Basics Weeks Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen and Mountains of Mushrooms
December 15, 2002

Portabellos. That's what Bill and Judy sent us today. Portabellos! This summer it was fresh, fat, fuzzy peaches from a Maryland orchard, several baggies of sungolds and roma tomatoes from their garden, and now it's three perfect pounds of portabellos from the Mushroom capital of the United States. I'll bet you didn't even know we had a mushroom capital, did you? Well, we do. We also have an artichoke capital and a garlic capital -- I'm sure we have capitals for every food, but let's face it, I'm all about the garlic, artichokes and mushrooms.

See, this is what gets me excited -- it's what gets Mathra and his parents excited. Other people would be all, "So, you got some brown fungi in the mail, big deal." Not us. This little boon of fresh velvety soft gold means I can finally try my hand at risotto. Because it's such an involved and difficult dish, it's folly to try risotto with anything but the freshest and most perfect of ingredients. Then again, I pretty much have started to believe that about everything I make -- hang on, did you hear that? My bank account just committed hari kari. This also means we'll have more than enough for grilling up in the stove-top grill pan as well as doing them Linda style. The Linda recipe is actually one I've been meaning to alert Sars to now that she has to deal with this meat allergy. It's a great and relatively easy recipe that ends up being pretty filling, especially if you have a few hunks of crusty bread to sop up the juices.

Here's a round up of the last three weeks in Basics....

Week Twelve: Osama Bin Lasagne

November 25, 2002

We spent a whole day on pasta. I felt quite an old hand at it, so this time Suzy Q and I were able to turn our attention to making sure the rest of our dish came out as perfect as possible. We made Lahkchak, Afghani Lasagne. As soon as I saw it in the list of recipes, I knew I had to make it. Mathra and I have had a ravioli similar dish at The Helmand in Harvard Square and it is an amazing combination of yogurt, leeks, lamb, and spices. In the end, this dish did not disappoint. The ground lamb was seasoned with coriander, cumin, and cinnamon, which melded perfectly with the layer of Lebany yogurt that had been steeped with mint, cilantro, and garlic. I might try adding a squirt of lemon juice to the yogurt mixture next time. Not because I felt that it needed any additional flavor, but lemon juice, yogurt and lamb are an incomparable trio and I would just like to experiment. The third layer of the lasagne was made up of caramelized leeks -- again, a perfect enhancement to the dish's overall success. I was so overjoyed with the results and talked incessantly about having the same dish at The Helmand that Chef Directrix pressed me to take a portion home to Mathra. This is virtually unheard of in her class. She likes to take all leftovers home to her husband, give them to the guy who cleans up after us, or donate them to the firemen across the street. It is rare that we ever get to take anything home by her request. I have some ground lamb in the freezer that I plan to put to this specific purpose at home -- although I may have to make due with store-bought lasagne unless Santa brings me my own Atlas.

Although, I continued to have raptures over this dish for the rest of the class, there was another dish that came very close to perfection and that was the Angel Hair Pasta with Crab and Hazelnuts in Lemon Cream. What is not to love? Crab? Good! Hazelnuts? Good! Lemon Cream? Good and goooood! It's pretty heavy though, so I don't know how often I'd make it at home. I particularly loved the way nests were made out of the angel hair pasta before the sauce was ladled over it -- very nice presentation.

Week Thirteen: Pheasant, and Buffalo, and Boar, Oh My!

December 2, 2002

Ah, game. You either love it or you hate it. I haven't been able to bring myself to eat hare yet -- the thought of little Peter Rabbit being made into Rabbit Pie by Mr. McGregor is just too disturbing for me. Maybe it's because I never had a childhood story about pheasants, but I had no qualms eating heartily of the Pheasant Salmis, which was pheasant wrapped in pork fatback, rubbed with Calvados, roasted on a pile of onion, carrot, and celery, and served with a tasty gravy made from the giblets, more Calvados, and crème fraîche. I'm thinking it would make an amazing Christmas dinner if I could only get my hands on a good pheasant.

The other two main dishes, Roast Loin of Wild Boar with Sundried Cherry Sauce and Loin Steaks of Buffalo with Juniper Berries and Rosemary Mushrooms were also both very good. The wild boar was a bit sinewy for a loin -- through no fault of the students, Chef Directrix suspected we hadn't actually been given the loin -- but it was done perfectly. Both boar and buffalo are low in calories and surprisingly a healthy alternative to steak without the sacrifice of flavor.

I made the Cream of Celeriac Soup and Cepes Sautés á la Bordelaise. The soup was warming and tasty and working with celery root was oddly satisfying. I think a major component in the success of the soup was the additions of scallions and diced pancetta at the finish of the soup. As evidenced by my opening paragraphs, I love mushrooms. This simple recipe -- an adaptation from Richard Olney -- did not disappoint. We even had access to actual cepes. Chef Directrix only let us use two of them, but they truly made a difference to the overall flavor of the dish. Garlic, shallots, breadcrumbs, parsley, lemon juice, and bread crumbs -- what could be easier or a better side dish to any meal, game or vegetarian.

Week Fourteen: You Saucy Beast

December 9, 2002

To finish our first semester of Basic -- we start with Classical Italian, beginning with the Piedmont region tomorrow -- we had a day of sauces. I love sauces. I would make soups out of sauces if they weren't so fattening. This was a day when every person in the class loved and ate heartily of every dish prepared, and we all remarked that had never happened before. We made:

Steamed Artichokes with Hazelnut Mayonnaise

Mussels and Clams with Lemongrass Butter Sauce (this was my dish)

Steaks with Gorgonzola, Walnuts, and Port

Mashed Potatoes with Gremolata Compound Butter

Mushrooms in Reduced Cream and Green Peppercorn Lemon Sauce

Warm Asparagus with Raspberry Vinaigrette

Grilled Onion, Fennel, Tomato, and String Bean Salad

Banana Cake with Caramel Chocolate Cream Sauce

With the exception of the asparagus' raspberry vinaigrette --which I found to be way too sweet and thick for my personal taste -- everything was amazing. Being such a picky eater as a kid meant that I mostly avoided vegetables. Except artichokes. I adored artichokes -- I still do, and now I just have one more wonderful way of preparing them.

This was a particularly lovely day because at the end, Chef Directrix brought out a bottle of champagne and glasses to celebrate the completion of our first semester. Chef Lafite came in to take fifteen pictures of the group on fifteen different cameras and futzed and joked so much that, if I were an agent, I'd get him on the Food Network, pronto!

The mushroom capital, in case you're dying of abject curiosity, is Kennett Square, PA.

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