Wild mushrooms are a seasonal indulgence which are a universal pleasure.
Wherever edible wild mushrooms grow, people seek them out and create delectable dishes featuring their earthy flavors. This is true whether we are talking about the Appalachian highlands where folks gather meadow puffballs, shaggy inkcaps and the elusive morels, which they saute in butter or batter and fry to a crisp, rich finish, or the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir where wild mushrooms are cooked into gently-spiced, dairy-laced curries.
I am not much of a mushroom-hunter. I have never had much luck seeking morels in the wild; I just don’t have the eye for them I guess. However, I know them when I see them, and when I see them, I want them.
I was thrilled to find wild gathered morels at the farmer’s market last Saturday. I was there early, before the market was open for business, and happened to see that some of my favorite sellers, Art and Peggy Gish, had four boxes of morels for sale, so I stood at their table, and waited for the market to open.
Other customers milled about, and the sharp-eyed fungaphiles among them quickly gathered with me. We negotiated amongst ourselves, and the first four of us who lined up all agreed that we would each only buy one box, leaving enough for the others.
We had a great time, teasing back and forth with each other, talking about how we would cook them and joking that our little courteous agreement kept us from having to mug each other in the parking lot to steal the delicious fungi.
I also was lucky enough to find an enormous bunch of oyster mushrooms and fresh shiitake that were cultivated locally, so I bought them up as well, resolving to make something rich for Morganna and I to share. (Zak really dislikes mushrooms, so that means more for us.)
I was originally going to make a beef stroganoff with the mushrooms, but later, I changed my mind. I wanted to make something even more special than that, and I didn’t want the flavor of beef to overpower the delicate beauty of the spongy morels.
Remembering the passages I had read about the wild mushrooms of Kashmir in several books, I decided to make a curry with them. However, I saw no reason to make a very strongly spiced dish with them; I wanted the delicate woodland flavors of the mushrooms to be the centerpiece of the curry. So, I chose the typical Kashmiri spices of cardamom, fennel, coriander, cinnamon and cloves, an onion and some garlic to enhance the mushroom flavor.
Butter was my cooking fat of choice, and if there was yogurt in the fridge I would have used it. Instead, I used a bit of lamb stock and cream to create a minimal thick and unctuous sauce.
Finally, for a touch of color, I used a bit of turmeric and paprika and a sprinkling of fresh mint for a verdant sparkle of taste.
It turned out amazingly well. Served with plain steamed basmati rice, it was a revelation. The creamy, thick sauce was a dream of caramelized onion, sweet spices and garlic, and it perfectly complemented the earthy mushrooms. An alternative way to serve it would be as a filling for little puff pastry or phyllo tartletes. It would not be traditionally Kashmiri, but it would be a fantastic fusion of Indian and European traditions.
And next year, when the morels poke their little wrinkly caps above the leaf litter and pine needles of the forest floor, I will make this again.
Kashmiri Wild Mushroom Curry
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/8 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
3 green cardamom seeds
1/8 teaspoon black peppercorns
pinch ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
1 pound of mixed wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thinly
1/2 cup lamb, chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint leaves
Melt half the butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Add onions in a thin layer, and scatter salt over. Cook, stirring now and then until deep golden in color.
While the onions cook, grind the garlic, fennel, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves to a fine paste.
As soon as the onions turn light red, add the spice paste, and mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until the onions turn deep reddish brown, the spices are fragrant and the mushrooms wilt slightly. Add the rest of the butter, and keep cooking, stirring constantly, until the mushrooms are tender.
Add the broth, and cook until it mostly simmers away. Add the heavy cream, turmeric, and paprika and cook until it is mostly simmered away, and the liquid that is left forms a thick sauce that clings the mushrooms like a fragrant velvet.
Stir in the minced fresh mint and serve immediately. Or, if you cannot serve it immediately, leave out the mint, and remove from the heat. Cover and allow to sit for no more than an hour or so at room temperature. To reheat, add about a tablespoon of cream, and stir over medium heat until it is steamy hot again. Then, stir in the fresh mint and serve.
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