Speaking of free stuff -- Marx Foods sent me a sampler of various dried mushrooms: shiitake, porcini, lobster (the most colorful but least flavorful, I found), black trumpet, chanterelle, and maitake. They carry a number of other varieties as well. (I want to point out that Marx has added more product categories since the last time I mentioned them, including the ones most appealing to me, exotic fruit and exotic citrus. Though I admit, I wish nonperishable items like the yuzu juice had a cheaper shipping option -- at least I assume a large part of that price is shipping.)
Forgive the usual lighting/photo issues.
I've never used dried mushrooms much. I've primarily used them in tomato sauces, if you don't count the dried white truffles in my truffle salt, so I wanted to toy around with other things here. While I ground some up and used them to coat a steak, what really brought out the character of the mushrooms was using them in vegetable soup. There's a more intense mushroom flavor from these dried mushrooms than I'm used to getting from fresh, as they reconstitute in the broth, and it goes so well with many fall vegetables. After a couple trial runs with small servings of soup with just a couple ingredients, I wound up with this mushroom vegetable soup:
There's a whole bunch of dried mushrooms there, along with cranberry beans, parsnips, turnips, carrots, and celery. These were the vegetables the mushrooms seemed to complement best -- particularly turnips and parsnips (the parsnip is related to the carrot, and is a little firmer and starchier, less sweet, and with more of that "rooty" sort of flavor that carrots tend to lose when they cook). It's that simple -- just those ingredients, a little broth, a little salt and pepper. Very tasty and harder, a rainy November sort of lunch -- or dinner, with a salad or a buttered piece of fresh bread.
But interestingly, the mushrooms -- that is, the mushroom solids -- were my least favorite part. That's often the case with mushrooms, their texture isn't like other vegetables. So I also made a soup in which the mushrooms were ground up while still dry, and a vegetable stock that used the mushrooms but then discarded them with the other solids, after they'd given up all their flavor. This felt wasteful at first, but you know, it's like making beef stock and throwing out the bones -- you just make sure all the flavor came out first.
And in fact, it led to my most successful soup, because of an ingredient I didn't have on hand when I made the previous soup:
Celery root, or celeriac, is a member of the celery family that's grown for the root instead of the stalk. The root is, as you can see, big and gnarly and a pain in the ass to wash. You should shop for them the same way you do potatoes, yucca, or any other root vegetable -- it should feel heavy, not light and spongy. (Melissa's celery roots often feel spongy to me -- this may simply be the result of low turnover in my local supermarket -- so I tend to only buy celery root in the fall, when I can get it at the farmstand.)
It's a fantastic vegetable. When you peel it, feel free to use a knife and be liberal in your peeling, rather than relying on a peeler and trying to deal with all those nooks and crannies. You can always dump the peels into a vegetable stock, after all.
The taste is celery-like but not quite the same. Grated and baked with a ton of salt before being ground up, it forms Fergus Henderson's celery salt, which is terrific on -- well, anything, but especially boiled eggs. It's often served with remoulade. But here, it formed a fantastic soup:
Remember the crabs I bought in Little Cambodia? I had made a strong crab stock with them which I then froze in portions. I reheated a portion of that crab stock with some diluted roasted tomato puree and the rest of the dried mushrooms, let it simmer for a couple hours, and then strained the solids out. In that resulting mushroom-crab-tomato stock, I cooked cubes of celery root, carrot, salt, and a tiny bit of ground red chile for kick. I added celery leaves and stalk right towards the end.
Really, really good -- the celery root and crab flavors really meld together, with the mushroom and tomato providing backbone.