My trip to Hamburg last weekend has left me with many good memories, wanting to go back, and – an annoying cold. I clearly underestimated the wind up north. So as I lay in bed sick the last days and Alex was out and about most of the time, we were left with a rather frugal amount of fresh things in our kitchen today. And as in the (very catholic) region of Germany where I live, shops are closed on Sundays, we had to make something out of the almost nothing we had. To be exact, there were no more than six kind-of-fresh mushrooms at the bottom of our fridge. Although I feel a lot better today, I never feel like going out before I’m not completely back in shape. The first real trip I usually make is – back to the kitchen. I know that I am on a good track when I’m able and willing to go back to the stove again. And nothing says “back in the game” like a fridge forage and store cupboard stir-up.
Whenever I’m feeling ill, I crave what I call “old world flavors”. That is pretty much everything I would imagine myself eating in an Austrian or Bohemian tavern during the early 20th century or in the dining car of a “Murder on the Orient Express” kind of train: classic borderline old-fashioned dishes going by the names of famous people (“Esterházy”, “Stroganoff”, “Rossini”, …), with meat and bacon, buttery sauces with sherry and vermouth, pickled things, and hearty spices like juniper, bay leaf or allspice. Naturally, such rather extravagant cravings are not easily satisfied when you don’t have the well-stocked larder of a chef on the Orient Express (one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when the chef selects the produce and fish to go on the train at the very beginning).
So I took the mushrooms as my starting point and went for a flavor-seeking voyage before my inner eye (or palate) and through my store cupboard and fridge. First stop: fresh supplies, which were checked off rather quickly: The only fresh thing apart from the mushrooms we had left were onions and garlic (although, in France, the garlic we have wouldn’t be considered “fresh” but rather “dried”). They are the only vegetables I have in store at all times. They keep well, are incredibly versatile, and are a great flavor base for everything. Next, I scanned the bottom shelf in our fridge, which is always stocked to the bursting point with condiments. My eyes wandered over cranberry sauce, apple chutney, Thai fish sauce, capers, BBQ sauce, various varieties of mustard (*ding*) and caught an almost empty glass of pickled cornichons (*ding ding*). Now this is the part where the very different shopping habits of my husband an me come in handy: I turned around and there they were, on the shelves behind the kitchen door: two packs of long life cream. I never buy them, because I think 200 ml of cream is not a reasonable selling size, and he always buys them, because he thinks it’s smart to have some cream around. Just to feel safe.
And indeed, and as so often, whipping cream saved the day: We came up with our version of mushrooms Stroganoff, in a creamy sauce with some zing provided by cornichons (and their brine instead of any cooking liquor) and mustard, and a heavy-handed helping of black pepper. It is filling, warming, and done in minutes: it takes about as long as it takes to cook your pasta. As we had the last two eggs for breakfast, fresh pasta was out of the question. But dried pasta works just as well (I used semolina spaghettoni, which worked great, but I would probably have used an egg pasta, had I had one). Also: you don’t have to work as much using it, which in my book is just right for a Sunday lunch for two.
Sort-of-Stroganoff Mushroom Pasta
Active time: 5 minutes, cooking: about 15 minutes
Ingredients (for 2)
6 brown mushrooms (or any other mushrooms)
canola oil (or any vegetable oil, about 1 tbsp in total)
butter (about 1 tbsp in total)
1 medium sized onion
1 clove garlic
4 pickled cornichons and some of the brine
200 ml cream
1 tsp English mustard powder (or any mustard you like)
1/2 tsp thyme, dried
salt, black pepper
about 200 g Pasta of your choice
1 chop the onion and garlic finely, also the cornichons, and slice the mushrooms. I never wash mushrooms to prevent them from soaking up too much water. At the most, I quickly brush them or, when they’re really not pretty (but still good), I peel their skin off. Put a pan on and set it to a high heat, and wait until it has thoroughly heated through. Then add a splash of canola oil and a walnut-sized piece of butter, quickly cover the pan in it and flash-fry the mushrooms, pepper well. High heat is important to get them brown and not stewing. When the mushrooms have some brown edges, take them out of the pan, reduce to a medium heat, and add the onions and garlic, together with some more butter and oil. Add salt and cook until soft but not brown.
2 Add some of the cornichon brine (about 5 tbsp – including mustard seed or whatever may be floating in it) and turn up the heat. Add the cream and let everything reduce. This is the point where you put on the pasta: cook it in a huge amount of water and salt it generously. When the sauce has reduced a bit, add the mushrooms (and any liquid they may have lost meanwhile) and the cornichons back to the pan, and strew in the thyme, rubbing it between the palms of your hands. With the pasta about 2 minutes from being ready, add a small ladle of the starchy pasta cooking water to the pan to thicken the sauce a bit, then add a generous tsp of English mustard powder, make sure everything doesn’t cook too long after that, or the sauce will turn bitter. Strain the pasta and turn in the sauce.