mushrooms, and there's toast.

Mushrooms on toast. Mushrooms on toast. Mushrooms on toast! Or, as pictured, mushrooms and toast.

So that didn't work. Nothing I do, no matter how I say it, can make mushrooms on toast sound as though they are all that exciting. But boy, am I excited about them. In fact, they've been all I want to eat these days.

And so, after a too long absence that has me eager to bring you trays of chocolates and sweets, of cakes miles high and swathed in seven-minute frosting, in my way of saying I'm glad to see you, I'm here instead with a plate full of everydayness. But robust everdayness - toasted bread and a tumble of mushrooms, with their tawny edges tanned and glistening.

Though simple, they are far from plain and even farther from boring. From Jamie at Home, by Jamie Oliver, the mushrooms are meaty, substantial and all-around good stuff. 

I made them the first time to share for a November lunch. The next day, I had them again for a solitary late-morning breakfast, free in my singularity to shamelessly drag my toast across the skillet in which the mushrooms had cooked, lest I miss an ounce of their liquor that was left behind. 

That first time we ate them as is, piled on slices of grilled bread, and for the second time I perched a poached egg just so. Another time there were irregular chunks of creamy buffalo mozzarella cozied up on the plate.

Never you mind all of that though, to begin I think it best to go with this dish in its purest - straight up, nothing to get in the way of what we have going on here.

What that exactly is, is mushrooms with attitude. The first succulent bite had me sit up straighter and pull my chair an inch closer to the table.

november lunches

Where I think the draw lies in this dish is in how the the mushrooms are cooked - everything's added in stages to gain the greatest advantage of their qualities. Into a pour of olive oil alone goes the mushrooms, then the garlic, chili and thyme. As they cook, their moisture is released, the aromatics open up and perfume the steam as it puffs from the pan. The liquid condenses soon enough and then it's time to feed in a knob or two of butter, which glosses all, adding richness and roundness. A few drops of lemon, then the transformative ingredient - water - to end. Yes, water.

It's the lynchpin to this whole business of mushrooms on toast, I'm telling you.

That splash of water bubbles up, picking up all the stickiness around the skillet and turning into a surprisingly creamy, absolutely rich gravy. You'll fight for your share. Pick a craggy bread with enough bumps and pockets to catch that sauce and collect it into luscious pools. That's the best way to go.

Since we're chums and catching up, I'll mention that today's toast, the one I'm crummy with right now, is with aged cheddar and chili pepper jam. That one we'll save for another chat. For now, get on those mushrooms.

JAMIE OLIVER'S ULTIMATE MUSHROOM BRUSCHETTA

From the book Jamie at Home (Hyperion, 2008).

Recipe here.

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In the woods I can see from my window, the ground looks patchwork brown and white; an Appaloosa's coat imposed onto the landscape. Much of the snow remains, but in those places where it has gone, it's revealed the rock and earth beneath.

I am enough of a realist to accept that this most likely won't be the last of the snow, that the earth might soon again be covered, and that spring is still a ways away for us. For today, that glimpse is enough.

Right now I'm content to think of sweaters and wool blankets. But soon, quite soon I think, I'll be longing for the day the snow melts for good. Anxious and fidgety for a trod through that wood in the time of almost spring. Before the shoots begin, when all is brown and filled with possibility.

A walk where each step of rubber-clad foot is followed by the echoed squelch of the mud beneath.

In my mind's eye I see broad-checked flannel and tins of pretty cookies for later. But first, a thermos full of soup to bring warmth to the enjoyable dampness that surrounds. And as of this moment, if I had to decide, it would be mushroom soup that we'd sip and spoon.

I made some yesterday, so even though that picnic upon the forest floor is weeks away, you can still get the general idea of the way I'm thinking.

It has an aroma dense with notes of growth and loam. (Loam is such a good word, stretched out and rounded like a yawn.) Both fresh and dried mushrooms are cooked in a pan with olive oil, butter, onion and garlic. After 20 minutes of cooking, the mushrooms have gone through stages of transformation; first pale and spongy, then wet and a soggy, then as that moisture evaporates the mushrooms turn deeply golden and their texture goes satisfyingly chewy.

A pour of Sherry to deglaze, it sputters and bubbles into a winey syrup that coats the vegetables in gloss. In goes the stock, and all's left to simmer for 20 minutes more. Whirred to a foaming, ethereal purée, the soup is done save for the indulgent dollop of mascarpone right at the end.

And with that, into the woods we go.

One last thing, I'd like to thank Stephanie Levy for asking me to be a part of her Artists Who Blog series. If you'd like to take a look at what we talked about, she's posted my interview on her site.

THE REAL MUSHROOM SOUP
 

From Jamie Oliver, the title's his, too.

Now mushroom soup depends greatly on the mushrooms itself; not only for flavour of course, but also for colour.

The bulk of the fresh mushrooms I used were the bark and black beauties, crimini and shiitakes, with only a handful each of ochre chanterelles and ivory oysters to counter that darkness. A mix favouring the paler varieties would result in a soup with looks more fawn than mouse.

That business on top there, there is purpose to that prettiness. A bit of herbs, croutons torn into buttery crumble, some sautéed mushrooms, together create the ideal counterpoint to the mellow earthiness of the soup; a freshness to the musky depth of its flavour and essential weight against the lightness of the emulsion. Mr. Oliver suggests a tranche of grilled bread instead of croutons, use whichever you like.

The only change I made to the recipe was the addition of Sherry when cooking the mushrooms, leaving out the lemon juice to finish.

Recipe

(Photo courtesy Irene Powell)

"Want to go to the cottage?"

One phrase, six words, and the ability to transport the listener to a whole other reality. Come summertime, there is no sweeter sound to my ears than the promise of a leisurely weekend of food, friends and family, and the opportunity to let concerns of the every day fall away.

While the fall may almost be upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, there still is a part of me that is thinking about the summer sun and afternoons on a deck somewhere. Inspiration for the menu would not be hard, with Marty's World Famous Cookbook (Whitecap Books, 2008) nearby. This cookbook offers up the sort of crowd-pleasing fare that is made for a long weekend of relaxation. And it is not surprising, considering the fact that the author, Marty Curtis, owns and operates the highly-popular Marty's World Famous Café in Bracebridge (located in the Muskoka Lakes region of Ontario, a popular cottage destination).

The book features many of the café's specialties; included are the recipes for their chicken stock and house bread, with notes brewing the perfect cup of coffee. If pressed to find an adjective for this book and its author, I would have to say "likeable." The food is casual, the sort that inspires guests to roll up their sleeves, put their elbows on the table and dive in. Few of the recipes would be considered daunting or demanding of the home cook and the writing is conversational and welcoming.

Curtis' enthusiasm for his food is evident in the anecdotes and tips that are scattered heavily through the pages, often accompanied by evocative location photographs by Allen Dew. The subjects are far-ranging, reminiscent of the wandering conversations of a long weekend. He covers everything from the importance of mental preparedness in the kitchen to the parable of stone soup to how to improve at fishing.

By his own admission, Curtis believes it is best to "go big" - serving up generous 14" pies, jumbo pastries, and showcasing bold flavours at every turn. It is apparent that Mr. Curtis is a man of specific tastes, with an evident love of citrus and aromatic spices. Most notable though is Curtis' preference for the mix of salty and sweet; the combination appears in many recipes with varying success.

To that end, this book seems stranded in a middle ground of being simply nice. The indulgent breakfast and desserts were standouts, but I found many of the main dishes fell short of expectations.

The enormous Lemon, Blueberry and Cream Cheese muffins were tender and moist. With a good deal of sharp lemon to balance the richness of the cheese, these showcased the blueberries quite well; most likely the perfect breakfast for any fan of cheesecake. Eggs Benedict are made even more unctuous through the addition of brie - blitzed momentarily under the broiler, the cheese melts lusciously over the eggs and asparagus. Once napped with Hollondaise, the dish was good but overly-rich to my palate. To that end, I chose to add a splash more acid and a tablespoon of hot water to thin the sauce. Lovers of indulgence might not feel the need to make such alterations.

Marty's Best Brownies were another winner. The rich batter bakes up dense and fudgy, with a deeply crackled top. Walnuts, freshly-roasted and sprinkled with kosher salt, are a tasty addition. The nuts are buttery but with saline crunch that adds punctuation to the sweetness of the dessert.

I would be remiss to review this book without mentioning Marty's World Famous Buttertarts. They are an evident passion; gracing the cover in their golden glory, garnering 16 pages of photographs, notes and recipes within. Not only are they one of the main draws to the café, but they also seem to be the embodiment of Curtis' food philosophy - they are unapologetically large, sweet with warm spices and featuring a hit of citrus. Although I have never been to Mr. Curtis' shop, I had to try these at home. The lard-based pastry (which is also used for sweet and savoury pies) came together quickly, was easy to work with and produced wonderfully-flaky results. While everyone loved the pastry, the buttertarts as a whole received mixed reviews. Some found the filling unlike their opinion of the archetypal treat and so were disappointed, while others found these to be a welcome departure from heavier versions.

I think buttertarts, like the perfect apple pie, are deeply rooted in personal preference and so the idea of tacking down a universally-loved ultimate recipe is virtually impossible.

From the Fishin' Muskoka section, the BBQ Wine and Herb Salmon was succulent and moist, however the highly-flavoured marinade (while delicious) verged upon overpowering the the fish iteself. The same could be said of the Candied BBQ Asparagus from Barbecue Classics. The tangy-sweet sauce contains both sugar and balsamic vinegar; a tasty combination but one that overshadows the asparagus flavour. As one tester put it, "this is really good, but it isn't about the asparagus."

The Barbecue Classics section is also home to the intriguing idea of Buttertart Burgers. A mix of meats retained moisture and texture, but the seasoning (including Curtis' Buttertart BBQ Rub) was one that took the savoury and sweet combination a step too far. Disappointing as that was, it was further troublesome that the Buttertart BBQ Rub, and its related barbecue sauce, is required in a number of recipes in this chapter - after the experience of the burgers, these other dishes were unappealing.

With well-shot food photography by Douglas Bradshaw, a number of solid dishes and featuring contributions from Martio Batali, Michael Smith and Ted Reader, Marty's World Famous Cookbook is as easy-to-like as its author. Straightforward and not particularly challenging, the book is suited to easygoing weekend cooking - or whenever you want to have a bit of a vacation in your own kitchen.

Recipes from Marty's World Famous Cookbook

Fluffiest omelettes ever

World famous bean salad (scroll down to end of article)

The ultimate Canadian back bacon sandwich

The original big sandwich

Pancakes

Lemon, blueberry and cream cheese muffins

Eggs Benedict with melted brie and asparagus

Growing up, my best friend was right next door. It was one of those friendships where sleepovers were weekly, staying over for dinner was almost daily, and company was constant. We were lucky enough to live on a street where everyone knew everybody, where children ran freely from yard to yard wreaking havoc and laughter. It was a great place to live, with pool parties and backyard barbecues crowned with sparklers at the end.

Beyond the fun we had, my most vivid memory of these childhood friendships was the food. I think of those barbecues and I can taste the juice of sticky sweet watermelons, I think of strawberries picked from the bushes in the backyard, and of fingers stained a myriad of rainbow colours from Fun Dip.

But most of all I think about the kitchens - ours and the one next door. While our house was filled with the flavours of India and England, theirs was bursting with those of Italy. So as much as my Grandmother's shepherd's pie and my Mother's chicken curry figure largely in my remembrance of childhood, so do jars and jars of pickled red peppers, tender veal cutlets, and handmade breads for the holidays. The alchemy of homemade wine was a mystery to us. I was fascinated by the yearly ritual, and the enormous glass carafes that would take up residence in the basement. Oh goodness, and Nutella - that wonderful dark chocolate and hazelnut spread that is nothing short of ambrosia to a 6 year old.

As kids, we ate all meals at home, walking home from school at lunchtime. As far as I can recall, the business of meals was simply part of the daily ritual. I never had the impression that it was a bother, or that it was a chore (though it must have been, sometimes).

I cannot help but think that it was this assumption of good, fresh food that has shaped how I cook today. Even when tired or frustrated, it is not often that I am too tired to cook. I may be vexed about my day, but I am not vexed about the food. Sure, it may sometimes be simple, but the process of preparing food is integral to the routine of my day; I feel I have forgotten something without it.

I am thankful for those early influences, and that food and philosophy are remembered fondly - and often. As with most of us, I am sure, pasta has endured as a comfort food in our household. In its preparation, I sometimes stop to remember those meals from years ago, hoping I can come close to those tastes.

While this vegetable bolognese is far from traditional, and nothing I had as a child, it still brings me that sense of comforting nostalgia. Slowly stirred aromatic vegetables cooked until deeply flavoured and tender, then served with hot pasta and a snowfall of Paremsan - how memorable is that?

Vegetarian bolognese
My version was a combination of recipes; as I did not write down quantities as I cooked, I thought it best to simply provide the same guides I used. If anyone would like specifics, please feel free to contact me.

Sources:

Pappardelle with vegetable bolognese from Epicurious
Rigatoni with vegetable bolognese from Giada de Laurentiis

Specific changes and notes:

• Added 1/2 a large eggplant and 1 medium zucchini to the vegetables called for. As I prefer my mushrooms and eggplant to be well caramelized and golden, I cooked them separately from the rest first, then added them to the soffritto as per the recipe.
• 6 oil packed sundried tomatoes were puréed and added along with the tomato paste.
• The wine was replaced with vegetable broth and a splash of red wine vinegar.
• The photograph featured does not include marscarpone, as I intended to freeze a portion; the dairy is added just before serving, and I do believe the sauce needs a bit of richness at the finish. Full fat cream cheese can be used if mascarpone is unavailable.
• This sauce is particularly nice when thinned with a bit of pasta cooking water, then tossed through with your favourite medium tube pasta and chunks of fresh mozzarella.