My penchant for blogs about food and drink, reviews of restaurants, recipes and photoshoots from my own cooking probably give the game away: I am undeniably a foodie, which is why I don’t simply cook a dish but research, think about it, experiment and attempt to perfect it.
So it is with creamed mushrooms, for which some might only ever have experienced the canned variety (more thickened white milky glop imbued with mushroom flavouring than actual mushrooms, and certainly no cream.) This is not a difficult dish to cook if you put it simply: “slice mushrooms, sauté, add cream, serve with hot buttered toast” – except there is more to it than that. What variety/combination of mushrooms? How small should they be sliced, or indeed should some be pureed? What other ingredients and flavourings should be added? What type of cream? And so on…. Even simple things can be quite challenging when you actually question every aspect of conventional wisdom and think through precisely why you are doing what you’re doing.
I suspect that some people choose mushrooms in a sauce like this because they consider it to be a mild and gentle mushroomy flavour, where I take the view that you should lose that robustness for which humble mushrooms are sought. Not that they should overpower the dish, but certainly pull their weight.
So – first thing is that I’m searching for an intensity of mushroomy flavour, the earthiness that comes from really great wild mushrooms having no parallel. Granted that it would help (a) if I lived sufficiently close to Borough Market to buy the fantastic wild mushrooms they sell there, or (b) knew enough about them to venture forth into the woods to pick my own without risking a horrible death to all my guests, but there are ways around this issue.
The first is to get a good book and to take someone who knows what they are talking about when you go foraging, though you will also find reliable guides online too. However, if there are places where you can buy wild mushrooms, try to get porcini (also called ceps), chanterelles or other strongly-flavoured fungi.
But do remember dried too, available at most good quality food stores. I’ve explored them with my mushroom risotto and come to the conclusion that a combination of fresh chestnut mushrooms and dried porcini works a treat, especially when use add the porcini stock to the cooking risotto. You shouldn’t need the stock here, so save it for your next risotto. In this dish, the mushrooms generate their own liquid when covered during cooking, which will contribute to the sauce.
Some are special and very expensive, notably morels. Of course, the royalty among mushroom species are truffles – and if you can afford some fresh ones to shave into your cream sauce I have no doubt the results would be spectacular, but for these purposes I will assume you don’t have the funding!
Of the types commonly found in supermarkets, oyster mushrooms tend to be commercially grown these days and are not especially to my taste (try in an omelette or Asian dishes), while shiitake mushrooms are quite robust and textured – especially in dried form, and better suited to vegetable stews and stir-fries. However, chestnut mushrooms work well, and mature white mushrooms will be fine. Avoid wide-rimmed portobello mushrooms (wasted in this dish) and “baby mushrooms” – which lack the depth of flavour required for these purposes.
The question also remains about whether you use your combination of mushies whole, sliced (and if so, at what size dice?), or even a combo of sliced and pureed mushrooms? Each is worthy of investigation.
Anyway, assuming you’re going for sliced, heat a thick-bottomed pan and when it’s just foaming add your mushrooms, with a pinch of coarse sea salt and fresh-milled black pepper and a little finely-chopped thyme. Cover and
2) Onions & garlic
I’m inclined to say shallots rather than onions, but a little mild oniony flavour works well, but not too much. A small shallot or half a bigger one, finely minced, should be plenty.
However, the more interesting decision concerns garlic. As is well known, mushrooms and garlic do make for a wonderfully potent and resonant combination – but this does not mean they have to be joined at the hip every time! The risk here is that if they do a Morecambe and Wise double act here they may well overpower the cream sauce, which would of course be a shame. If you add some it needs to be a very small quantity, or a small squeeze of garlic puree would make a reasonable alternative – but don’t be afraid to omit if you prefer the taste of the mushrooms alone and unadulterated.
Add the shallots and puree to the pot, stir well and cook for a further minute.
3) Cream & liquid
A small splash of white wine won’t hurt, deglazing the pan in the process. But which cream? Different versions I’ve seen choose single or double cream. but for these purposes I tried cultivated sour cream, which has a delightfully tangy flavour often used in savoury dishes. Don’t overdo the cream though, and don’t add it til the last minute. The last thing you want is to be swamped in curdled cream, but a little butter added may further emulsify the mix.
Really good singed sourdough bread is what you want here. Inferior bread makes inferior toast, so invest in a top quality craft-baked loaf and give it a brief but fierce toasting, then butter well.
So pour your creamy mushroom mixture over the toast, serve and eat. Of course, you may want to experiment with other variants and see whether you can improve yet further on this version!!