In praise of dried mushrooms

The photo is of fillet steak with a celeriac gratin and asparagus, and a mushroom sauce, but it is the mushroom sauce which matters here.

I like mushrooms. In fact, I like mushrooms a lot, but sometimes the standard button, chestnut, field and portobello ones in the shops lack a little, how shall I put it, va-va-voom. Yes, they are fine in many dishes, but when you need more depth and more sheer mushroominess you have to admit that they don’t really measure up. However, this is where the dried mushroom comes in.

Dried mushrooms come in many forms. There are the ones you get in oriental shops, the shitake, wood ear fungus etc, which are great but not what I am talking about here. Here, my interest is in the various European varieties which are available, sometimes in supermarkets but more often in delis, specialist shops and online. Of course, dried mushrooms are more easily found elsewhere in Europe, they are a staple of French supermarkets, and often cheaper there too.

The basic dried mushroom, which everyone should have, is the cep, otherwise known as porcini, cèpes or Boletus edulis. These have a fantastic flavour and can be used in a variety of dishes. I often add them dried and crumbled into small pieces in many beef-based dishes that require a long slow cook, such as a minced beef ragu or a beef casserole where they add a massive umami kick to the finished dish.

Other varieties that are available include morels (which can be eye-wateringly expensive), chanterelles (also known as girolles) and trompettes de la mort (which are also called horn of plenty mushrooms). They all need soaking in boiled water until soft and they will most likely leave a gritty residue in the soaking water. The important thing to remember is that the soaking water will contain a huge amount of rich mushroom flavour and should be used to make a stock or sauce for whatever dish you are making, or you can freeze and save it for later use. Just remember that you need to strain it first to avoid the grit.

If you are making a duxelles stuffing, you can boost the flavour by adding in some soaked dried ceps and their soaking water or you can use the mushrooms to make a super rich and dark sauce, as I did in the picture.

The sauce I made for the dish above consisted of a mixture of morels, ceps and chanterelles, soaked and chopped. It also had some basic fresh chestnut mushrooms, thinly-sliced for bulk.

It isn’t difficult to make.

All you need to do is sauté some finely chopped shallots and garlic in butter with a little oil until soft and starting to colour. Then add the chopped soaked mushrooms and continue cooking. Next add in the fresh mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and carry on cooking over a low flame. You can add some herbs too. Tarragon works well, as does parsley and a couple of bay leaves won’t hurt either. You’ll be better off leaving the herbs whole, so you can fish them out before serving.

You really need to add some booze too. White wine is good, as is an amontillado sherry, but the best results come with something richer, like Madeira or Marsala. You don’t need a lot, just a small glassful. Once you have added this and let it cook down a bit, add in the soaking water and reduce this down. Depending on what you intend to serve the sauce with, you can add some stock, chicken or beef and maybe cream to finish the sauce off. Whatever you do, don’t add any salt or pepper without tasting the reduced sauce first, and don’t add salt before you have reduced it, or it might end up too salty. When the sauce is of the right consistency you might want to enrich it further with a knob of unsalted butter, whisked in at the last minute.

Depending on what you want the finished item to look like you can leave the mushrooms in pieces or you can blitz the sauce and strain it through a sieve. Unless you add cream, you are going to have a very dark sauce, but I don’t see that as a problem. It is going to taste absolutely immense.

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