Wild Mushrooms in Winter

My 13-year old and I were both home sick. He wasn't so sick he couldn't watch TV and talk about doing his homework, and I wasn't so sick, I couldn't check my email, but we were both stuffed-up and lethargic, or as my SAT-studying-17-year old might say, overcome with lassitude.
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My 13-year old and I were both home sick. He wasn't so sick he couldn't watch TV, and I wasn't so sick, I couldn't check my email, but we were both stuffed-up and lethargic, or as my SAT-studying-17-year old might say, overcome with lassitude. The 13-year old was scheduled for three wrestling matches, three days in a row. The antibiotics the pediatrician had prescribed were upsetting his stomach, so I had to pick up a new prescription at the pharmacy. While my son settled in on the couch, I drank two cups of coffee, chewed a piece of peppermint gym and prepared to enter the Polar Vortex.

Then my editor emailed and said she wanted some changes in the book I was writing. I had sent her a few essays and owed her several more. "You're going to need to brace a little because I gave some of those essays a big haircut," she wrote. She mentioned an essay she had liked: "One of the things that struck me is that it feels more vulnerable... there's a willingness to be seen in a way that is not so evident in the rest... I would love to see more of that vulnerability in what you're about to write..."

Fan--friggin-tastic. Or as the French might say, merd. Should I open my veins right now or wait 'til nightfall? Fortunately, the caffeine and sugar were kicking in right around the time I read her email. Then, as if by magic, the front door opened. There was my husband, standing in the front hall. "Why are you home?" I asked. He reminded me that he had had a meeting that morning out of state, and after it ended, had decided to work from home.

Now three out of four of us were working from home on a weekday? Oh joy.

With the TV in the family room blaring, and my husband banging around the kitchen, wondering if there was anything for lunch other than the seafood paella left over from dinner at a Spanish restaurant two nights before, I had a decision to make: Should I write my way out of this misery, or cook my way out?

One of my favorite writers is MFK Fisher. She wrote beautifully about food, love, and the glory and challenges of it all. She had kids, husbands, and boyfriends (sometimes simultaneously). Periodically, her life was very complicated; she cooked her way through depression, loneliness, illness and love. One of her most memorable lines comes from her book, The Gastronomical Me: " I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world." I wasn't up to concocting a stew but maybe I could make a plain dish that would sustain us on this cold day.

Fortunately, the cupboard wasn't completely bare. There were dried shiitake and porcini mushrooms in the pantry and fresh mushrooms and heavy cream in the fridge. I had taken a cooking class with Arlene Ward, co-author of Pressure Cooking for Everyone, the week before and she had showed us how to make a luscious wild mushroom Pappardelle pasta dish that did not rely on the pressure cooker. Pappardelle pasta is always a big hit in our house---everyone loves the way those wide egg noodles slither around our mouths and plates. I quickly looked at the recipe and realized we had most, but not all, the ingredients. We had no shallots, just large yellow onions, and we didn't have any fresh shiitake mushrooms, only dried.

I looked at the other recipes Arlene had prepared that day: There was one that called for bone-in chicken thighs with artichokes. Naturally, we had no artichokes, and the chicken thighs we had were boneless. No, scratch that: Those weren't even chicken thighs. That was a package of ground chicken, so frozen the meat had clumped to form thigh-like shapes. But that recipe could be adapted. In fact, I adapted it so aggressively that it became a simple dish of ground chicken sautéed in olive oil, capers, onions, garlic and a bay leaf.

The chicken went beautifully with Arlene's wild mushroom sauce. You may look at that cup of cream and think, "A cup of cream, of course it's delicious!" But a little cream goes a long way; you don't need to eat massive quantities to revel in this dish's pleasures. And what I love about Arlene (in addition to her old world grace, her no-nonsense attitude and the fact that she reminds me of my grandmother) is that her recipes are so adaptable. A little less cream here, a little less garlic here, farfalle pasta instead of Pappardelle, it all works, darling.

We spend our lives looking for people we have lost and sometimes if we're lucky, we find small pieces of them in other people. I found a small piece of my grandmother in Arlene. My grandmother was an elegant, frugal woman, one of nine children, raised by a single mother. She and my grandfather were married just weeks after the stock market crashed in 1929. For sixty-five years, they lived together in a two-family house in Brooklyn, renting out the first floor apartment to a widow who stole their gardening tools. They were both schoolteachers, until Grandpa retired to become a stockbroker and Grandma retired to play bridge. Grandma drank weak tea, sewed and ironed. She only drank White Russians, and that happened once in a blue moon when she went to a wedding or bar mitzvah. She lived her life in a calm, orderly way, darning socks, recycling tinfoil and shopping at Loehmann's. She answered the phone, "Good evening," and answered almost every question, "Yes, darling." Arlene won't call you "darling" as Grandma might have, she'll call you "dear," but the feeling is the same and the advice is equally warm and firm: Make do. You can't be alone with your work today? Feed the people you love instead. And add less cream if you want.

The other great thing about Arlene is she always shares at least one tip that seems so obvious in retrospect: One class, she told us to invest in white, inexpensive serving dishes because food looks better on white. This class, she told us to butter the pasta bowl before we added the pasta, then sprinkle salt and pepper directly on the bowl, so the pasta wouldn't stick. This is such excellent advice.

Butter your bowl and go forth.

Wild Mushrooms Pappardelle Pasta
(Adapted from Arlene Ward)
Yield: Six portions

1/3 cup dried porcini mushrooms (keep liquid from drained porcini)
10 ounce package fresh crimini mushrooms---sliced
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms---sliced (I used one ounce dried)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup minced shallots
2 teaspoons garlic
1 cup heavy cream
Kosher salt and ground pepper, to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese
8 ounces Pappardelle pasta (wide noodles)

Place porcini mushrooms in bowl and add warm water to cover. Let mushrooms soak for 30 minutes. Drain and keep liquid for later. Chop softened mushrooms and set aside.

In large sauté pan, sauté shallots and garlic in olive oil and butter. When shallots start softening, add sliced mushrooms---you should have about 4 cups. Sauté mushrooms for 4-5 minutes. Add diced dried mushrooms and ½ cup of reserved mushroom liquid. Add cream and simmer with mushrooms until mixture is thick and shiny. Add salt and pepper.

Pasta: Bring several quarts of water to boil. Salt water after it comes to boil and carefully drop each nest of Pappardelle into water without stirring. Once water comes back to boil, cook pasta for 6 minutes.

While pasta cooks, prepare a large serving bowl by filling it with warm water. Drain the water, pat dry and rub bowl with softened butter, then sprinkle bowl with salt and pepper. Drain cooked pasta and drop in prepared bowl. Toss and top with mushroom sauce. Add Parmesan cheese to taste.

Ground Chicken with Capers
Two pounds ground chicken
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 half onion, chopped
2 teaspoons capers
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Heat up oil and butter in sauté pan. Add in garlic and oil, sauté for few minutes. Season chicken with salt and pepper, add to pan and sauté about five minutes until chicken browns a bit. Add capers and bay leaf and serve immediately.

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