These days I tend to like my food simple – good ingredients, minimal fuss.
I went through a phase, a long time ago, of making things that were quite fussy. I have to blame the chef and food writer, the late Jean Conil. I discovered Conil about the same time as I was struck by the revelation that as I had to eat and I wanted to entertain (in particular I wanted to entertain attractive fellow students) I might as well combine the two.
The problem was that I was veggie and this was 1987. These were the days of vegetarian food as penance or self-righteous healthfulness. The bible was Cranks. But while Cranks was fine for everyday healthy eating, inviting a girl round and giving her wholemeal something with dried apricots and pumpkin seeds was about as sexy as buying her sackcloth underwear.
So when I found a copy of Conil’s French Vegetarian Cooking lurking in the cookery section of Blackwell’s bookshop it was like discovering a whole new world. Here was a chef, a French chef, a French chef who’d been apprenticed to Escoffier no less, writing about vegetarian food. Bugger wholemeal! If Conil was shown a vegetable he’d measure it up for brandy, cream, wine – you name it, he’d sauce it. He was the anti-Cranks. He was a veggie Bacchus. I became a believer and a practitioner.
I started cooking because being veggie in the culinary wilderness of the 80s offered one a choice between boredom and starvation and death. But it’s to Conil I owe my love of cooking.
Sadly his books are out of print (albeit Amazon has used copies of French Vegetarian Cooking). However I remember a couple of my favourite recipies more or less by heart.
This one is pretty straight forward. It just needs mushrooms, shallots, brandy, oil/butter, tomato puree, Dijon mustard, creme fraiche, honey, breadcrumbs and cheese.
It’s a starter so allowing 100-150g of small mushrooms per person ought to be plenty. It used to be that the boxes of loose mushrooms in the supermarkets contained all different sizes. I’d rifle through them to get all the smallest ones.
These days they’re all graded and the ‘button’ mushrooms are packaged separately at twice the price. Typical. You only need plain white mushrooms for this – that’s what ‘champignons de Paris’ are – but they taste better in French.
So assuming you’re cooking for four you’ll need:
500g small white mushrooms.
oil/butter for frying
A good slosh of brandy (a slosh is a relative measure depending on whether you’re a Keith Floyd or a Dubya – the list of teetotallers I drew upon is oddly short of cooks)
1 generous tablespoon honey
3 tablespoons tomato puree
200ml creme fraiche
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Pinch of Cayenne pepper to taste
Cheese for grating: Parmesan/Gruyere/Emmenthal
Prepare the mushrooms by trimming the stalks and cleaning off any soil. If you’ve managed to find small ones leave the caps whole. Chop the shallots finely.
Heat oil and butter in a frying pan on a moderate setting. Fry the shallots and as they start to soften add the mushrooms. When the mushrooms start releasing their moisture raise the heat. When the mushrooms start to brown add in the brandy, stir and as the liquor starts to reduce take the mushrooms out with the slotted spoon. Ideally keep them warm in the oven.
Add the honey, tomato puree, mustard, lemon, cayenne and lastly the creme fraiche to the brandy/shallots/mushroom juices and stir together adding salt and pepper to taste. The proportings of tomato/mustard/cream and honey aren’t set in stone – baking may be a science but sauces are an art so just go with your instincts.
Add the mushrooms back into the sauce, heat through and put into small oven proof bowls. Top with a mixture of breadcrumbs and cheese, put under a hot grill to brown and serve.
It’s a lovely, mildly indulgent starter for a dinner party.
Revisiting one of Jean Conil’s recipies reminds me that, long ago, I once I rang him up. I was working for the BBC in Oxford and I remember having a reasonable excuse. It was one of the few times when I’ve been disappointed to talk to someone I admired.
It must have been in 1999 or 2000 and I can only imagine that Conil wasn’t in good health. He died in 2003. I asked if I could visit him in Cambridge and he said no. That was that.
The lesson of that encounter was that one should accept that when you ring up a phenomenally talented person and tell them how much you admire them they have the right not to be gracious. After all they’re just doing what they’re good at and may not particularly seek recognition let alone admiration. These days we all seem to be very needy of affirmation. To Conil’s generation that must have seemed very self indulgent.
So perhaps best to let the man’s dedication to his profession and the cause of bettering food in England speak for him now he’s no longer able to speak for himself. Do buy one of his books if you can find them. He raised vegetarian food from the self flagellatory and merely worthy to the joyous – which is what food needs to be from time to time.