Thursday, September 23, 2010
Hen of the Woods, Marieke Gouda, Red Onion, Fettucine
Complicated cooking isn't necessarily better than simple food, nor is the reverse always the case. A mackerel grilled over Nova Scotia driftwood, a sweet potato hot from the clay charcoal roaster of a Chengdu street vendor, a Breton oyster slurped down within view of the briny beds where it was born--these are some of my favorite memories of perfect, simple food.
But I also recall with extreme tenderness the first dinner I ever ate in France, a composition of salmon and red mullet napped about with a sort of foamy sauce made from jerusalem artichokes and certain magically delicious things, with perfectly cooked coco de paimpol beans, at the Hotel Pen' Roc in Brittany. And on that same trip, a seared duck breast served with sautéed champagne grapes and a peach galette.
So there are dishes that are worth the effort--especially when it's someone else's effort--but when you can hew to simplicity and achieve extraordinary results, I say, so much the better. One case in point that springs right to mind was another dish from Pen' Roc, on a subsequent visit: a local duckling--Paul Renaud's duckling, to be exact--roasted, the roasting pan deglazed with walnut wine, served that simply: duckling, jus. Amazing, unforgettable.
A great simple dish requires great ingredients, and the good sense to get out of their way. I think we came up with such a dish last week, practically by accident, just trying to get something tasty on the table after a long day. I had something more elaborate in mind to make with those hen of the woods mushrooms; I'm glad I pooped out.
You could try another wild mushroom in this preparation, but I think the chewy, crunchy texture of the hens makes it. That and the wonderful gouda, Marieke, produced at Holland's Family Cheese in Thorp, Wisconsin, out highway 29 between Chippewa Falls and Wausau (I visited the farm and had a nice chat with the on-farm store manager Christine Anderson; expect a field trip/tasting report soon). We made this once with their smoked gouda, a second time with aged gouda (12-months-plus); one time with Sunrise pasta (made in Hibbing, MN), and the second time with homemade.
Well, I'll not go on in rapturous detail. Just, from practically the first bite, I knew this would become a standard at our house, to be anticipated each fall as September rolls around, and the first autumn rains soak the woods, coaxing those remarkable fungi out into the chill air. As for superb "minimalist" cooking, well, Mr Mark Bittman can just...have a real nice day.
A plate of sliced garden tomatoes and a piece of bread are fine accompaniments.
Fettucine with Hen of the Woods, Gouda, Red Onion
6 ounces hen of the woods mushrooms, pulled into shreds roughly 1/2-inch by 2 inches, about 2 cups
1/2 of a medium red onion, sliced against the rings 1/4-inch thick
1 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
3 ounces grated good gouda, aged or smoked, a generous cup
salt & fresh ground black pepper
5 to 6 ounces fettucine, or pasta of your choice--I particularly like the wide noodles in this preparation
Heat a 10-inch skillet and add the butter and oil. Add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. The mushrooms will start to give off liquid right away. In a couple of minutes, when some of the liquid has evaporated, add the sliced onions. Sauté over medium-low for 8 to 10 minutes, until the onions and mushrooms are lightly browned.
Have the pasta cooking in the meantime. When the pasta is done to your taste, drain it briefly and add it to the mushrooms and onions in the pan. Add about 2/3 of the grated cheese and a good pinch of salt, grind of pepper, and mix it all up well with tongs. Serve with the additional cheese to sprinkle on top at the table.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw