There is an entree on the menu of Brisbane’s ecco restaurant which will probably never be removed. I remember it still, despite the 12 or so years which have lapsed since I tasted it. Field mushrooms piled on to olive toast, served with rocket, parmesan shards, truffle oil and lemon: heaven on a plate, and one of the most brilliantly executed renditions of an essentially very peasant dish I have eaten. More recently it was a warm salad of Asian mushrooms tumbling among fingers of creamy-centred tempura-ed polenta at Ballina’s The Point restaurant which seduced me with nearly as much ease. Mushrooms have this extraordinary versatility, an ability to adapt to a huge range of flavours and techniques – and yet there they are a common enough thing. Not a vegetable at all, but something referred to as the ‘fruiting body’ of a fungus. And of fungi themselves mushrooms are but one type among yeasts, lichen and penicillin.
The mushroom with which most of us are familiar is the cultivated one, agaricus bisporus, possessing stem, cap and gills – although increasingly our exposure to other more exotic types improves, available in punnets from suburban supermarkets. As for wild mushrooms – of which it is said that the flavour is superior, incomparable – the most admired is the boletus edulis, the French ‘cepe’, the German ‘Steinpilz’, the Italian ‘porcino’ (named because of the fondness shown toward it by pigs in the woods fattening on acorns).
Autumn is the season when thoughts turn to mushrooms, despite their presence throughout the year. Autumn is when I like to fill a baking dish with button mushrooms, strew them with fresh thyme, drizzle over balsamic vinegar, olive oil and a seasoning of salt and pepper and bang the lot into a hot oven for as long as it takes to heat some bread, set the table, even throw together a green salad. By the time I have crumbled Persian fetta over the top and soaked up the splendid juices with bread, I have entirely cancelled out the possibility of its having been a wholesome, low-fat and low-calorie meal – yet still feel the happiness that comes from dining in divine simplicity, or simply divinely.
Mushrooms. Sliced raw to translucency and dressed with lemon juice, finely chopped garlic and parsley, your best olive oil and seasoning, these continue to improve with time and refreshingly accompany any type of protein. The man I love heats bread rolls for 10 minutes then removes their centres, fills them with a whole mushroom and a scattering of fetta before returning them to the oven until the mushrooms are browned and the fetta oozes a sauce around them. There is a grilled mushroom salad I make in which I grill whole, stemmed field mushrooms caps-down for about 5 minutes, turn them over for another minute, pat them dry then layer them in a glass serving dish. Over the top of them I pour a mix of extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves, zest and juice of a lemon, bay leaves, sprig of thyme, red chillies and black peppercorns which I have simmered for five minutes then strained. Mushrooms refrigerated overnight and just before serving scattered with ‘gremolata’, that lovely blend of finely chopped garlic, parsley and lemon rind.
Below is a gorgeous recipe for a Roast Mushroom and Ricotta Tart too easy not to make:
ROAST MUSHROOM AND RICOTTA TART
In a food processor whizz together 220 gr. roughly chopped butter and 335 gr. plain flour to the ‘breadcrumbs’ stage, then add 1 egg and 30 ml. milk until the mixture forms a ball. Remove, wrap in greaseproof paper and chill for at least an hour. Roll it out to line a flan dish and bake-blind.
Meanwhile, clean and trim about 30 medium- sized button mushrooms and roast them until golden in a little olive oil.
For the filling: whisk together 350 gr. ricotta, 70 ml. cream, 2 eggs, 40 gr. freshly grated Grana and season with salt and pepper. Pour into the cooled pastry case and bake for 25 – 30 mins at 180 ̊C. Remove from oven, arrange roast mushrooms (no juices) all over the top, scatter over fresh thyme, cool then serve.