Well, not really. But you know what I mean, don’t you? Mushrooms, ordinary button mushrooms, that are called “champignons” in Italian (which is of course a French word actually), aren’t exactly thriling now are they. I can’t imagine people getting all excited about eating a plate of these mushrooms. They seem to have gone out of fashion – I don’t even see them on Italian menus in family-run restaurants any more. Sometimes as part of a pizza topping but that’s about it. I wonder why, poor things. They are quite tasty after all and surely, unless you hate mushrooms or are allergic to them, you don’t mind having them as a side dish, sautéed in olive oil and garlic and finely minced parsely. But again, the operative word is “don’t mind” (which of course are two words but let’s not quibble here) as opposed to “hanker after” or “crave”. Mmmmm.
As my children were growing up, I had to account for differing tastes when it came to vegetables and since I love vegetables myself – all of them I hasten to add – I did not mind putting at least two and usually three vegetable side dishes on the dinner table every evening. (potatoes often being the common denominator). Favourite daughter can’t bear mushrooms, and might even be slightly allergic to them. Whereas favourite son likes them, even the lowly button-mushroom kind. Favourite husband is usually easy to please but he has never waxed lyrical over them. So the bottom line, now that both kids have left home, is that I rarely cook mushrooms (except for the porcini kind, when they are in season).
I have been boycotting supermarkets for over ten years, a decision I came to after reading the book “Not on the Label – What Really Goes into the Food in your Plate” by British journalist Felicity Lawrence. I have been guiding tours around Frascati for almost two years and this piece of information pops into the tour when I show our clients my shopping street and the town’s market. And I tell them, the way I write to you now, that I cannot get on my moral high horse about this – because food shopping is incredibly easy to do in Frascati and I have access within walking distance to everything I could possibly want (except for fresh coriander – for that I have to go into Rome. Coriander/cilantro still not big in these parts). As life would ironically have it, however, it turns out that I have had to frequent supermarkets on a regular basis (weekly!) ever since my mother stopped driving last year and I have to take her shopping (she turns 93 in December bless her). I kid you not, I have been more often to the supermarket this past year than I have all together in the previous ten or more. Oh – and by the way it’s not the idea of a supermarket that I am against. It’s the fact that they don’t pay the producers well. That and lots more but let’s drop the subject now and get back to the recipe for today’s post.
So there I was looking at the fresh foods at the supermarket with her the other day and turning my nose up disdainfully. The aubergines/eggplants looked okay, I suppose. The salads all came in plastic bags. I’ll admit the cucumber looked good. But for the rest I was really underwhelmed. I went for the button mushrooms in a desultory bid to avoid coming home empty-handed. I had to make dinner after all.
By the time I did get home, my husband told me he’d be late that night … so it was a case of my being on my own. And that’s when I decided I would make a pasta dish with these champignons and let’s see if I could raise the bar here, and make them a bit special?
In the fridge I had some fresh tomatoes that I had cooked down in order to make a tomato sauce, and which I had put through a food mill. A home-made tomato sauce is always good for adding ooomph to a recipe. For the rest it was a case of the usual suspects: olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs.
On the other hand, since I WAS trying to make this a bit special, I knew I had to bring out some big guns. Follow me.
The pasta brand. This pasta brand. Verrigni. One of the best in Italy, full stop. From Abbruzzo.
A secret ingredient – dried porcini mushrooms. Please ignore that lovely onion from Tropea in the foreground. I used that to cook something else.
I poured boiling water over the funghi porcini and let them soak until they were tender.
Once they were totally rehydrated, I used a pair of scissors to cut them up. And don’t even think about throwing away that porcini-infused water! That’s what was to give the dish a bit of ooomph.
Not too shabby either was this home-made tomato salsa I had prepared the day before. I skinned the tomatoes, chopped them up very roughly, and just cooked them down for about 15 minutes. Afterwards I put them through a food mill and added salt and olive oil (extra virgin olive oil, naturally).
The mushrooms soaking in a bowl of water. They needed a good soak, it was very hot that day.
The same mushrooms, a little later, roughly cut up and ready to be cooked.
TIME TO COOK
I put the water onto the boil for the pasta.
I am recently very much ‘into’ this big frying pan – don’t ask me why. I certainly didn’t need anything this big for my recipe but for some reason this was the only pan that ‘spoke’ to me that evening. Made me feel a little cheffy, I suppose. As you can see there is plenty of garlic, and plenty of olive oil. There are, also, a few pepper corns (no, they are not mouse droppings). And the green herb that you see is what we call “mentuccia” and which, I think is what is known as “calamint” in English (the official name in Latin is Clinopodium nepeta). It is very strong, very. Think mint on steroids. And it goes wonderfully well with mushrooms. You could always substitute with marjoram, or tarragon, or thyme, or mint or even plain parsely. Mentuccia is very easy to grow (I grow don’t have green fingers, trust me).
I had the garlic cooking on a stronger heat that I would normally use.
The minute the garlic started to turn golden, I added the mushrooms.
And shortly after I added the porcini mushrooms and the water in which they had been soaking.
Here you see everything bubbling away over a high heat.
Time to cook the pasta too.
I now added my tomato salsa.
A thick slice of a beautiful lemon from the Amalfi Coast (they are famous for their lemons there).
I tasted the sauce, added some salt, a bit more mentuccia and … yes … even some freshly squeezed lemon juice. A little at a time. A little goes a long way.
I added a little bit of freshly grated pecorino cheese and switched the heat off. The cheese melted easily even with the heat switched off.
When the pasta was ready, I drained it directly into my beefy saucepan and turned on the heat to a fierce temperature as I mixed in the sauce with the pasta. I even did a bit of showing-off tossing – but couldn’t photograph that of course.
I served it with some freshly grated parmigiano (parmesan).
I added some chilli flakes just after I took this photo because I like a bit of heat.
I thought it was rather nice, thank you very much. See? There WAS a way to make button mushrooms sexy after all. Or so I thought.
The next day, while I was away, my husband had some leftovers for lunch. When I got back, I enquired as to his liking of the dish. He scrunched up his nose, took in a deep breath and pronounced it “unconvincing”. I mean, he ate a whole plate of the stuff but it wasn’t exactly ‘good’ according to him. He wasn’t being mean, by the way, just offering an honest opinion.
Yet. You can imagine how crestfallen I felt.
“Did you add freshly grated parmigiano to it?” I asked. He answered that no, he had not.
That must have been it then, I said to myself, trying to cheer myself up. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.
PS – if you leave the cheese out, this recipe is fit for vegans.
PPS – It’s always a good idea to add some lemon juice to mushroom soup too.
PPPS – Here is a little background on Mint (https://www.summerdownmint.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Food-Wine-Sept-2011.pdf)
More Mint Mythology
In Roman mythology Minthe was a
lovely young nymph who caught
the eye of Pluto, the ruler of the
underworld. When his wife Persephone found out about his love
for the beautiful nymph, she was
enraged and changed Minthe into
a lowly plant, to be trodden underfoot. Pluto couldn’t reverse Persephone’s curse, but he did soften
the spell somewhat by making the
smell that Minthe gave off all the
sweeter when she was trodden
upon. The name Minthe has
changed to Mentha and become
the name of the herb, mint.
In ancient Greece, mint was used
in funerary rites, together with
rosemary and myrtle, not simply
to offset the smell of decay but
mint was an element in the fermented barley drink called the
kykeon that was an essential brew
for participants in the Eleusinian
mysteries, which offered hope in
the afterlife for initiates.