In the late ’80s I was treated to dinner that included the best bowl of mushroom soup. Ever. It was in Los Angeles, and although I don’t remember the date I know it was between 1987 and 1989 – because on the same trip I saw Steele Magnolias – the play. This was before the movie came out – and thanks to Wikipedia I was able to narrow the date. This was long before I annoyingly took pictures of everything I ate. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but that soup is imprinted in my taste memory in a hall-of-fame sort of way.
I’ve been trying to recapture the taste of that soup for years, and I’m awfully close. I suspect I’ll never truly recreate the exact flavors in that bowl, because memory plays tricks on us. Holy grails aren’t meant to be found, and perfect food memories belong in the past, from whence they sustain us emotionally.
Chasing the perfect bowl of soup isn’t an exercise in futility. In fact, it’s provided me with a lot of warm, satisfying meals. It’s also taught me how to coax flavor from mushrooms.
Roasting the mushrooms before adding them to the pot intensifies the flavor. It also adds toasty brown flavor tones to the end-bowl. Sauteéing would too, but there’s something about the way the oven dries out the edges of the sliced mushrooms. I roast them with chopped onions, which also benefit from oven-as-dry-sauna treatment.
While the mushrooms roast I sauté the gills in butter. In culinary school one of my chefs said that portobello gills were poor man’s truffles. The gills tend to make things brown and slimy, which is why they’re often removed – but, they’re one of those discarded scraps that ought not be tossed. A few minutes in the pan yields a moist, nearly black product that resembles rich damp potting soil – but it melts in your mouth.
Puree the roasted mushrooms in a blender with a little vegetable stock. When the consistency is smooth (no lumps) add them to a stockpot with some vegetable stock, sherry, a little butter, and a dash each of balsamic vinegar and worcestershire sauce. I also add some porcini powder, which is a tad pricey – and optional – but adds another satisfying layer of mushroom flavor to the mix.
Then you cook and wait and wait, and wait a little longer. Stir often, and be attentive to scraping the brown stuff that accumulates on the side of the pot back into the soup. Brown tastes good. If you don’t scrape it will turn black – and your soup will taste a bit like charcoal – which does not taste good. It takes time for the soup to reduce to a thick porridge. All sorts of caramelization takes place in that pot and the mushroom flavor just keeps getting better. I tend to serve my Mushroom Porridge on its own. No matter how good the bread, I don’t want to dilute all that heavenly mushroom flavor.
When you reach the desired thickness season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with the sauteéd gills and few sauteéd enoki mushrooms. Before eating take a moment to close your eyes and inhale the aroma. If you got it right you’ll be transported to L.A. sometime between 1987 and 1989.
I’m happy to keep on looking for that perfect bowl of mushroom soup. The quest is its own reward.