Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Sans Picture

If you’re a food blogger yourself, you know that there are some recipes that are hard to share because they just won’t photograph well. I was thinking about this at breakfast this morning, when I was eating a scrambled egg with duxelles, and a leftover concoction of cabbage, roasted red potatoes, onions, bacon, and cream. Both had amazing flavor, and were just heavenly (even the unlikely sounding potatoes and cabbage for breakfast), but boy were they ugly.

I like my scrambled eggs pretty dry (for which read: not fluffy and pretty, but more flat-pancake-like), and that potato and cabbage thing wasn’t particularly attractive when it was fresh, much less as a leftover two days later. If I showed you pictures of it, you’d wonder why I was eating it at all. And it wouldn’t tempt you to make any of it. But I realized as I was reading "Beard on Food," the amazing compilation of Beard’s articles from his various syndicated columns, that I was finding it necessary to keep a packet of sticky flags next to me as I read, so I could mark those recipes I wanted to try. And there are no pictures, just Beard’s discussion of the subject, and the recipes themselves.

The recipe I bring you today is one for something that isn’t really a thing by itself, but is a component of other things. An ingredient, if you will. I refer to the duxelles that was in my scrambled eggs.

I made duxelles once before, but I don’t recall it being much of a standout. In the first place, I think it was microwaved, and in the second place, I believe it was a recipe from Cooking Light, so it wasn't the lavish affair with lots of butter that Beard presents. And as we all know, butter makes the world go ‘round.

For some reason, after reading the recipe for this, I was overwhelmed by an urge to make it. Really, I have no idea what drove this. Certainly it wasn’t a sweeping desire to finely chop two pounds of mushrooms (do you know how many mushrooms are in two pounds? A lot, that’s how many). Maybe it was the comment Beard makes at the end of the recipe: that the lot, cooked down and spooned into a screw top jar, could be kept in the refrigerator for at least two weeks. Maybe it was his ideas for what to do with the duxelles once it was made.

Whatever the reason, Sunday morning found me with my two pounds of mushrooms, a knife, and a cutting board. I chopped and chopped and chopped some more. I got interrupted to go to the grocery store (Sunday is Donut Day, you understand), and to make some peanut butter sandwiches and various other kid food. I used plain old white mushrooms, rinsed off, and chopped both the stems and the caps into a pretty fine mince. This is actually easier than it sounds because the shape of mushrooms lends them to quick chopping.

Once I had my bowls and bowls of chopped mushrooms, I undertook the cooking part of the recipe. All this really requires is a pretty substantial block of time when you’re going to be in and out of the kitchen with some regularity so you can stir the mixture. Beard says it will take 1 ½ to 2 hours, but I found that to really cook them slowly and evenly it was closer to three. The result, however, was just as he’d promised: a thick dense mass of mushrooms, very dark, almost black in color.

Maybe what drew me to this recipe was his suggestions of what to do with them. Because now that you have this stuff, the question isn’t what do I do with it, but what do I not do with it? Beard’s offerings include stacking crepes eight or nine high layered with the mushrooms, dotting them with butter and baking them. This is served sliced in wedges. The way I’ve been eating them is in scrambled eggs, also recommended. Additionally, I made some pork lo mein the other night that called for shiitake mushrooms. I had none, so I stirred in a generous spoonful or two of duxelles; the mushroom flavor they added was amazing.

They can be stirred into mashed potatoes or celery root, spooned over hamburgers, or combined with 4 or 5 tablespoons of shredded cheese (Gruyere and Cheddar are mentioned, I think blue would also be admirable), spread over baguette rounds and toasted under the broiler as an hors d’oeuvres. Add it to sauces, Beard urges: cream sauce, brown gravy.

I can think of a few dozen more things to do with it, starting with adding it to roasted Brussels sprouts after cooking, or warming it up and scattering it over oven roasted roma tomatoes with herbs. It would make a great addition to a steak pan sauce, with a little Dijon or whole grain mustard and a little beef broth, all stirred in after the steaks pan fry. Combine it with hot pasta, fresh baby spinach leaves, and some grated Parmesan cheese.

About the only places I wouldn’t use duxelles is in lemon meringue pie, or chocolate cake or something like that. Otherwise, it's a fantastic “secret” ingredient that requires some chopping and watching time, but it stores well and has so many uses that it's well worth the time to make it. Just don’t expect to be able to take pictures.

adapted from Beard on Food, by James Beard
makes about 1 1/2 cups of mixture

1 1/2 to 2 lbs white mushrooms (Beard suggests that this is a good way to use mushrooms that may be somewhat past their prime, since looks really don't count)
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot or onion
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
2 teaspoons salt

Chop mushrooms fine, caps and stems. Beard calls for wringing them out in a kitchen towel before cooking, but I confess I barely squeezed out enough liquid to get the towel damp. If your mushrooms seem fairly dry, I think you could safely skip this step.

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet (mine is a 12" one) over medium heat. Add mushrooms and shallot or onion, and stir to combine with butter.

Cook over low heat, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes (or every now and then when you think of it) to move the mushrooms from the bottom of the pan to the top. Beard calls for adding more butter "as needed" but I found a whole stick to be ample, thanks. The duxelles are done when all the moisture has been drawn from the mushrooms and they are completely dehydrated, and are a thick blackish mass. They will appear almost burnt; they are not.

Add the salt and stir through. Spoon into a large jar or storage container and refrigerate. The mixture should be good for, as Beard says, at least two weeks. Use willy-nilly.


maris said...

So funny that this post follows one called "Picture Perfect!" I feel the same way about's my favorite breakfast and there are a lot of good ways to prepare it but boy does it look gross in pictures!

TD said...

Oh I know! I'm always amazed when I see pictures in magazines of things like oatmeal and scrambled eggs and they actually look pretty appetizing. My pictures of them always look like total mush!