of frugal ingredients can be transformed into something incredibly warm and comforting, for the whole family or even guests to enjoy. Don’t forget to take out some of the garlicky, pan-fried mushrooms to serve over some griddled ciabatta on the side. A mouthful of crunchy Italian ‘crostini’ drizzled with olive oil is always an extra treat.
And if you’ve any mushrooms left to use up, you’re spoilt for choice on how to put them to good use. Chopped finely, mushrooms are a great addition to homemade meatballs, and snuggle some pan-fried as an extra hidden veggie layer within a lasagne. Mushrooms also add an extra flavour when added to a pasta sauce and can be useful for bulking out casseroles, stews or stir-fries to make them stretch a bit further.
Next on my winter-warming comfort food shortlist is this recipe for a chicken and mushroom pasta bake, which uses dried porcini as well as any mixed, fresh mushrooms. Pasta baked with chicken, mushrooms, cream and Parmesan comes with a guarantee of cheering you up on a damp day!
Ren Behan is a food writer and a mum of two. Find out more at www.renbehan.com