For the past week, I’ve been keeping a secret. Giggling behind my hands, I’ve been wanting to share. But I have to admit, I’ve also been a little reluctant to shout this one out, because I feel a little guilty. I mean, what did I do to deserve such largesse? And am I compromising my standards as a writer by accepting such gifts?
But finally, I just can’t stand it any longer. I just have to tell you.
Okay, back up. Last month, just after I broke my foot and had to miss my trip to New York, I splurged. Being a high school teacher, I don’t have a lot of extra money. Especially for the kind of cookware I’d love to own. When I walk into Sur la Table, I ogle the pots and pans. I ooh and ahh over the lovely ladles and spoons. I wish for a patron to stock my kitchen. But slowly, over the years, I have been accruing the basics of a good kitchen, to support my insatiable cooking habit. Last week, after years of suffering with a dull one, I bought myself a truly fine knife. What I’ve been realizing this past year is that “luxury” is sometimes necessity. And for those of us who have to eat gluten free, who cook almost all our own food, sometime splurges are no longer decadence. Honestly, I can’t imagine my kitchen without the wonderful Kitchen-Aid mixer I received as a gift a full decade ago. And now, the knife.
So, in that spirit, the week after I broke my foot, I bought myself a tiny little Le Creuset pot. For years, I have been coveting this cookware. It’s cast iron covered by enamelware, and it’s beautiful. My dear friend Tita received a set for her wedding, over twenty-five years ago, and she’s still using it on a nearly daily basis. I’m not married, and there’s no one in sight. So waiting for a wedding to receive some Le Creuset seems terribly far away. Hell with the wedding. I bought myself some. Of course, I could only afford the mini cocotte, which fits into the palm of my hand. But it was enough. I roasted garlic in it and wrote about it happily, back in November.
Well, here’s where the secret comes in. You see, someone (who shall remain nameless) read that little joyful post of mine, and decided to take fate into her own hands. My fairy godblogger, without my knowing it, sent that little post to the people at Le Creuset. She told them about my gluten-free exploits, how I’ve been extoling the virtues of cooking at home, and specifically, how much I love Le Creuset. They read it, liked my site, and agreed with her. I needed some more pots and pans.
And so, dear readers, this is how an entire set of Le Creuset, gorgeous and shining twilight blue, showed up on my doorstep last week. Out of the air, just before the holidays, unbidden, and glorious. My gleaming metal kitchen shelves are now festooned with the most beautiful cookware I have ever owned.
I’ve just been bursting with joy ever since.
My friends in Seattle have heard all about this, and have even seen my lovely new pots and pans. (There was plenty of oohing and aahing at Sunday’s party.) I even told my writing students about this: “You see? When you write from the heart, the images that need to emerge, urgently, goodness comes back to you.” And I’ve been dabbling with dishes. Eggs slowly scrambled on my cast-iron skillet. The minestrone re-heated in the five-quart pot. Everything tasted so good.
But my last week has been so packed-in busy at school that I hadn’t really had a chance to cook anything from scratch in my new Le Creuset. Last weekend, in preparation for the party, I cut my finger with my new, sharp knife, by making mushroom stock at 10:20 at night. I managed to finish making the stock, then stuck it in the refrigerator, gave up on the soup. The party survived its absence. But it had been plaguing me. I had to use this stock. It’s rich and flavorful and full or porcini mushroom essence. So when do use it? When do I cook with my new Le Creuset? Why, today, of course. When I have 54 student evaluations and five more letters of recommendation to write. The perfect time.
Okay, so I decided to make a densely tasted, many-stepped mushroom soup to stave off writing evaluations. I’ve written some, others are waiting. It’s going to take all day, and I’m balking. What else is new? I know the drill by now. Do some, then cook.
The sun was coming through the skylights, forgiving and kind. A soft, yellowy light, high northern light, Rembrandt light. And it feels good. It had been a raw week, as some of you already know. Stresses. Too much work. Overwhelmedness. Blah. By yesterday, I seemed to have blown most of it out of me, but there’s still that little dance of tremulousness, the evaluations waiting.
So I’m in the kitchen, dancing with the light. Patty Griffin is on the stereo, and I can’t help but singing. The onions are carmelizing in my mighty Le Creuset. Shitake and white mushrooms are searing in the skillet on the back burner. It’s all coming together. I can feel it turning into food I’ll want to eat. Perhaps even write about later. And I’m ready for the stock, to deglaze the pans. So I reach into the refrigerator for the giant tupperware container, and turn toward the stove….
and it spills from my hands. No, it tumbles. No, it rushes, dances, spins, and then, SPLAT! It crashes to the floor, the lid pops off (perhaps it wasn’t on, really, and that’s why it fell, but no matter), and mushroom stock splashes up. No, it fountains up. No, it surges, leaps, dances, then spins. All over the kitchen. We’re not talking a tiny spill. A little bobble. I mean, the entire floor is suddenly puddled in rich shitake stock. My sheepskin slippers have dark splotches on them. My orange pants are a wet sienna. The coffee pot drips brown. My face is splattered with stock. And of course, the pan is now deglazed, because there’s stock all over the stove.
I pause for a moment, frozen in my spot. And then I start to laugh, as stock drips down underneath my shirt. I start to giggle, then move and almost slip in the pool of brown liquid at my feet, then roar at my own almost pratfall. So I stand in the middle of the kitchen, dripping, stock gone, the morning possibly ruined, except it’s not. Because I’m laughing, in waves of giant giggles, then deep belly laughs. Waves of laughter, strong enough to knock down any of my remaining walls of resistance, anxiety, silliness, and worry. Rolls of hoarse, from-the-core-of-me laughter, bouncing off the windows, extending to the Olympic mountains.
And I’m fine.
Because that’s how life works for me. A magnificent gift, a bounty from the world I love, and then I spill stock all down the front of me. And I’m laughing. How could I not?
And the soup? Well, I just used some leftover beef stock from a carton instead, and it tasted fantastic. I could taste the Le Creuset gift and the laughter in it. And I could taste the first splatterings of winter-vacation freedom on my tongue.
Winter Mushroom Soup, adapted from Fields of Greens
I first made this soup years and year ago, when I was first learning to cook. At the time, it felt like an all-day accomplishment, a feat to be conquered. And the taste of the soup only justified all that work. Now, it’s many years, and innumerable meals cooked, later. And I decided to throw it together on the spur of the moment. Without spilling stock all over the floor, the recipe takes far less time to make than I had remembered. The only lengthy part is making the stock beforehand and carmelizing the onions. (For great tips on how to carmelize onions, check out Rachael’s post.) Remember, great food doesn’t come from speed. Spend some time in the kitchen, dancing with the light, if possible. Hours later, your tongue will be happy.
This is adapted rather freely from the most excellent Fields of Greens, which has, in my opinion, the best recipes for soup of any cookbook out there. Every single one tastes decadent, even though they come from simple sources. I’ve used far more mushrooms than the original recipe calls for, because I like a thick mushroom soup, where every spoon has chewy bites of different mushrooms. The original also called for soy sauce, but wheat-free tamari substitutes quite well. Perhaps even better.
6 cups of mushroom, vegetable, or beef stock (preferably homemade)
1 ounce of dried wild mushrooms, soaked in warm water for fifteen minutes first
3 tablespoons of high-quality extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, sliced thin (try this on the mandoline, but watch your fingers)
salt and pepper to taste
8 garlic cloves, sliced thin
2 pounds of white mushrooms, caps only, sliced rather thickly
1 pound of shitake mushrooms, sliced thick, stems included
1/2 cup of dry sherry
a splash of wheat-free tamari
1 medium-sized potato, peeled and sliced (Yukon gold will work well)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs: basil, oregano, or Italian parsely
crumbled goat cheese
Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in your best stockpot on medium heat. Add the sliced onions, a pinch of salt, and a dash of pepper. Saute the onions until they begin to soften, then add the soaked wild mushrooms (but not the water) and half the garlic. Turn the heat down to medium-low and allow the onions and mushrooms to slowly carmelize. This should take about half an hour. Stir once in awhile to avoid the onions sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Meanwhile, saute the white mushrooms with olive oil in a skillet on high heat. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Then, step back and let the mushrooms sear. You’re going to worry that they’re burning, or that they’ll be stuck to the pan permanently. Wait. Keep searing them over high heat until they are golden, or until they begin to squeak. Stir them, gently, then keep cooking for one more minute. Add the shitake mushrooms, several tablespoons of the sherry, and a splash of tamari sauce. Cook for a minute or so, until the shitake mushrooms are quite tender. At this point, they’ll smell like the essence of mushroom. If they are stuck, a bit, deglaze the pan with some of the stock.
(If you don’t have a large skillet, it will probably be necessary to sautee the mushrooms in this way in two batches. In that case, use half of each ingredient for the process, then repeat.)
Back at the stockpot, add 1/4 cup of the sherry, and the potato slices. Cover the pot, turn the heat back up to medium, and let it all bubble away for fifteen minutes, or until the potatoes yield easily to a fork. At this point, transfer the contents of the stockpot to your blender or food processor, and puree it until it’s a dark-brown mushroom color, one consistent liquid. (And if you’re lucky enough to own one of those wands you can put directly into the pot, well, you know what to do.) Pour the puree back into the pot.
Add the sauteed mushrooms, as well as the stock of your choice, into the puree in the stockpot. Throw in your favorite chopped herbs. Cook for another 30 to 45 minutes, allowing the soup to take on its own rich taste.
Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle it into bowls, and swirl in a small splash of especially green, vegetal olive oil. Dabs of crumbled goat cheese on top make this complete.